Telework Journal: The first thing you learn

When it was becoming clear that fighting the novel coronavirus meant we wouldn’t be able to keep coming to the office, my bosses were annoyingly repetitious with the email reminder that everyone should pack up what they would need to work remotely, and the question, do you have everything you need.  I smugly thought, well I have my laptop and an Internet connection at home so yes, I do; stop bugging me.

It took less than two days of working from home—of both my wife and me working from home—to realize a few of the things I hadn’t given any thought to getting prepared.  The first thing was, my desk chair is trash.

Actually better to say that it was not built for the task.  For years I’ve had a series of very simple height-adjustable, no arms task chairs at my desk at home.  They have always been just fine for a quick session at the computer, or even an hour or two playing games or writing a blog post.  By the end of my second full day using that chair to work from home, spending some number of hours in the chair in between leg-stretchings and lunch, it was clear this was not going to work.  The local office supply store was open yesterday and had a good selection; I made my purchase, brought it home and in an hour I’d assembled it and had it in use.  Much better.

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Another thing I learned is that our Internet service does have the bandwidth to support two laptops on the Internet simultaneously.   I don’t know that everything would still run so well if someone was streaming a movie at the same time, but no one is doing anything like that so we appear to be in good shape.  What else did I learn?  I learned, again, that astronauts are pretty smart.

Today I learned it from Anne McClain, an Army officer and helicopter test pilot, and world-class rugby player, who spent six months living and working on the International Space Station from late 2018 until last June.  (Talk about working remotely!)  Well, today she tweeted a great thread of advice about living and working in confined spaces from the folks who have made a science out of that:

Click that tweet to get the rest of the thread, and some good suggestions about “the human behaviors [that] create a healthy culture for living and working remotely in small groups.”  Something we will all be doing for the foreseeable future.

Telework Journal: That didn’t take long

When it comes to fighting a deadly virus, it appears that we are all learning that sooner is better than later.  That’s the stated reason why at my workplace, NASA Johnson Space Center, and at the other NASA centers around the country, we moved from Stage 2 to Stage 3 of a response plan in just two days, even though there was no significant change in reported cases of COVID-19.  Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s message to the troops employed some of the same boilerplate we’re all getting pretty familiar with, in emails from every credit card and department store and restaurant and car repair shop and golf course with which we have ever had digital congress: a sincere declaration that they are “closely following the advice of health professionals” and that “Implementing best practices early and quickly will increase likelihoods for better outcomes.”

Despite there being verrry few cases at NASA of people who have come down with COVID-19, and no one at all here in Houston, the agency has gotten in line with the latest recommendations from the White House and moved to a stricter standard for allowing people to come to the office to do work.  As you can see in the chart (below) Stage 3 means that as of this morning only people with mission-essential tasks were to come to work, and the on-site day care is now closed, but the hardest part for many people will be, I fear, that in-person meetings are prohibited.

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Everybody is getting smarter about the best way to fight this crisis, even the president himself—and his favorite TV news channel, where they seem to have come around to the fact that science is real and have stopped imagining it as an attack on Dear Leader.  The mental flexibility of is just amazing!

I did have to go to the office today to take care of some things I couldn’t do from home but left as soon as I could and headed home, stopping on the way to get my car washed.  (It needed it, I promise.)   I chose the medium-priced of the three packages, advertised at $24.99.  But when I went inside to pay, the cashier asked for $18.49; assuming I’d just misread the sign, or that I had caught an unexpected sale, I gave her my card, signed the slip, and headed for the window to see my car transformed back to its original beauty.  Standing there across the waiting room from another menu board, I saw the advertisement that Wednesdays are Senior Days, with special pricing on the regular wash or any of the packages; I pulled out my receipt and looked more closely.

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They didn’t even ask.

Damn.

Telework Journal: Stage 1, we hardly knew ye

As of this morning NASA Headquarters and all of the field centers across the country went to what is called Stage 2 of the response framework.  That tells you everything you need to know, right?  Cutting to the chase, it means work for me enters a new phase.

Because it’s NASA we’ve got at least our share of jargon, and in this case apparently no need to specify what we are responding to much less provide clarity as to why such response needs its own framework.  But given the context of the news of the world, you can probably guess that we are responding to the threat of COVID-19, and Stage 2 means that all NASA civil servants are “strongly encouraged” to work remotely if possible.

Caveat 1: if your work cannot be done remotely, you can still come to the office anyway.  Caveat 2: contractor employees “should reach out to their contracting officer’s representative” to find out what we’re supposed to do.  In this case, we’re teleworking, too!

There are some things I do at work that have to be done at work, things involving both the recording of episodes of a podcast and the live broadcasting of a little weekly television show (which we lovingly and with full irony refer to as “the big show”), so right now I’ll still be going to the office.  Not every day, and even then not all day.  But this is a big deal for me: with only a few exceptions (search “Furlough Journal” blog posts in that box over to the right), “going to the office” for work is what I’ve been doing since the Carter Administration, so this could take some getting used to.

Not complaining…I know this whole situation is going to get worse all across in America: today more localities are asking, or ordering, restaurants and bars to close except for takeout or delivery to cut down on our chances of being in large crowds, whether we want that or not; here in Texas the state education commissioner is warning that public schools could remain closed for the rest of the school year; although there have been no deaths reported in our area (yet) the first area man who was reported positive without a travel-related cause is in very poor condition.  So I’m very lucky that my biggest problem (so far) is getting smart about working from home, and a friend at work has helped us all by finding a list suggestions how to make the most of that.  It starts by arguing in favor of wearing pants.

Perhaps the most harmful decision I made in those early years was the embrace of the “No Pants Freelance” lifestyle. I took it literally, often only working in a t-shirt and underwear. Hey, I never saw clients, why get dressed? Well, turns out that was a terrible decision.

Not only does your personal hygiene suffer, your mental clarity will too. Over days, weeks, and months, I became a shell of a human. Depression and anxiety start to take over, and before you know it, you’re a complete mess both in and out of work. This was precisely what I wanted to avoid this time.

I’ve now built a morning routine, which I’ll get to shortly, but the culmination is getting dressed for work. I put on pants everyday. Pants. Not shorts, not pajama pants, but a pair of pants. I’ll wear a button down shirt or t-shirt each day, but the pants are essential. This is my brain telling my body that I am going to work.

I’m trying to keep in mind that whatever hardship I think I’m enduring now (1) isn’t so hard, and (2) has a damn good reason behind it.  Matt Pearce off the Los Angeles Times put it very well:

So did this elementary school principal:

I also love this…if you love “Schitt’s Creek,” so will you:

Furlough Journal: Once more into the breach

It never would have occurred to me when this partial government shutdown started more than four weeks ago that it would still be going on today, the day that it turns out is the day before I start on furlough myself because of the inaction of my government representatives obstinacy of my president.  (Lookie there, me being nice to Mr. Trump; let’s see if it lasts.)  Truth is, what really never would have occurred to me was that he would be the president.  Of the United States.  Of America.  Unless maybe it was bizarro America.

Nope, not even then.

I’ve worked as a contractor for NASA at the Johnson Space Center since the summer of 1995, just a few months before the Gingrich Shutdown that had been the longest shutdown in history until last week.  The only other serious shutdown in my experience was the one in October 2013, which sent us all home for a couple of weeks; we were allowed to do things related to our regular jobs, but we were not allowed to work in the office.  I started the Furlough Journal then and found it therapeutic for a guy forced to sit home on an unexpected vacation…yes, I was allowed to use my accrued vacation so I didn’t miss a paycheck.

When this PGS began my civil servant colleagues were sent home without pay and that’s where they’ve remained, except for a few who had permission to come in to do important work for which they would not be paid.  (Until, hopefully, they are reimbursed after the shutdown ends…which would be good for them, but doesn’t help them now with no income to spend on the little extras that make life worth living, like food, and rent, and electricity.)  At that point our contract had already received periodic funding in advance, so we were allowed to continue to do our regular work in our offices so long as it didn’t require a civil servant to participate.

Late last week the bosses gathered us all to let us know the advance funding was about to run out and our furlough was about to begin.  Since I don’t usually work weekends, and today was a funded holiday, tomorrow feels like the first day of furlough for me.  But my company is allowing us to use accrued vacation to keep getting paid, at least for a couple of weeks.  After that, we’ll see.

Let’s give the president a little credit here. After a full four weeks of government shutdown that was caused by him changing his mind and refusing to sign a funding extension passed by the Senate which he had promised to sign (and which the House has subsequently also approved) he made a counteroffer last weekend which Democrats have not embraced (shall we say).  I think “a little” is about as much credit as he should expect for offering to give back something he took away in the first place and which he isn’t now promising to return permanently, in exchange for a down payment on a wall that he promised us Mexico would be paying for anyway but which it says it won’t, and who can blame them.  I think we should also note that the president has proven over and over again that we should never take him at his word, about anything, which of course makes it harder to negotiate a deal and surely says it wouldn’t be smart to agree to the first thing he offers.

(Is the therapeutic-ness kicking in yet?  Keep keyboarding.)

I want the government shutdown to end as soon as possible, for myself and the hundreds of thousands of people who do work that makes our country run…no doubt you’ve got examples of your own of things that aren’t happening because of the shutdown, or have read stories filled with those particulars.  Our representatives in Washington can do their jobs and negotiate about a border wall while the people who process tax returns and staff the national parks and control our air traffic and advance our exploration of space get paid for doing their jobs.  I have confidence that Congress can find a deal that will allow all sides to claim a little victory, maybe even agree to build more border barrier.

But don’t you dare cave in to this crazy man.  If Congress gives Trump this border money, in this way, you and I both know that the next time he doesn’t get something he wants he’ll take hostages again.  We don’t negotiate with terrorists.  And we’re not afraid of bullies.

Furlough Journal: It’s starting to get serious

An update from my little corner of the partial government shutdown: it continues, but I’m just back.  This past week I’ve been on a vacation that was planned and approved well before the PGS began, but I haven’t missed a thing because late last week my employer, a company with a contract to provide certain services to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, told us it was fine for everyone to use accrued vacation time through October 11, and that if the shutdown continued we’d receive further instructions.  So while some of my colleagues who perform (apparently) essential tasks have been doing their regular work, and other folks have been getting paid for doing other tasks, albeit not from our government offices or using government equipment, I’ve been in a holiday frame of mind and oblivious to the impact of the inaction of our Congress to do its job.  Yesterday evening I checked back in and found those promised “further instructions.”  The tone has changed.

You see, on top of the 800,000 civil servants who were furloughed and aren’t being paid since the shutdown started October 1, part of the real fallout of non-essential elements of the government being shut down is that those government agencies don’t make their scheduled payments to their contractors, who as a result may not have funds available to keep paying their employees.

In our case, as a result of not receiving expected payments from the government our company advises us that as of now we cannot use our accrued vacation hours to keep getting paid; we can, however, take leave without pay.  (Oh goody.)  For those on our contract who are furloughed, the bosses advised them that they will stop accruing vacation as of the start of the new pay period next week and offered them instructions on how to apply for unemployment insurance payments.  Those of us who are (currently) not furloughed will continue to accrue vacation (that we can’t use yet) .  Health insurance benefits remain in effect for all.

But we’re not alone.  This morning Houston’s Leading Information Source offered this front-page localization of the government shutdown story: a prediction that the number of NASA contractors in Houston who are on furlough could triple by the end of next week if Congress doesn’t end the shutdown.  In this case at least—there may be other similar cases—the blame does not rest entirely on the members of Congress who failed to do the job we elected them to do; the bureaucratic mentality that runs our government is responsible for at least part of the pain:

Some of the pain could be eased if NASA paid contractors millions of dollars it owes them for completed work, Mitchell said. Just before payments were to be made to contractors, he said, Elizabeth Robinson, NASA chief financial officer, furloughed workers in the office where checks are written.

“There is no reason NASA can’t pay these small contractors the money due to them,” Mitchell said. “It’s in the bank, it’s due to them, and she’s not paying them because she considers people who pay bills for NASA non-essential.”

Some contractors are owed for as much as two months of work, he said.

Neither Robinson nor a NASA representative could be reached because of the shutdown.

Of course.