156. Surviving Remote Work - Pandemic Edition

May 19, 2020

We have spoken about working remotely before, but working remotely during a crisis is a very different reality, so today, we share our thoughts on working from home during this pandemic. We kick off the show by finding out more about William’s quarantine in South Korea, why he’s there, and what the experience has been like for him. We then move onto talking about the importance of teams and being able to communicate your specific needs during this time. You may have more responsibilities around the house, which is why an understanding team goes a long way in alleviating the potential stresses. From there, we dive into some of the practicalities of working from home, like setting up workspaces, techniques on how to separate work and life, and some ways to preserve your mental health, like shutting off the news and limiting social media time. We round the show off with Mike, William, and Dave sharing what they’re going to do to make this time as smooth as possible.  Be safe out there.


Key Points From This Episode:


  • Learn more about why William is in Seoul and what quarantine was like for him there.
  • How a good, understanding team can help in this specific remote working time.
  • Some mental health tips during this time: Avoid social media and turn off the news.
  • Contact tracing in South Korea and how it keeps citizens informed of the pandemic spread.
  • The innovative ways that William’s been staying physically active in Korea.
  • It’s important to think about the ergonomics of working at home and tips on how to get comfy.
  • As best you can, try to separate your work and living spaces.
  • Why a set routine helps with work-life balance and how Mike, Dave, and William are doing it.

Transcript for Episode 156. Surviving Remote Work - Pandemic Edition



[0:00:01.9] MN: Hello, and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developer’s podcast. Live from the boogie down Bronx. I’m your host, Michael Nunez. Our co-host today.

[0:00:09.3] DA: Dave Anderson.

[0:00:10.8] MN: Today, we’ll be talking about surviving remote work in this pandemic called COVID-19.

[0:00:18.4] DA: Oh boy.

[0:00:19.4] MN: Yeah, getting crazy out there. Before we begin.

[0:00:22.7] DA: We’ve definitely talked about this topic before. But now it’s so real.

[0:00:27.3] MN: Yeah it’s so real, we got to get a little bit more in depth in it. Before we begin, we managed to get our producer on the horn. William Jeffries, what’s going on man?

[0:00:37.2] WJ: Not too much.

[0:00:40.3] MN: Where are you live right now?

[0:00:41.0] WJ: I’m coming at you live from Seoul, South Korea.

[0:00:44.5] MN: Wow

[0:00:46.0] WJ: Yeah, very far.

[0:00:48.1] MN: How did you end up there?

[0:00:50.6] WJ: I was working on a project for a client and they had sent me to India. And so, I had been working in India for several months when the outbreak struck and I actually got stuck in the Indian lockdown.

[0:01:07.6] MN: What?

[0:01:07.6] DA: It was very little notice about it, right? “Hey, by the way, tomorrow it’s over.”

[0:01:17.1] WJ: Yeah, it was very sudden. I got on the flight, I immediately went to the airport and got on the very first flight I could get on to New Delhi because I was in Hyderabad. And then from there, I tried to get a connecting flight out. But the midnight happened before I was able to get on to another flight. And so, I got stuck in Delhi which was like kind of worse than being in Hyderabad because I knew people in Hyderabad, but I guess also kind of better because it was easier to get out of Delhi. And I basically went in and had to hustle trying to find evacuation flights because there’s no – there was no information available on this.

[0:02:00.9] MN: Right, the United States weren’t taking any flights into the country, I imagine was very difficult to know where to go next.

[0:02:10.5] WJ: Right, you just talked to other people who were stranded. If you saw another foreigner, I immediately go up to them and be like, “Hey, do you have a flight? Are you trying to get a flight? Have you heard of any flights?” People will be like, “Yeah, there’s one to Rome leaving on Friday but it’s fully booked and you have to be an Italian citizen.” Or –

[0:02:35.1] DA: Then you’ll be in Rome. I guess like I’m so grateful that you managed to escape to a country that has everything in control.

[0:02:49.2] WJ: Yeah, me too.

[0:02:52.9] DA: Yeah, what a dream, you know? Using technology and feedback loops to keep things in check. I think while you were trying to extradite yourself from India, you were still on contract and still working. And then when you arrived in Seoul, you much like us were like well, you were still working remotely but you’re working in isolation completely and quarantine. I keep on mixing up the words isolation and quarantine. But like, you were legit in the quarantine, not just like a low-budget isolation.

[0:03:32.7] WJ: Yeah, they were very serious about it. They were tracking my location on my phone, they were calling me like – I had to check in every day.

[0:03:40.1] DA: ‘Hey William, what did you do today? I’m good, good, you’re not supposed to be doing anything.”

[0:03:46.4] MN: Stay home.

[0:03:49.3] DA: We’ve talked about you know, remote teams before. That’s episode number 16 on the tats. We talked about remote only, number 83 on the tats. Work spaces, number 24 on the stats but now like these topics are like very much more relevant and honestly it was very different in this situation.

There’s a lot of good ideas out there about how you can work remotely, but then there’s like a very different reality of how you can work remotely and be productive in this kind of a crisis.

[0:04:25.8] MN: Yeah, because it’s like, there’s a difference between like working remotely because you choose to and working remotely because you have to.

[0:04:32.8] DA: Right. Also like, dealing with the distraction. You know, normally, if you’re working remotely, the distraction might be like, “I have my guitar here and I just want to play my guitar,” or like, you know, maybe, “I’ll do laundry or something.” But now the distraction is like, “How do I get enough food from the grocery store without like you know, smashing into everybody, socialization? Or how do I escape from the country so I’m not trapped forever?’

[0:05:06.1] WJ: Yeah, thankfully, I had like a really good team and my teammates were able to help cover. So, there was a presentation that I was supposed to be the primary on and I was like “Hey look, can you sort of be primary on this because there is a possibility – I’m literally sitting in front of the German embassy with my laptop tethered to my phone and like signal’s pretty good right now but if signal gets bad or if one of the government officials comes over and wants my documents, I kind of need to just be able to put this on mute.”

[0:05:45.9] DA: Right. That’s good. You know, sometimes you can’t avoid a distraction. You got to lean into it. You got to process it and cope with it. But you know, communicating with your team on what kind of time that you need or what the reality of your situation is, you know, helps other people like carry forward.

In my case which is like much less extreme like you know, I remember having to go to get groceries and I left work a little bit early to get it. I was like, “This actually isn’t too bad. This little stressful and weird.” And make sure I communicate that with other people on my team so they could plan for it. And I think it was really good that I did that because you know, I went back to that same grocery store on Saturday this weekend and like they were like limiting the number of people in the store and like the line was around the block and couldn’t even just even get in there. I was like, “Okay, coordinating and communicating with people to like take care of your needs is like really important.”

[0:07:00.7] MN: Yeah, I mean, it’s just – and even the idea that the supermarket –shout out to the essential workers out there and the supermarkets, healthcare workers and all that. They’re trying their very best to not also get sick so they have these structures in place like standing in line before getting into the store and that structure before, I feel, although it’s like really troublesome is a lot easier than before where it was everyone’s in this supermarket trying to buy stuff and then trying to get out.

The infrastructure definitely that is now in place is a lot better, although it’s a lot more troublesome. And then the other thing the executive order where you have to wear a New York city at least, you have to wear a mask or cover your face and your mouth, can be a little bit troublesome because to find a mask that can cover your face and mouth is pretty difficult at the moment. We’re trying to make do with the –

[0:07:53.1] DA: I’ve just been improvising with a lot of these things which is kind of like a lot of themes I think with a lot of things we’ve talked about in this past episodes is like, you can’t really fully follow through on like an ergonomic workspace if you don’t’ have like a home office already purchased like because everyone is buying all of the things that you need to make ergonomic workspace.

Everyone’s buying monitors and you know –

[0:08:23.2] MN: Webcams are sold out.

[0:08:24.4] DA: Standing desks. Webcams. You kind of got to like look at it and be like, “Okay, what do I have right now? What kind of MacGyver solution do I have for the key problems?”

[0:08:39.5] MN: I guess one thing for your mental health is definitely avoid social media. Turn off that CNN. Don’t watch it all day. Don’t have it in the background. Imagine it’s not healthy at all. Just the constant hearing of the situation at hand because it is important for you to take a step back and breathe and know that you are taken care off and there are other people who are looking at the situation and trying to find the best of it. So, the best that one can do is just relax and do your best.

[0:09:08.2] DA: Yeah, I try to like just budget the time and like there are pretty useful apps for your computer or smart phone to budget the amount of time that you might spend in those apps. So, like basically I have like this distracting mode setup on my phone where I can only ask for permission for like five minutes of news at a time.

At the end of the five minutes is like, “Okay, did I learn everything I need to know right now, do I feel informed? Okay, I don’t need to keep scrolling. Let’s just move on.”

[0:09:44.1] MN: I mean, I think William, you have mentioned before in time and this conversation. You can avoid the news all you want but like, the government can send you a text message to let you know, “Hey, have you been in these places because you might want to look into that, is that”– what is that? Contact tracing?

[0:10:04.4] WJ: Yeah, as part of contract tracing, everybody gets an alert, a force push government alert, sort of like an amber alert or a flood watch in the US. Their COVID-19 alerts and they contain a link to a website where you can see – you get one of these alerts anytime that someone is diagnosed with COVID-19 who passed within a certain radius of you. And then because the government knows where you are and they’re able to do contact tracing and figure out exactly who the patient got infected from and where they were. And then like, they can publish a list of locations of everywhere that they’ve been since then. There are so few new infections in Korea now that I don’t really see those alerts much anymore. It used to be that I got them while I was in quarantine, I was getting them fairly regularly.

There were like less than 10 new cases in all of South Korea today. Usually, when I get one of those push notifications on my phone, It’s about like I don’t know – something being closed or canceled where they’re like – the government has decided that all of the parks are going to be closed so you can’t go see the cherry blossoms in bloom because –

[0:11:24.9] MN: That’s pretty dope though. I mean, like the idea that the contact tracing so they can identify you if you were in the vicinity of a person who has it is like the best way to consume this kind of news, right? Because it’s like, it’s push notification. So you only get it if you need it rather than like, searching for news because the new is going to give you news. Whatever is going to throw everything at you. But this push notification version of information that may be useful to you I think is probably the most clever way to consume what it is you need to consume in this situation.

[0:12:03.1] WJ: I’ll be curious to see whether the US is able to point any of that off because I mean it is I think legally a gray area, for the government to do that level of –

[0:12:13.8] DA: Sure, there’s like some programs that are starting off like Google and Apple for embedding like a privacy focused version of contact tracing. Where there will be like anonymous pings that are being sent out and recorded and collected and it would be like kind of opt in. You know, you would be able to provide that information if it was relevant. Yeah, I’m hopeful that will have something. But yeah, it is a tricky thing.

[0:12:44.6] MN: Yeah, I mean, I think we’ve been talking about different ways in terms of like distractions and things to avoid. But one of the things that you can do in this since you’re stuck at home is like working out. I think it’s like the one thing that – I mean, I’ve been trying to do, I want to, I think I set a goal for myself that I want to stretch enough so that I can touch my toes from standing up because I definitely can’t do that right now.

[0:13:11.2] DA: I like that goal, it’s very modest just like really, presidential fitness level, you know?

[0:13:16.0] MN: It’s just like, “Hey, I can’t touch my toes now, I was – toes standing up, let’s try it, let’s do that.” You guys have any ways you’ve been staying active and moving around and stuff like that?

[0:13:29.1] WJ: When I was in quarantine, I tried to exercise every morning which was difficult because you know, I was trapped in a single room with no equipment. It’s like a hotel room. It’s like a converted hotel into like one of these facilities.

[0:13:41.6] DA: Right, you just had like shampoo bottles as weights?

[0:13:45.5] MN: A picture.

[0:13:46.5] DA: Maybe lifts up the bed frame for dead lifts.

[0:13:50.1] WJ: That’s exactly what I did. I would dead lift the bedframe just like one side of it and I would use that for leg press as well.

[0:13:59.6] DA: There’s some Jean-Claud Van Damme movie from the 90s, Double Team, where he’s trapped in a room like he’s under house arrest and he’s just like lifting up a claw foot bath tub, just getting jacked. You know, maybe we could watch that and get some ideas I mean like, just improvise. Because yeah, I was thinking about like ordering a home gym type setup and I was like, “You know, maybe I’ll do it later as like a New Year’s resolution but I was kind of like the show is like, I’m not going to make a New Year’s resolution, I’m just going to change my behavior but I’ll do it later so it won’t be a New Year’s resolution.” Then I just didn’t do it and then quarantine happened.

[0:14:39.2] MN: Now you got to do it.

[0:14:41.0] DA: Now I don’t have the weight equipment and stuff but now I’m like, “Okay, maybe I just need to lift up my bed frame or you know, find a fire safety escape kit to lift up or whatever.”

[0:14:53.8] MN: You were lifting beds, what else you had in the room?

[0:14:58.3] WJ: In Korea, it’s very popular to use these – So they don’t have fire escapes like in New York City, right? Everybody has a fire escape. So apparently this is a thing. I had never heard of it before but I have discovered a simplicity descending lifeline in my quarantine room, which is essentially a rappel line that hooks onto the ground and then you wear it around your waist and you face the wall as you hop down the side of the building to get out in an event of a fire.

But the kit itself has a nice handle in it. And so, if you just lift up the whole simplicity descending lifeline, you can do some one arm in lat rows with that.

[0:15:42.8] DA: I guess if you don’t have a simplicity descending lifeline you could use a milk jug or something like or.

[0:15:48.3] MN: Fill up with water.

[0:15:51.0] DA: Yeah, I have just been going for a lot of walks which some people don’t feel comfortable doing. But you know since I have a dog there is certain bodily needs that the dog needs to care off on a regular basis so yeah, it has been a good excuse to get out and regularly.

[0:16:13.1] MN: My brother has a fairly big dog. It is a half lab, half boxer. And the way he maintains social distancing is just by letting the dog go off the leash like not on the leash but like all the dog can go as far as he can with the leash, which is a six-foot leash. So, he’s like, “Yeah no one gets next to me. I can walk my dog just from me,” but I think it’s worked. He’s got a six-foot leash and a big dog and then you walk around that’s it.

[0:16:40.9] DA: Yeah that is true. I do have a socially awkward rescue dog and I think it is a great tool for social distancing because even if friends want to come over, like if a friend that needed to drop something off in my apartment and my dog was there and was like super annoyed at him for being there and it was like, “Yeah thank you for being our conscience.”

I guess besides staying active, which a good way to really stress, I think some people like don’t really think about it – Like something I saw my fiancé doing when she started working from home was have her laptop and completely hunched over. Like not even thinking about ergonomics at all and this is something that we have to be prepared to do for a long time. So, we shouldn’t sacrifice our bodies to do it. We should think about proper ergonomics for how we’re working.

[0:17:36.2] MN: Yeah. I mean I got the keyboard, a split keyboard to not a sponsor but it’s a Kenesis Freestyle2 Blue Bluetooth keyboard. But I don’t have a chair so I need to buy a new chair. So that is the part that is killing me right now. My back hurts after a long day of work.

[0:17:54.0] DA: Yeah but I guess if you can’t buy a new chair or a new keyboard, you are going to at least think about the angle of the keyboard like the positioning of the cushions that you, have especially the monitor. For me, I am pretty tall so I will definitely be hunching over if the monitor is not at the right height. Like right now I don’t have my laptop in a stand. So, if I were looking at the screen then I would be hunched over. So, I might use some books or something to prop up the monitor just to get a little bit more extra height and MacGyver a solution.

[0:18:33.9] MN: Yeah, I got like Rails 4 books that are stacking up my monitor a little higher.

[0:18:40.3] DA: There you go. It’s old news. What are we on Rails 6 now?

[0:18:43.2] MN: Exactly, it’s old stuff. William, do you have any tools right now? Your Airbnb supplies any of that stuff or you just got the MacBook pro and keyboard?

[0:18:53.8] WJ: Yeah, actually it was a really big setback. The quarantine room had a proper desk and my Airbnb is much larger and much more comfortable is really set up as a home not as an office. So, you know there is a kitchen table where I am sitting to do my work and –

[0:19:16.5] MN: Is it like a high chair that you could sit on because I feel like the height –

[0:19:20.8] WJ: You know I sort of strap myself in in case I spill my milk.

[0:19:26.2] MN: No, I mean what is it called bar stool, yeah. Is it a bar stool kind of kitchen?

[0:19:32.0] WJ: No. That would be worse. I mean it is just like a round kitchen table, it is a pretty good height for eating, but that is not the appropriate height for your laptop. Definitely –

[0:19:45.6] DA: Yeah that is part of the problem that I am dealing with right now as well. Like I do have a desk at my home but there are two people who are trying to work remotely during this situation in my home. So, I have yielded the desk and I just use the kitchen table every day. But that is my kitchen table also so it is a weird space. I guess it is good to have a separate place of work but that is where I eat my breakfast too.

[0:20:23.8] MN: I mentioned the high chair not knowing what a bar stool was because I do have a desk at home. But I also have a one-year old and then entire house is his play area, so it is always time where I am like in the middle of a meeting and then Gio will pop up. And I’m like “Hi, Gio. How’s it going?” And he is in the meeting now or he wants to pair program and I have to turn off my keyboard, so he can clack away at the keyboard. But even you have to do your best with separating the rooms – because as Dave mentioned, where you eat breakfast is where you work that could be a little bit difficult to separate the two.

[0:21:05.6] DA: Yeah. I think maybe the second week I was working remotely, I had a habit of breaking down my workspace and packing all of my laptop. And I have this little rubber duck that I put on my desk and so he keeps me company his little green –

[0:21:22.7] MN: He’s got a purple Mohawk.

[0:21:23.5] DA: Green duck with a purple Mohawk? Yeah, he is pretty cool. I took him out if it’s work time, podcast time. But I just left everything out one night and I also left all of the dirty dishes, like all the dirty pots. And so, it’s just like this is so disgusting and it was so depressing to have to work and it was just there, all the greasy pots and my piles of work crap. And I was like, “Okay, I have to take care when I am done with the kitchen things, I am going to clean up the dishes. When I am done with the work things I am going to clean up the work stuff and I am going to put my duck away.”

[0:22:06.1] WJ: There was a research study that did on students in university who are studying and didn’t have like a proper study workspace. Because you know like if you are staying in a dorm, you may have a desk but you probably use it for everything. And what they did is they assigned some of the students to use a lamp.

So, all the students coincidentally like they were all in the same dorm format and so all of the desks had a lamp on it. And they said when you are studying the lamp is on and the rest of the time the lamp has to be off. And what they found is that the students who did this had a full grade point increase in their GPA for the semester when they did that study.

[0:22:54.3] DA: Right. Yeah I mean that is like the principle of the Pomodoro as well, right? The Pomodoro is on, I take my timer I put some amount of time on it and this is my work time. And not – I am signaling to myself of this is not a time for anything else.

[0:23:13.8] MN: All right, hold on a second guys I am going to turn on this lamp I want a full grade point. Boom. Got it. All right, let’s got to separate the two.

[0:23:24.3] WJ: But it creates a habit field so now you associate that light being on with doing work.

[0:23:28.6] DA: Right yeah. I don’t even have my timer on. But I do have my Pomodoro timer.

[0:23:34.2] MN: There you go.

[0:23:34.7] DA: That’s out too, it is just all in my go bag. So as soon as like I am ready to work, get the clock on the desk. Duck next to the clock.

[0:23:45.3] MN: I think what William alluded to with the idea of having the lamp on is a form of like routine that you can have. Actually, a couple of days ago, – so I am quarantined. I have my one year old and my wife who I now call my co-workers because we all co-locating in the space called home. So, we set up a routine. We created a calendar and went, “Okay, these are the hours of work that I would block off of work and these are the hours of work that I block off for the house.”

So, 10 to 12:30 I am doing work and I am probably going to turn the lamp every time that happens. But 12:30 to 1:00 it is lunch time, I sit down with Gio, have lunch with Annie, step outside, try to do my stretches and touch my toes. And then from 1:30 to 4:00 it’s concentrate at work and then from four to five, it is where I need to ramp down. If I have any pull requests or I got to do that last commit, check my emails from four to five I have that time to do it no meetings. And then from five to seven or 8:00 it’s back with the family. I get to watch Gio, Annie gets to cook and then we have dinner at night.

And I think having that routine, we’re going to start on Monday, but having that routine will be vital to the sanity of both of us because we both know what we expect of each other in that. And so, we can do this in a graceful way and ensure we are not going insane not throwing all over the place and just working whenever I can and stuff like that.

[0:25:25.9] DA: Right, yeah. I pushed a little hard this week. I have been going for a pretty regular routine especially since very different than having a toddler running around but we have to take care of the dogs. So, we have to share those responsibilities. And so, we have that set up. But this was a big week for us where we had certain milestones that we were trying to hit so that we could comfortably say that we are going to finish our project on time and hand things off successfully. So, I put in a little bit of extra hours and I really felt the drain from that.

[0:26:11.0] MN: Yeah, definitely if you haven’t done so, definitely schedule a routine. It will be helpful. And I think what both Dave and William alluded to like the idea of having the rubber duck and setting the room or having the lamp on when you’re working definitely will improve your workflow and you don’t have to burn yourself out especially because the situation is going to burn us out anyway. So, you need to mitigate against that.

[0:26:40.8] WJ: Yeah, apparently there is a big spike in the divorce rate in China immediately after the lockdown ended and that’s predicted in the western world as well.

[0:26:52.0] MN: You got to be lockdown with your wife and you don’t really realize you don’t love her anymore? I love my wife. She’s great. She is amazing in this situation and she is also staring at me. I am kidding. But the idea – yeah, imagine like you – what is it? It’s like therapy is probably going to be really big after this and divorce lawyers or whatever. It is going to be crazy but yeah, I imagine it is going to be big toll that a lot of changes are going to come but we got to make the best of it.

So, gentleman, what do you plan to do to separate your work life from your home life? Are there any things you would like to do given that this time is a little crazy? So we have to be mindful of the things we do like I mentioned before, I’m going to try to touch my toes. That is the one thing I really want to do. I should do like squats. But I think carrying a one year old, he is 24 pounds right now, so he is a workout.

[0:27:50.7] DA: You could do baby weight calisthenics.

[0:27:53.6] MN: Yeah, I am just going to do squats with him. And I can do curls while he is trying to drink water. That kind of stuff. You got any ideas?

[0:28:00.7] WJ: This is a bad idea. I don’t recommend it. But you know I have been staying up until 4:00 in the morning working because I am time shifted because I am in a different time zone. So that has screwed up my routine a little bit. And over the weekend just to sort of celebrate not being in quarantine or in having access to alcohol again because there is no alcohol in quarantine. I have to – yeah I had a couple of drinks at a normal drinking time in Korea, which would be like seven or eight or 9 PM.

And then I realized I could not work anymore. It’s like this is pretty rough buzz for me to keep coding actually, I don’t think I am being productive here.

[0:28:44.4] MN: Oh man. So, you hit that bulbous peak. You went too high up.

[0:28:50.8] DA: Yeah, I think I am going to go for a run. I am going to go for a run and just try some socially-distanced nature like look at a tree or some grass that is around that.

[0:29:03.2] MN: That’s awesome. Yeah, no, definitely it is spring time right now at the moment and it is the perfect opportunity to do some running or drinking. I could do a drink or two to hit that bulbous peak. Yeah hopefully, I might do the stretching and the touching of the toes outside maybe I will try that that is what I am going to do. Pick a spot in the grass and tell people to keep away from me as I try to attempt to touch my toe.

[0:29:27.8] DA: Stand back.

[0:29:30.6] MN: Yeah, I might get hurt. I know I will so whatever you do out there, be safe and we’ll get through this together. From the Bronx, from Jersey and from South Korea, we’ll make it happen.


[0:29:42.7] MN: Follow us now on Twitter @radiofreerabbit so we can keep the conversation going. Like what you hear? Give us a five-star review and help developers like you find their way into The Rabbit Hole and never miss an episode, subscribe now however you listen to your favorite podcast. On behalf of our producer extraordinaire, William Jeffries and my amazing co-host, Dave Anderson and me, your host, Michael Nunez, thanks for listening to The Rabbit Hole.


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