It has been almost a year of working from home in the pandemic. This time last year, I worked at an organization with a dedicated IT team, and took a 2 hour commute to and from our physical space. Now? I work at an organization with a dedicated IT team but on my own internet, my own computer, my own software licenses, and reliant on my own know how. The regular interruptions caused by keeping our household connected to work and school directly impact my ability to be a knowledge worker.

Pick your poison. I expect we all have found that shifting our work to our homes has highlighted new interruptions. But we are also paying – in dollars and time and other resources – for things that are also being paid for at our offices.

This is not a knock on our IT team. They are doing exactly what they are supposed to do: support corporate systems. They’ve updated a number of them and some of our library staff have been able to shift from personal tech to corporate tech during the pandemic.

There is an unaddressed gap between the home and the office. The bring your own technology issue has been inverted. Now, corporate IT isn’t faced with supporting home technology. Home-based workers are supporting their connection to the corporation.

But work-from-home isn’t work-from-the-office. It hasn’t been planned that way and so, while our organizations continue to spend money on maintaining that infrastructure, there has been a resource shift to the employee. I notice it a lot because it’s not just happening at my organization. I provide tech support to a variety of workers in our house and each organization is the same. But the interruptions are the same.

Local Tech Consultant Needed

One recurring theme in my career is the melding of technology understanding with information delivery. It’s mostly been libraries but sometimes closer to corporate IT. It means I’ve gathered a lot of experience with keeping systems running.

This has been helpful. Over the past year, we’ve changed internet providers to get greater bandwidth to support the 2-4 extra people on our home network. We’ve had to upgrade hardware and software. We’ve had to reset old hardware for new purposes.

Let me first acknowledge that we’re fortunate in ways others aren’t. This knowledge is a resource and it has a dollar value. Each piece of old technology was new once and we’re fortunate to have the ability to refresh technology. Each time I can fix a network problem or patch a security hole, it’s money that we do not have to spend to get someone to help us. Or to live with whatever risk or workaround is necessary to continue.

This is why, on a snowy, cold Canadian afternoon, I was standing outside our kid’s school. The kids were not in school but I had a mask on for warmth and in case someone came by. The wireless on our Chromebook had stopped connecting to the school wireless network. But it had been working 2 weeks earlier, before a brief pandemic lockdown. Talk about your cozy mystery.

Was it that the:

  • wifi antenna was turned off (user owned)
  • username or password was incorrect (user owned)
  • wireless network configuration had changed (IT owned)
  • username or password had changed (IT owned)
  • software was misconfigured (system owned)
  • software was out of date (system owned)

One thing about technology, you need a clue. Also, early on in my tech support career, I learned not to trust what the user said without verifying. It’s not a veracity issue, it’s a knowledge issue.

“Are you right-clicking or left-clicking with the mouse,” I asked. The law firm staff person on the phone said, “Left.” But the behavior was backwards. “Can you describe how you hold your mouse for me please?” They answered, “Well, I hold it like a mouse, so the tail is under my arm and the parts you click are at the back.” So left was right and right was left.

The school wifi wasn’t visible to the laptop unless it was held up against a window. I stood at the door and, screen pressed against the glass, went through a series of troubleshooting steps as the snow gathered on the keys. Fortunately, there were a couple of error messages – neither particularly helpful but breadcrumbs are breadcrumbs – so I could drive home and do research.

As I’m sure you’re all aware, there are multiple types of wireless security. Home networks tend to use WEP (risky) or WPA/WPA2 but corporate networks often use a security called EAP (WPA2 Enterprise). It turned out that the Chromebook software we were using (Cloudready Home, a free option) had a bug that had been introduced during the lockdown. I was glad to have known what to look for, and even gladder when they released a patch.

“It’s not connecting.” “Nope, it’s not.” Shrug.
“What’s the error?” “Out of range. No, wait. Now it says ‘unknown network error.’ What does that mean?” Shrug.
“Have you opened a help desk ticket?”
“Yes, but they say all they can do is email suggestions because it’s a personal device.” All of which ignores that (a) the organization tends to have the IT knowledge and (b) most people interacting with the organization don’t get corporate devices.

And so on. We are successful at work when we are given the resources – time, equipment, authority, training – to be successful. It’s the same at home, except now the resource gap is huge and variable. Technology is only one aspect of it.

The Gap Widens

Knowledge workers like librarians need flow for success. Interruptions to flow require you to restart the process. One reason messaging tools like email and Skype-Teams-Slack are hard on knowledge workers is that their whole purpose is to enable interruptions. The technology that is supposed to make us more productive may not be:

Once we removed the cost and friction from office interactions, the quantity of this chatter skyrocketed. According to various studies I gathered during my research, in 2005, we were sending and receiving 50 emails a day. In 2006 this jumped to 69. By 2011 it was 90. Today we send and receive an estimated 126 messages, checking our inboxes once every 6 minutes on average. It’s even possible that all of this extra time spent talking about work instead of actually working has created a 21st-century repeat of Tenner’s productivity paradox.

Cal Newport, “Email and Slack Have Locked Us in a Productivity Paradox”, Wired.com, March 2, 2021.

Tech support. Pet needs. Parenting. Elder care. Homework. Power and other outages. To a certain extent, being in an office insulates you from some of the immediacy of some of these needs. We tend to be able to offload some of them (school, corporate departments, day care, etc.) while we’re at work or at least postpone them.

Now, it is harder to get a straight shot of thinking time. All of the productivity hacks we’ve used in the past (blocking off time on our calendar so as not to be disturbed, closing email) are inconsequential. Our infrastructure and the other parts of our lives are overlaid into our work time.

I don’t ascribe to work-life balance although a Canadian told me that was “very American.” Life is what we live and work is just a portion of that. Ideally, work is something we can enjoy and have some choice in. I’ve become much more focused on containing its impact on other parts of my life. That includes saying “no” but also, not being at work, just turning off those devices and applications that keep me connected. And accepting that work is not always the priority even during so-called work hours.

We’ve had more technology upheaval since the start of the year so that, plus the one year pandemic anniversary, has it top of mind. Lateral thinking about technology troubleshooting has blocked out time that I would have for other things, whether work or not. A network outage doesn’t always happen at a convenient time.

As I experienced working in an academic law library, the professor’s lecture will fail at the start of the lecture (and a virtual classroom call seems to be the same) in part because that’s when someone attempts to use the technology. A disconnected proctored exam or virtual classroom needs immediate attention.

Reference librarians may be struggling to answer questions. Catalogers may be distracted while mid-record. The work still needs to get done and work-from-home or other remote working options remain a positive outcome from the pandemic.

But we haven’t quite figured out how to shift corporate resources to support our corporate work, to reduce the interruptions that were absorbed by our workplace. Not unlike a physical library that can only really help people who get to the library, there’s a wide gap between our workplaces and our work. It makes me wonder about the burnout – mental but also the willingness to absorb uncompensated corporate costs – that we’ll be seeing after the pandemic abates.