Heart of the Hutch: Working From Home edition
We have been profiling people who illustrate the culture and spirit of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center with the Heart of the Hutch series. This edition focuses on the many people who have been working from home due to the pandemic. Check out our Essential Worker edition.
Patterns are beginning to emerge now that many workers in the United States have been working from home for almost a year. It stands to reason Fred Hutch employees like Application Support Analyst Courtney Smith fit within those patterns. Smith, who started at Fred Hutch just ten months ago, works on the financial management information systems team where she runs the support desk and helps employees solve money management issues.
Smith, who has never worked at the South Lake Union campus, says the most challenging thing for her has been learning everything remotely. “There is so much you learn by osmosis and listening to the people around you,” she said.
Many American workers report they enjoy not having a daily commute, and Smith agrees. “Commuting a whole 20 feet is the best commute I could ask for, but I really miss seeing people and forming bonds with coworkers,” she said.
Most of the Fred Hutch workers I’ve spoken with for this series say they like their new flexible work hours, but some are concerned about the near continual blending of home and work. Smith agrees: “There is really no line between work time and home time anymore. My workspace is in the middle of my living room so keeping focused on work with family distractions is hard and focusing on home time without checking my computer is hard.”
Forbes’ Kira Makagon reported in September that while working from home works well for some employees, many companies still need to make improvements. Makagon’s reporting emphasizes that this time is a stress test for a company’s ability to enable employees to work remotely while still providing opportunities to progress in their career. A company has to want a diverse work force, and it has to work to avoid bias whether employees are working remotely or in-person.
Smith, who recently graduated from the University of Washington, has a unique perspective on this because she has a disability. She says some of the people she works with don’t know she has a form of muscular dystrophy because they have only met her via videoconferencing.
“This is actually my first job. I did all my job interviews over Zoom and fully onboarded remotely," Smith explained. "To this day I have never met any of my coworkers or really anyone at Fred Hutch in person.”
Smith is proud of her disability and everything she has overcome. She says it has been interesting to get to know everyone at the Hutch without them knowing about her disability.
“In person, my wheelchair is the first thing you notice. So, developing bonds without that extra factor has been awesome,” Smith said.
Since early March of 2020, when Fred Hutch activated its mandatory remote work policy, followed a couple weeks later by Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home” proclamation in Washington state, most of us have become familiar with a new daily routine. Workdays are now spent online in video conference calls, instant messaging, on couches, kitchen tables and home offices. Many of us are challenged to balance all that with a partner who is also home or kids who either need care or are attending school remotely. For many, home WiFi bandwidth is crucial, and we’re spending less time on our wardrobe and more time on our video chat background.
In the spirit of being willing to do what I’m asking others to do, I thought I’d share my Working From Home story.
I first became aware of what we now call the COVID-19 pandemic back in December when I heard one of our writers, Sabin Russell, bring it up during our weekly website story meetings. Sabin, with some alarm in his voice, told us what he was hearing about a novel coronavirus from some of the Hutch’s Vaccine & Infectious Disease researchers. I was skeptical when he said it looked like it might be as bad as SARS.
But Sabin activated my radar that day because I began paying attention every time news reports mentioned people getting sick in China. I remember talking about it with friends during Christmas break and again during a ski trip in early February. Sitting in a bar at the bottom of a ski run in Whitefish, Montana, I was looking through the bottom of my beer mug after a long day of skiing when I wondered if I could spot “flu-like symptoms.”
Glancing around the room at all the sweaty skiers, I noticed a lot of red faces and runny noses. I tried to dismiss it as overreaction while listening to the nagging cough of a guy at the bar just a few feet away. Above “Mr. Coughy,” a huge TV had the news on and the on-screen graphic showed a dot on the map of China. It was Wuhan.
Returning to campus a couple weeks later, I heard talk of a possible campus shutdown bouncing around the cubicles in the office. There were nervous glances every time someone sneezed, and everyone suddenly had a box of antiseptic wipes on their desk. I started closing my office door.
My team got word of the shutdown the day before the official announcement dropped. I walked home early that afternoon, got my car and drove right back to campus. Stepping off the elevator, I crossed paths with my boss. I joked that we’d be back in the office in a few days. He told me to take everything I’d need to work from home for a month. I started to laugh, and he cut me off with, “I’m serious.”
These days, a multimedia producer is as much a computer operator as anything else. So, that afternoon I filled the car with my monitor, keyboard, mouse, an external hard drive, and what seemed like 100 feet of connector cables. I reflexively grabbed a fist full of rubber bands and paperclips from the office supply cabinet before realizing it had been years since I’d used either one. I tossed them back and grabbed a pad of Post-it notes and a couple highlighter pens. I had to make a second run to get all the camera bodies, lenses, lights, microphones and battery chargers.
Arriving at my condo in South Lake Union a few minutes later, my car looked like I’d robbed a photographer’s studio. I packed everything up to my place and quickly realized my desk wasn’t big enough to hold both my home and work computers. So, I cobbled together a second desk with a couple sawhorses and an old garage countertop I hadn’t gotten around to throwing away. I’ve made a few adjustments since then.
Solving my data storage problem required the purchase of an 8-terabyte hard drive, and there was that lost weekend when I tore everything apart in order to solve some serious cable management issues. I’m particularly proud of my out-of-view battery charging station.
I feel lucky. I’m one of the few employees who gets to visit the Fred Hutch campus when it’s necessary to shoot photos and video. I live nearby. So I usually walk to campus, through mostly empty streets — cameras dangling from my shoulders. Their weight feels familiar as they bounce off my hips with each step. Rounding that last corner, I usually pull my mask down to get a few last breaths of fresh air before crossing the campus border where I have to mask up.
COVID-19 has required me to modify the way I make pictures. I’ve learned to time my breaths and shoot quickly when I raise the camera to my eye. The viewfinder fogs up instantly if I forget and try the old way. The other thing I’ve had to change is the distance at which I photograph people. Before COVID-19, I was a firm believer that photography was all about faces. However, masking and social distancing has required me to step back and look for interesting body language and meaningful backgrounds. That’s been an interesting challenge, but I really miss faces.
My week ends each Friday when I transfer all my finished photo and video project files to our network drive. It takes a long time. Multimedia production is BIG DATA. My weekend officially begins hours later when I hear the familiar sound of my work computer’s “finished copying” sound effect. I’ve come to love that sound.
The first few weeks at a new job are crucial. It’s when new employees get to watch, listen and learn as coworkers navigate difficult situations. That rookie period is when they begin creating relationships and building skills. It’s when they learn how things get done. It’s how they learn who gets things done.
That’s the situation Administrative Coordinator Kristin Stencil was in when she started working in Fred Hutch’s Director’s Office just five days before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Seattle area. That's when she and most other Fred Hutch employees were told to work from home, and she’s worked there ever since.
“I missed the face-to-face relationship-building and interactions that come with starting a new position,” says Stencil.
Stencil, whose duties include day-of coordination of the All-Hutch COVID Virtual Town Hall meetings, says she misses the energy that comes from in-person daily contact, but she is adapting. “I believe building good work relationships right now — especially in a virtual capacity — requires that we be more proactive,” she said. “Working remotely has encouraged all of us to be more intentional about our communication.”
Stencil acknowledges this “new normal” is difficult. She said, “It’s important to remember that we’re all doing our best,” and she wants people to know, “We (the Director’s Office staff) are here to help. If we can’t help you directly, we can point you in the right direction.”
Stencil is eager for the day when all employees can return to working on campus.
“While I appreciate not having a daily commute, I am really looking forward to connecting and having in-person meetings. There are so many amazing people I interact with on a daily basis that I have never had the privilege of actually meeting in person.”
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Robert Hood is the senior multimedia producer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He worked on the award-winning multimedia team at MSNBC.com and NBCNews.com for almost two decades, covering national and international news and coordinating special projects. Before that he taught photojournalism at the University of Missouri, worked as a newspaper page designer in Missouri, and worked as a newspaper photojournalist in Missouri, Wyoming and Utah. Reach him at email@example.com.