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Opinion Editorials

Should you host a virtual office holiday party this year?

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) A holiday party sounds like a good idea after the trash year we’ve had, but a Zoom company party could probably be skipped.

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Online holiday parties can be a solitary experience.

Everyone else already got to make a lot of fantastic jokes and hyperbolic metaphors and such when it came to describing the dumpster fire of a year that’s lasted six decades, and it’s high time I had the same chance. This year has been like mustard on tacos. There’s not a single person in the entire world that eats mustard on tacos, and for some reason, that’s ALL we’ve had to eat. Colonel Mustard’s Last Taco Stand.

Look, it was either mustard on tacos or a long drawn out description of ever-moist socks. Be happy with what I gave you instead of discussing a mildewy dampness your feet are forever encased in, and eeeeeeveryone on Facebook is like-ing it, and you’re a glutton for punishment and any semblance of humanity in this now tired always on-fire year, so you continue to wear them even as the smell never goes away.

Ok, I’m done. Deep breath. Really, please continue to read on.

So we need some cheer. Like, a whole lotta cheer. Cheer all ova the place. Japan literally bombed a comet to bring back alien goodies, AND WE DON’T EVEN HAVE THE ENERGY TO BE HAPPY ABOUT HOW METAL THAT IS. So maybe they can hook us up with a comet made out of nothing but sugar and vodka and Parks and Recreation.

Now, it is the holiday season (pick your flavor, I’m running a soda fountain and ALL the flavors are going in the cup because it’s party time the world around), and that usually means festivities to remind people that their drudgery can at least be temporarily forgotten through the use of distraction. I can’t say drugs, so we’ll go with distraction. Yeah, that’s the safest word starting with that letter that I can write here.

Companies know this, and given that there’s been a proliferation of virtual meetings now that all air is poison, it’s likely that this will extend into the annual end-of-year holiday party. Scores of people will be encouraged to put on a fun sweater, jaunty hat, maybe even some jingly music, a drink, and then – and then – sit in front of their computer for 45 minutes. Joy.

I haven’t seen Office Christmas Party yet, but replace all those actors with people you know and are subject to rules and laws and monetary constraints and physics and pain, and then assume that you’re being coerced into ‘fundatory’ duties. Because that’s what it’s gonna be – the most anemic, sterile celebration you could have in this moment, with a bunch of disparate, isolated persons all just wanting to end the call as soon as possible.

Forced fun never works; I think a war was started about that once in my elementary school (but not by me). So why delay the inevitable at this point? We all just want to go sit on the couch and have cookies and pizza and bad traditional movies in various states of undress. AND WITH OUR DOGS AND CATS.

Now, I have to be fair – maybe some of you like your coworkers. I happen to adore mine. So the efficacy of a Zoom holiday party is heavily influenced by that level of friendship, and I’ve found that even staring at people on a screen is a fantastic option to dive into a cozy warm bubbly sleeping bag of delight, coworker or friend or family. It’s like when your stomach hurts because you didn’t eat something, and you can’t imagine eating something, but then you do and you find it fixes the pain.

So I can’t say to not do this, or that companies should not do this. But I do think a virtual holiday party requires tapping into the general mindset pervading your average employee – please read the room, please don’t be tone deaf, please don’t think everyone wants to put on Rudolph antlers and watch people in giant houses tell us how “this year wasn’t so bad.” Failing this for even a second is going to send everyone into full on Grinch mode, and justifiably so.

There’s a lot of factors to consider – if you’re going to be part of a meeting with people you literally never talk to (other departments, executives, C-suite level personnel, and all the plus-ones no one knows), then it’s probably not going to work. If someone shows off their lavishness and synthetic ebullience against a candy colored backdrop of lights and excess, then it’s probably not going to work. If a lot of downsizing happened or there’s a general air of hostility, then it’s not going to work.

I can’t objectively measure this in any way, but I’m going to guess the majority of virtual parties won’t be received well. If you/your company is the exception, then that is amazing (seriously! not-joking-emoji-face!), and no one should begrudge that, and by all means, please party. But chances are probably low, and if that’s the case, we should discuss alternatives.

The obvious one is to take the budget and send it right on back to employees – preferably as a bonus, at the least as a gift card of sorts (in the form of a store-agnostic credit card), or a gift with an attached receipt. Another option would be to give attendees a way to purchase their own food and drink, and if that means Doritos and Gin, then that is what it means, judgements out the window and into the biohazard atmosphere. Or hold the money until an in-office soiree can be held.

Maybe charity is a better avenue to travel down here, and the money could be allocated to helping out an agonized world. Perhaps employees could use the money to donate to their own cause of choice. Either of these take away the commercial rewards and indulgence and instead redirects it to needy souls whose gratefulness is oceans deep against a backdrop of despair. None of the usual fun stuff will happen anyway.

I can’t make the rules or calls; I can only supply some considerations. I think this year – taken overall – has been bad, where as a case-by-case audit will yield a spectrum of values from the very happy to the incredibly sad. So there’s not a single solution to apply to everyone for your holiday party, and I won’t pretend to have one that is one-size-fits-all.

What I can say is that everyone should take this moment to be quiet and reflect, and especially those in positions of power, whose invisible hand has perhaps held more lives and livelihoods in its judgement and grasp than potentially ever before. With that level of power and responsibility, it should not be taboo to ask for a sincerity that befits this hallowed, holiday time. That’s really all I’m asking for – insight, wisdom, empathy, and the best means to deploy it to brighten up everyone in the best, farthest-reaching way possible.

That’s what it’s all about, Charlie Brown.

Robert Snodgrass has an English degree from Texas A&M University, and wants you to know that yes, that is actually a thing. And now he's doing something with it! Let us all join in on the experiment together. When he's not web developing at Docusign, he runs distances that routinely harm people and is the kind of giant nerd that says "you know, there's a King of the Hill episode that addresses this exact topic".

Opinion Editorials

Freelance is the Future? I call bull malarky

(EDITORIAL) Some have predicted that due to company needs and employees’ desire for flexibility, and even COVID, freelance is the future of work. But I have reservations.

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Freelance desk

Long gone are the days of punching a clock in Corporate America to be in your seat at your desk for an exact period of 8 hours on a day x 5 = 40 hours per week. If you work in an office setting now, usually you are expected to manage your time and finish your projects but companies have adjusted their strict butt in seat polices so that you can come in late after a doctor appointment or even leave a little early for Susie’s soccer tournament.

The truth is, with the advancement of technology and connected devices, many of us can work from anywhere (as long as there’s Wi-Fi or we have our hotspot). So, as long as your work gets done, there’s a little bit of room for “flexibility”.

When a company pitches this as flexibility, it’s really just a way of re-wording that you will work a lot so they will cut you some slack here and there considering most of us work well over our 40 hours a week. We can check email first thing in the morning, forward documents from the plane and even be on conference calls while in a line or in an Uber. You may work late on a Tuesday due to Wednesday deliverables which allows you to take off on Friday at 3pm when usually your projects are in a good place. There are also times where you will work on the weekend.

The opportunity to work anywhere has led to some considering that freelance is the future? I just don’t buy it. And this might be an unpopular opinion. I think that’s like turning the Titanic around. People rely on companies to offer a feeling of stability (or so we think) so that you know there’s a paycheck coming in every other week and you definitely have your fair share of projects (oh yeah, plus healthcare benefits).

If we all moved in to freelancing, we’d have a wide variety of clients, customers, teammates and paychecks that could be difficult to keep up with. We’d be forced to be the CEOs, CTOs, CIOs, CMOs, CFOs, oh, forget it, the entire C-suite of our own careers. It’s really difficult to generate new clients in the future while you’re working on a current project.

However, it’s equally difficult to have a lull so you have to be constantly engaged and pitching business (at the same time you have your current work). You have to be on your A-game at all times and out pitching yourself and your brand. You have to be creating content on all the social channels and be invited to participate in fancy conferences and meetings. This unfortunately is the life of freelance.

Does it seem like more people will do freelance? Yes. There’s lots of opportunity now thanks to the world wide web. But I predict they will do this in addition to their regular jobs. Is it possible that we may move to a gig economy? We are already there. You’ve heard of Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Fiverr and Upwork…It seems like that most people that have 2-3 gigs to make them whole are typically looking for full-time opportunities or would love to find something that can replace the others with more consistent work and not all the hustle. Are Small Businesses on the rise? Absolutely.

It seems that it depends on your desire for either slightly more predictable work and paychecks or if you’re a throw caution to the wind person and live that freelancer life. Also, if your skill sets are the ones employers are looking for on an ad hoc basis. No doubt many people live a freelancer life and love it. But I just don’t see it being the masses – I think it takes a special kind of dedication to rely on freelance and/or starting your own business. Plus, you’re off your parents’ healthcare at age 26. That’s when real the “real job” starts to sound really appealing.

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Opinion Editorials

Ways to socialize safely during quarantine

(EDITORIAL) Months of isolation due to quarantine is causing loneliness for many, but joining virtual social groups from home may help fill the need for interaction.

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quarantine

Quarantining, sheltering in place, staying home. We’re tired of hearing it; we’re tired of doing it. Yet, it’s what we still need to be doing to stay safe for a while longer. All of this can be lonesome. As the days turn into weeks and weeks into months, the alone time is getting to even the most introverted among us.

Solitary confinement is considered one of the most psychologically damaging punishments a human can endure. The New Yorker reported on this in a 1992 study of prisoners in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, as well as Vietnam veterans who experienced isolation. These studies showed that prisoners who had experienced solitary confinement demonstrated similar brain activity to those who’d suffered a severe head injury, noting that “Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.”

We aren’t meant to be solitary creatures. Your “pandemic brain” is real. That fogginess, the lack of productivity, can be attributed to many things, including anxiety, but being kept apart from other humans is a big part of it too. Be kind to yourself, give yourself grace, and join others virtually. Be it an app, a class, a Facebook group, a chat room, or a livestream, someone somewhere is out there waiting to connect with you too.

The good news? We are lucky enough to live in an era of near limitless ways to interact socially online. Sure, it is different, but it is something. It’s important. The best thing about this type of social interaction is being able to hone in on your specific interests, though I’d caution you against getting caught in an online echo chamber. Diversity of interests, personality, and opinion make for a richer experience, with opportunities for connecting and expanding your worldview.

Here are a few suggestions on ways to socialize while staying home and staying safe. Communicating with other humans is good for you, physically and mentally.

Interactive Livestreams on Twitch:

Twitch is best known as a streaming service for video game fans, but it offers multiple streams appealing to different interests. This is more than passive watching (although that is an option, too) as Twitch livestream channels also have chat rooms. Twitch is fun for people who like multi-tasking because the chat rooms for popular livestream channels can get busy with chatter.

While people watch the Twitch hosts play a video game, film a live podcast, make music or art, mix cocktails, or dance, they can comment on what they’re watching, make suggestions, ask questions, crack jokes, and get to know each other (by Twitch handle, so it is still as anonymous as you want it to be) in the chat room. The best hosts take time every so often to interact directly with the chat room questions and comments.

Many Twitch channels develop loyal followers who get to know each other, thus forming communities. I have participated in the Alamo Drafthouse Master Pancake movie mocks a few times because they are fun and local to Austin, where I live. Plus, in my non-quarantine life, I would go to Master Pancake shows live sometimes. The chat room feels familiar in a nice way. While watching online is free, you can (and totally should) tip them.

Online trivia in real time:

There are some good options for real-time online trivia, but I’m impressed with the NYC Trivia League’s model. They have trivia games online on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. The NYC Trivia League seems to have figured out a good way to run the game live while keeping answers private from the other teams. They run games on Instagram Live with a live video of the host, and participants answer via the question feature. Clever!

Online book club:

First I have to shout out my Austin local independent bookstore, BookPeople, because they are fantastic. They run book clubs throughout the year, along with readings, book signings, and all things book-related. BookPeople hosts several online book clubs during these lockdown days, and most people will find something that appeals to them.

I’m also impressed with this list from Hugo House, a writer’s resource based out of Seattle. This list includes Instagram and Goodread book clubs, book clubs for Black women, rebels, and poetry lovers. The Financial Diet recommends the Reddit book club, if you are comfortable with the Reddit format. Please note that it’s a busy place, but if you like Reddit, you already know this.

Cooking class or virtual tasting:

This is doubly satisfying because you can follow these chefs in real time, and you end up with a meal. There are a couple on Instagram Live, such as The Culinistas or Chef Massimo Bottura.

You can also participate in virtual tastings for wine, whiskey, or chocolate, though you will have to buy the product to participate in the classes (usually held over Zoom or Facebook Live). If you are in Austin, Dallas, or Houston, I recommend BeenThere Locals. The cost of the course includes the wine, spirits, or cooking kit in most cases, and all of the money goes to the business and expert hosting the class.

Look for your favorite wine, spirits, cheese, chocolate makers, and chefs that are local to you to find a similar experience. Most either prepare the class kit for pickup or delivery within a local area.

Quarantine chat:

To interact with another quarantined person seeking social interaction, there’s Quarantine Chat. Quarantine chat is one of the ways to connect through the Dialup app, available on iOS and Android devices. Sign up to make and receive calls when you want to speak with someone. The Dialup app pairs you randomly with another person for a phone conversation, at a scheduled time, either with anyone or with someone with shared interests.

Quarantine chat takes it a step further with calls at random times. When your quarantine chat caller calls, you will not see their number (or they yours), only the “Quarantine Chat” caller ID. If you are unable to pick up when they call, they will be connected with someone else, so there is no pressure to answer. It’s nice to hear someone else’s voice, merely to talk about what you’ve been cooking or what hilarious thing your pet is doing.

Play Uno:

Uno Freak lets people set up games and play Uno online with friends or strangers. Players do not need to register or download anything to play. Uno Freak is web-based.

Talk to mental health professionals:

If your state of loneliness starts sliding toward depression, call someone you can speak to right away to talk over your concerns. When in doubt, call a trained professional! Here are a few resources:

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): The NAMI HelpLine can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 am–6 pm, ET, 800-950-NAMI (6264) or info@nami.org.
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to this text line 24/7 for someone to text with who will also be able to refer you to other resources: U.S. and Canada: 74174, U.K. 85258, Ireland: 50808.
  • Psych Central has put together this comprehensive list of crisis intervention specialists and ways to contact them immediately.

There are many ways to connect even though we are physically apart. These are just a few real time ways to interact with others online. If you want something a little more flesh and blood, take a walk around the block or even sit in a chair in front of where you live.

Wave at people from afar, and remember that we have lots of brilliant doctors and scientists working on a way out of this. Hang in there, buddy. I’m rooting for you. I’m rooting for all of us.

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Opinion Editorials

Working remotely: Will we ever go back? (Probably not)

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Now that the pandemic has opened the door on working remotely, there’s no way we’ll put the genie back in the bottle. But, here’s some ways you can adapt.

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Woman working remotely on her couch with a laptop on her lap.

When it comes to working remotely, will the toothpaste ever go back in the tube?

Mark Zuckerberg recently said, “We are going to be the most forward-leaning company on remote work at our scale…” By 2030, Zuckerberg anticipates that over half of Facebook’s workforce will be remote. Many other companies are jumping on the work from home bandwagon. Working remotely has helped many businesses manage the pandemic crisis, but it’s unsure what form remote working will take over the next 10 years.

We know that employees are responding positively to WFH, as reported in this article – Employers: Lacking remote work options may cause you to lose employees. As offices transition to a post-COVID normal, here are some things to consider about your office and remote work.

What does your business gain from allowing workers to WFH?
The future of remote work depends on a conscious application of WFH. It’s not just as easy as moving employees out of the office to home. You have to set up a system to manage workers, wherever they are working. The companies with good WFH cultures have set up rules and metrics to know whether it’s working for their business. You’ll need to have technology and resources that let your teams work remotely.

Can your business achieve its goals through remote work?
The pandemic may have proved the WFH model, but is this model sustainable? There are dozens of benefits to remote work. You can hire a more diverse workforce. You may save money on office space. Employees respond well to remote work. You reduce your carbon emissions.

But that can’t be your only measure of whether remote work fits into your vision for your organization. You should be looking at how employees will work remotely, but you need to consider why employees work remotely.

The work paradigm is shifting – how will you adapt?
The work environment has shifted over the past century. Remote work is here to stay, but how it fits into your company should be based on more than what employees want. You will have to work closely with managers and HR to build the WFH infrastructure that grows with your organization to support your teams.

We don’t know exactly how remote work will change over the next decade, but we do know that the workplace is being reinvented. Don’t just jump in because everyone is doing it. Make an investment in developing your WFH plan.

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