ask a boss

How Am I Supposed to Focus on Work Right Now?

Photo: The Cut

Work, like everything else, is scary right now: People are losing their jobs or being furloughed for unknown lengths of time, and unemployment is skyrocketing. People who still have their jobs are trying to figure out how to do them while also balancing child care and other household hurdles. Some people are still being required to come in to work in person. It’s no surprise that people have a lot of questions about how to navigate work in these unprecedented times. Here are answers to some of the ones that landed in my in-box this week.

What do I do with my young kids during remote meetings?

I work for a large company and all nonessential staff are working from home. I also have two small children home with me because day-care centers in the region have shut down. My husband’s job is considered essential, so I’m at home with the kids all day. I’ve been making it work by working during the morning, before my husband leaves, and during nap times and answering emails from my phone while the kids play. Things are actually rather slow for me, as a lot of my projects have been put on hold, so I’m not having any trouble keeping up.

But our staff meeting next week will be done remotely. These meetings usually last two-plus hours, and I don’t know what to do with my kids. I could try to put my 3-year-old down for a nap, even though the meeting isn’t at his usual nap time, but I’m not sure what I’ll do if he wakes up before the meeting is over. My 7-month-old also rarely naps for more than 45 minutes at a time. Getting a babysitter is out of the question, as it defeats the whole purpose of social distancing. 

My boss and I don’t have a very close relationship. We don’t deal with each other much at all, and my office is in a different building. He is very by-the-book, and I’m the only person in my department with children. I’m worried he’s going to tell me I need to get childcare or use PTO. I know I will have to talk to him, but what should I say?

Your situation is so common right now! This isn’t like normal times, when you generally would be expected to have childcare while you were working from home. Because schools are shut down all over the country, employers are generally cutting parents far more slack when kids’ needs intersect with the workday.

And even though you’re the only parent on your team, it’s pretty likely that your boss knows employers have to be far more flexible right now, and this probably won’t be the first time it dawns on him that this is a tough situation for people with children.

So I’d just be straightforward: “I have a baby and a 3-year-old here since day-cares have been shut down, and keeping them quiet enough for a call for two hours isn’t feasible. At a minimum, I’ll plan to keep myself muted during the meeting, but I’ll also probably need to step away at times.”

Or, if you’d prefer the option not to attend at all: “Because day-cares are shut down, I’m having to flex my schedule around my husband’s work shifts and my kids’ nap times. Depending on what’s happening with the baby at that moment, realistically I might not be able to attend the staff meeting. If that happens, would it be possible to get key updates emailed around afterward?”

Is it okay for people to leave their cameras off on video calls?                                                                                              

I manage a small team that normally works closely together in an office setting, but we have converted to remote work for the foreseeable future. We now have a short daily Zoom meeting to connect each morning and check in with each other, and I think most of us are finding it a helpful touchpoint. One of my team members says that her laptop camera is not working, but it looks to me like she is just not enabling the video (it says her name and isn’t just a black screen the way it is when someone has their lens closed). Is this an okay thing to be weird about in these troubled times? I’m (possibly unreasonably) annoyed about it and want to ask her to use her cell phone if the laptop camera doesn’t work.

Let her stay off-camera! Some people are really uncomfortable on video, and given how stressful this time already is, why add to that? Video can have benefits, yes, but the benefits not large enough to warrant adding to anyone’s anxiety right now.

Plus many people are keeping their video off because of bandwidth issues and data costs. Or, who knows, maybe she’s sharing a small studio apartment with a partner who’s also working from home and who would rather not appear on your calls, or she’s got enough to deal with right now with supervising home-bound kids and rationing the toilet paper without having to also make herself look professional. Cut her some slack on the camera issue.

What to do if your company claims it’s “essential” when it’s not

My state has issued a mandatory stay-at-home order and ordered all nonessential businesses to close. My employer won’t close. The company owner doesn’t think people will be productive at home and is telling us we need to continue to come in because he considers the business essential. We’re not, and we could easily do our jobs from home. If your employer is just flat-out refusing to comply with this kind of order, how do you get it enforced?

Most states that have shut down nonessential businesses have issued detailed lists of what is and isn’t considered essential. (For example, here’s New York’s.) So first, check to see if you can find that, typically on your state government’s website.

If you believe an employer is violating state orders, the way to report it varies by state. Some states have set up hotlines; others want you to call 311 or the health department. If it’s not clear what your state recommends, call your local health department. If it is not the one charged with enforcing the order, it will be able to point you in the right direction.

How do I resign when I can’t do it face-to-face?

I’ve been offered a new position at a new company. I began the interview process well before this crisis erupted, but I have now received and signed my offer letter. Given that my current company has asked employees to work from home and our state has a shelter-in-place mandate, I can’t tell my boss and team in person. I know I have to give notice, but Zoom seems wrong right now, especially with the chaos that coronavirus has created. How should I first tell my boss, then my team?

Tell your boss over the phone (or via video chat, if that’s how you mostly communicate). That’s what you’d have to do even in normal times if you worked in a separate location — and that’s the situation for now. Your boss will understand there wasn’t a better option available.

As for telling your co-workers, it’s up to you. If announcing it at a team meeting feels like adding to the chaos, you can call people individually or send an email to everyone. I wouldn’t worry about the mechanics of it too much; it will be fine!

How can I explain my layoff in future interviews?

What language would you use in future interviews to explain you were laid off because of everything surrounding the coronavirus?

This is not a layoff you’ll need to worry about explaining. In fact, with most layoffs, there’s not a lot you need to explain — “The company eliminated positions, and I was part of those layoffs” is usually all you need to say. In this case, “My company laid off me and many others during the coronavirus outbreak” is going to be immediately understandable (and familiar).

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

How Am I Supposed to Focus on Work Right Now?