When family members become coworkers in a brave new work environment


Published: April 16, 2020

By Sally Crocker

Walters And New Coworkers

One recent afternoon, HSC Regents Professor Dr. Scott Walters was working from home like most North Texans who are socially distancing right now as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He was leading a Zoom meeting when things really heated up in his closed-door office, not because Dr. Walters was sparking new ideas, but because the family’s temporarily adopted reptiles basking on heating pads were making their own good vibes in cages near his desk.

“I think a lot of people are finding that what we envisioned about working from home isn’t quite the way it’s turned out,” Dr. Walters said. “Most of us now have partners, spouses, kids, pets and other people as our new coworkers. It’s a whole new way of working and living for everyone.”

Right now the household includes Dr. Walters and his wife, both with their own workspace; son Will, 11, who is in the fifth grade; 8th grader Jocie, 14; one cat; two dogs; and a bearded dragon, three snakes and two leopard geckos, all vacationing with the family while the school animal science lab is closed.

“We call my dad’s office the snake room,” Jocie said. “With the door closed, it’s the safest place away from the cat.”

Both kids are familiar with online learning, having already worked in the Canvas platform for their classes. While they are missing friends and the daily rhythm of school, they have also found a lot that they like about the current situation.

“It’s a lower level of stress because there is so much more time to work on assignments,” Jocie said.

“School feels easier,” Will agreed. “It’s not so rushed and most of my work is due at the end of the week, so it feels calmer. And our pets love that we are at home all the time now.”

A big benefit is that there’s time during the day for both kids to take a break when they want, grab a snack, walk outdoors and refresh their minds for a few minutes, as opposed to a strict campus schedule.

Dr. Walters has also found that the extra half hour he would spend driving to work each morning can now be spent reading the news outside to begin the day.

He’s also sleeping a little longer each morning, with the family getting started at a more relaxed pace before classes, calls, emails, online meetings, Jocie’s voice and piano lessons and Will’s drum practices begin.

“Just as in any work environment, people are doing different things and need their own space. There’s community time and work time, and everyone has their own work style to be respected,” Dr. Walters said. “At the beginning, when both kids popped in their ear buds to start their schoolwork, I was skeptical, but now I understand that what works for me isn’t necessarily what works for them.”

The work-from-home guidelines that most families are managing right now, he said, could be equated to experiencing the five stages of grief.

“At first, there’s denial – this isn’t really happening. Then panic, frustration or anger over the uncertainties and loss of what’s familiar and routine. Missed time with friends, school and office activities on hold, outings and big occasions postponed all feel so overwhelming,” Dr. Walters said.

“The stages of bargaining, depression and finally acceptance all enter the picture as you coordinate each other’s needs, make a plan and find your balance. Time spent together is as necessary as time spent apart, and we’ve settled into a rhythm now that accommodates both.”

Moving through the stages isn’t easy.

“Truth be told, we’ve had some relapses back to anger here and there,” Dr. Walters said.

While family members can certainly be an unexpected group of coworkers, the situation could be with us for a while.

“We’re all playing a longer-term game than we expected early on, and there will be adjustments as communities move forward over time,” Dr. Walters said. “Find what works for your family and make the most of it.”

“I’m in the acceptance stage right now with my new office pals. As summer approaches and the temperatures climb, I’m finding that they are actually some pretty smart thinkers and interesting companions.”