For an industry full of commanding, highly paid executives, the experience of suddenly working remotely — often sharing their new workplaces with kids and dogs — has been a humbling experience.
For many, the jolt has certainly brought anxiety and a sense of displacement but also a broader perspective on life, maybe most of all a deep appreciation for the privilege of being able to work where they live during a terrifying public health crisis.
In the effort to carry on with regular business as much as possible, the Great Stay-Home Phenomenon has also yielded plenty of comedic material.
A television casting executive who’s a mother of two young sons turned her walk-in closet into a covert office to steal away from her rambunctious toddlers for some work time. More than a few industryites have adult children living at home who are also under a WFH directive from their employers. And everybody’s talking about the “Brady Bunch” effect of being in so many video conference calls with tiles of participants stacked up in video tic-tac-toe boxes just like the time the lovely lady met a man named Brady.
“Always find the mute button before connecting to any video or phone conference – it will be necessary,” says Jodi Lederman, head of communications for ViacomCBS’ Pluto TV streaming service, who is the single mother of a 4-year-old daughter.
With schools in Los Angeles and New York shut down, nobody is surprised to see a kid wander into the frame or hear a dog bark in the background anymore.
Video conference calls have allowed co-workers to glimpse small slices of one another’s homes. Even longtime colleagues have learned things from the art on the walls, books on the shelves and decor choices. Some have taken great care to find the perfect frame for those video calls.
“I’ve been trying different areas to see where the lighting looks best,” jokes Sharon Klein, exec VP of casting for Disney Television Studios and FX.
Video and telephone conference calls have become musts as a means of communication. Many say how impressed they are at how effective technology tools like Zoom calls and the BlueJeans conference service are for keeping people in touch and facilitating group communication.
Julia Boorstin, senior media and entertainment correspondent for CNBC, set up her own high-quality broadcast system at her home using a high-end Padcaster device.
“Within an hour of opening the giant box it came in, I was ready to go on TV,” says Boorstin, who is married to Blumhouse motion picture chief Couper Samuelson. Their sons, ages 6 and 8, have been put to work helping to center her in the frame and bring some structure to their day when all of a sudden both Mom and Dad are home but trying to work.
Boorstin’s older son made a sign with “Stop, on TV” on one side and “Go” — it’s OK to interrupt me — on the other for posting around her makeshift workspace. “He instructed me to flip it over so they know what’s going on,” Boorstin says.
Amid the unsettling experience of living under a “stay at home” order, there have been bonding opportunities. A number of senior executives mentioned having a protocol of asking staffers to check in on a personal note before getting down to business. “It’s a different way of keeping in touch. It’s worked really well for us,” says Klein. “I think it’s something we’ll carry on.”
Hernan Lopez, founder-CEO of podcast network Wondery, has tried to keep a close eye on employee morale at his startup that has caught the wave of the podcasting boom. He set up a company playlist on Spotify for staffer-suggested tunes, including Lizzo’s “Good as Hell” and Gloria Gaynor’s disco classic “I Will Survive.” The CEO’s contribution: “For Now” from “Avenue Q.”
“I think the key is in communicating daily, striking the right balance between realism and optimism,” he says.
Vice Media Group has tried to assuage employee anxiety by hosting “ask me anything” sessions with an infectious disease crisis expert, for employees on a global work-from-home status. Vice’s newly acquired Refinery29 set up a standing Thursday 5 p.m. date for a “movie club” viewing party of a female-led film. First up was the 2000 version of “Charlie’s Angels,” followed by “The Craft,” then “First Wives Club.”
|CNBC correspondent Julia Boorstin assembled a home studio to stay on the air amid the work-from-home mandate.
Courtesy of Julia Boorstin
Working remotely is hardly an unfamiliar situation for a digital media firm like Vice. But the mandated separation still takes getting used to.
Vice staffers threw a virtual going-away party for one departing co-worker, and one of the commercial teams in North America one morning all showed up on a video call wearing costumes. “We’re trying to foster a meaningful, inclusive and, dare I say, even fun WFH culture,” says Cory Haik, Vice’s chief digital officer.
For some, the sudden change in daily routine has made them feel slightly off-kilter.
“Since I was 22 years old I’ve been getting up in the morning and driving a considerable distance to the office,” says Chris Ender, executive VP of communications for CBS. “I don’t have that commute anymore. Your rhythms are off.”
Ender’s Santa Clarita home is almost becoming WeWork territory as it now hums at all hours with the daily activity of his wife, former “Entertainment Tonight” producer Laurie Ender, three adult sons, two daughters-in-law and three dogs. “We’re all trying to juggle around each other’s space, and mostly keep the dogs quiet,” he says.
At the same time, the veteran CBS employee definitely misses the atmosphere of CBS Studio Center in Studio City, the storied lot that was home to “Gunsmoke,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and many other TV classics.
“The lot is this huge, living, breathing community unto its own,” Ender observes. “The trucks come in the morning, and there’s the broadcast center and the newsroom. It’s a vibrant, active lot. You miss that sense of having the entertainment community around you.”
Disney’s Klein is like many in the business who have abruptly turned the kitchen into a conference room at the same time that a spouse is doing the same thing. Her husband, 20th Century Fox TV business operations president Howard Kurtzman, has taken to using the baby room they recently set up for visits from their granddaughter.
The pair have heeded the advice of experts to keep to a familiar schedule even while working at home by continuing the tradition of taking an early walk with their two dogs in their Santa Monica neighborhood. Usually, there’s a bit of tugging along for the older pup to keep them on schedule to get to the office. But not these days. “We’re taking our time,” she says. “We get home when we get home.”
Another firm rule for Klein: “I’ve learned not to turn on CNN until I’ve had a glass of wine, and I don’t have a glass of wine until it’s dark.”
Guru Gowrappan, CEO of Verizon Media, is practicing mini-meditations and exercise regimens throughout the day at his home in New York. “One of the benefits of working from home is I can make effective use of small pockets of time,” Gowrappan says. He’s also setting aside time to do pushups and squats throughout the day: “Depending on how long we work from home, who knows how high my target number can go,” he says.
More than a few industry insiders have been caught in an awkward transit limbo by the widespread lockdowns and warnings about the need for social distancing to save lives and slow the rate of infection.
Jordan Levin, the newly named G.M. of WarnerMedia’s Rooster Teeth division, had been in the process of traveling between Los Angeles and Rooster Teeth’s headquarters in Austin, Texas. But with the coronavirus outbreak, he’s been grounded in Texas for nearly a month. He’s living (and working) at his sister-in-law’s house along with one of his kids, a student at the University of Texas at Austin.
The coronavirus warnings had just started building when Michael Chabon, screenwriter and showrunner of CBS All Access drama “Star Trek: Picard,” opened offices near Venice Beach for his new Showtime series based on his novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which he’s co-showrunning with his wife, author Ayelet Waldman.
The couple headed north to their home in Berkeley for what they thought would be a quick visit with their son on a break from boarding school.
“He’d been home for like a day or two when his school closed and all schools closed, and now we’re under sheltering-in-place here in Berkeley,” Chabon says.
The pair have made the most of their togetherness on a professional level. “We have figured out two seasons of ‘Kavalier & Clay,’” he says. “But our [production] timeline has definitely become thrown into great chaos and disarray.”
The temporary limitations on life as we knew it just weeks ago have only heightened the appreciation of many housebound workers for those who don’t have the luxury of working where they live.
“I am so incredibly grateful to have the resources and technology to be able to broadcast from home,” Boorstin says. “There are so many journalists who are out on the front lines telling important stories, and so many doctors, nurses and scientists who are putting their own health at risk to do their jobs and help people.”
Klein echoes Boorstin’s sentiment, calling herself “incredibly blessed” at a time when a pandemic threatens millions of lives. She sees it as an important wakeup call for a hurting world.
“Maybe this is sort of a worldwide pause to say: Let’s be more conscious of our own health and the people around us,” she says.
Todd Spangler and Adam B. Vary contributed to this report.