Kenny Esser’s days basically are all the same.
He goes into the home office he established since he began his work-from-home protocols at about 6 a.m. — and he often doesn’t come out until 8 or 9 p.m.
Esser, the chief of staff and senior vice president for corporate services and governance for Hackensack Meridian Health, said the hours are easy to keep track of.
The days? That’s another thing.
“It used to be Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday,” he said. “Now, it’s yesterday, today and tomorrow.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way we work in many ways. And, while working-from-home rules are blending work life and home life like never before, they also are blurring the days on the calendar in a way never seen before.
Esser said the work is important — especially since it is in support of the thousands of front-line health care professionals at HMH who are facing the biggest challenge. The pandemic, he said, has changed everyone’s work schedule.
“A Tuesday morning is no different than a Saturday morning, now,” Esser said.
He may be right.
The cancellation of essentially all weekend activities — whether it be time at a sporting event with your kids, an evening out at a local restaurant or a trip to the Shore — has made all the days feel the same.
And that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Frank Ghinassi, the CEO of Rutgers Health University Behavioral Health Care, said weekends play a significant role in the way we organize our life.
“Most of us are accustomed to parceling out our expectations of rest, leisure and entertainment to the ‘week’s end,’” he said. “It’s common to reduce the burden of a hard work week by dividing the weekdays into parcels that get us psychologically closer to the weekend.
“Wednesday has become ‘over-the-hump’ day and Friday mornings have long been experienced as ‘we made it through’ a tough week even though, in point of fact, a full day of work lies ahead, no different than the workload of a Thursday.”
That’s all changed, Ghinassi said.
“The current situation has blurred and challenged these psychological partitions, leading to what feels more like an endless succession of ‘nows,’” he said.
Michelle Siekerka, the CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said she recognized this a few weeks back. That’s when she put in a rule with her staff: They must take time off.
“I think, as you get into a new norm, you have to create your own behaviors,” she said, “I told my own staff two weeks ago, ‘Don’t make me mandate that you take time off,’” she said.
“They would say: ‘Take time off? I’m home.’
“I said: ‘No. You have to shut it all down, take time with your family, read a book, go for a walk — you have to get off the grid.’”
And that can be during the normal workday, too.
“It’s OK to go for a walk in the middle of a beautiful day,” Siekerka said.
Therein lies another way our work body clock has changed. With kids home, employees go in and out of work during the day. It’s been a long time since 9-5 was the norm — that’s now completely changed.
We’ve seen that at ROI-NJ, as more people have asked to be interviewed first thing in morning (as early as 6 a.m.) or late at night (9 p.m.? Sure, I’m up). This column was written on Sunday — based on a number of interviews done this past weekend.
In the midst of all this, many are realizing the need to have a personal life is more important than ever.
Tara Dowdell, the head of the Tara Dowdell Group, a strategic communications and marketing agency, always has worked on weekends. But this is different, she said. Dowdell is making a point to add quality time with her husband in an increased effort to keep her work life and home life separate through this crisis.
“The truth is, my husband has always been better at maintaining a work-life balance,” she said. “I struggled with it before the pandemic.
“While it is still a work in progress for me, I try to be intentional about setting aside time for us. I actually started cooking, though he still does most of the cooking, and we eat together more consistently than before the pandemic. These are stressful times, so we make time to do things that make us laugh, like finding and watching hilarious videos online, playing funny jokes on each other and truly engaging our silly sides.”
Of course, taking time off from work for more together time isn’t possible when you live alone. The work-home blending has been especially challenging for single people. After all, the connection to the workplace is often the biggest social connection they have all day.
Ariel Rivera, a key figure in the communications team at the Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi law firm, said he sees the blurring in everything he does.
“Evenings that were once reserved for dinner with family and friends are now occupied with getting ahead of tomorrow’s to-do list in lieu of much else to do,” he said.
That being said, he feels his employer has helped bring him some of the social stimulus we all need.
“As the lines between work life and personal life get blurry, support and communication from your employer becomes critical,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have much of that from CSG, between our weekly firm-wide Zoom calls with firm leadership, where we’re constantly reminded to keep tabs on our mental, physical and emotional health.”
Things such as a firm-wide virtual happy hour to celebrate the firm’s five-year anniversary meant a lot.
“Despite the physical distance, I feel I’ve grown even closer to and that much more grateful for my ‘work family,’” he said.
Jim Kirkos, the CEO of the Greater Meadowlands Chamber, has seen that need for social interaction happen during the workday, too. And not necessarily among his employees. He said he finds Zoom calls with members are lasting much longer than the same phone call used to.
“I think people are just so happy to have that visual interaction that they don’t want to end the call,” he said.
In all of this, one other dichotomy remains: People are either busier than ever — or bored to tears. Depending on job, it could go either way.
Brian Gragnolati, the CEO of Atlantic Health, would be in the “busy” category. The very busy category. He hasn’t had a day off — and barely an hour off — since the pandemic took hold in the state. In a way, he’s glad for it. He’s seen the alternative.
“I look at the social media of a lot of my friends and now they’re watching all these shows and doing crossword puzzles,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, really?’ That’s not my world.”
Siekerka faces a different challenge. She’s busier than ever; her husband is not.
“Sometimes, he jokingly asks me at 6:30, ‘Can you come home from work now?’” she said. “And I have to consciously shut it off and make time for us.
“Though I sometimes go back to doing work later.”
Others just long for the days when “off the clock” truly meant “off the clock.”
Jeremey Neuer, a senior vice president at CBRE, said he knows the rules of social interaction have changed forever — but he still longs for the past.
“I know I’m crazy for saying this, but do you know what I really want?” he asked, then answered. “I want to be at Yankee Stadium, going crazy and high-fiving the person next to me — even if they are a total stranger.”
And not care what day of the week it is.