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Working from WeWork During a Pandemic

I sit here as the World Health Organization declared last night a global pandemic due to COVID-19, and all everyone can seem to think or talk about is how scary this virus is. Nearly universally, as universities and events were canceled this week, workers across America began to work from home.

Zoom Conferencing, global platform for video-conferencing, arguably, the company to have defined the video platform industry, is up on the stock market today, as a sign of the times:

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Everywhere I turn it seems people are freaking out: scared to ride the subway, travel is down, stocking up on supplies and food, and talking about working from home.

In a cafe that I went to yesterday — normally a quiet haven of distraction-free concentration — a woman sat with her laptop on video conference. “Is this working? Can you hear me? We’re all video conferencing, then!” she said in her slightly British accent. Amateur, I thought, as I put on my headphones so as to maintain some semblance of separation between me and the talk of the pandemic.

Although I couldn’t help but be struck by one obvious paradoxical fact: The cafe I was sitting in posed no less of a risk than a traditional workplace. In some regards, with that many people touching tables, touching counters, etc, there isn’t any reason to think that the virus won’t spread just as easily if we all work from public cafés.

Here at my WeWork office earlier this week, people were talking about adjusting to this ‘new normal.’

“I heard they aren’t testing here in New York,” I overhear someone say. “I heard they are but they don’t have enough test kits,” someone else responds. Mostly, it’s the fear of not knowing that seems to be the driving force of stress.

The small coffee shop where I get my coffee (not the café mentioned above) had a sign today that read: “Out of an abundance of caution due to COVID-19, we are not doing ‘bring your own’ container or using ceramic mugs for the time being. Thank you for understanding.” Of course, I think, the customer touches the reusable to-go cup (like those metal mugs people use to reduce waste), the barista touches the container, the virus spreads to the barista’s hands, they give it back to the customer and then go on to spread the virus to the next customer’s order, and the next.

And so the small modifications to our lifestyle and adjustment to this ‘new normal’ begin.

As I sit and write this from WeWork DUMBO (in Brooklyn) it strikes me how ironic it is that in fact, working from WeWork is probably rather safe right now. Why? Well, for one thing, there’s nobody here. Office after office has shut down, people are working from home. This place feels like a ghost town.

Furthermore, people who work at WeWork tend to be adult professionals who act in a highly professional way:

  1. Of course everybody washes their hands every time we come in or go out.
  2. I get to walk here, which helps me avoid the germ-infested subway system of New York City.
  3. The entryways have contactless scanners I don’t even need to touch my card to the turnstiles (I can just wave it over).
  4. I touch only the elevator buttons and can even do this with my elbow.
  5. I wash my hands immediately upon walking in
  6. Every surface is washed down, now (as I’m told by general announcement) multiple times a day.

Hospitals used to be a place where it was presumed that you would go to die as people generally went into hospitals and didn’t come out. Then doctors and nurses started washing their hands and people started coming home from the hospital.

(In 1846, Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor noticed something interesting about two wards: In the maternity ward run by students and doctors, women giving birth were more likely to develop a fever and die than the women in another maternity ward right next door that was run by midwives. He noticed that doctors and nurses often visited expecting mothers after performing an autopsy on a dead person. As a result, Semmelweis mandated handwashing with chlorine for doctors. Suddenly, new mothers stopped dying at the rates seen before.)

Today, doctors and nurses who work in hospitals will tell you that they wash their hands not to protect themselves from disease, but (largely) to protect their patients. The biggest risk is not from a doctor or nurse who is infected, but from passing germs from patient-to-patient as they make their “rounds.”

That’s why the medical profession has always said (and keeps saying): wash your hands!

The truth is, there’s a lot about COVID-19 that we still just don’t know. Panic is a manifestation of the threat to our egos. It’s a normal reaction, but the stress it causes is useless. Whether you are working from home, a café, or an abandoned (and probably septic) WeWork, there’s nothing to support the idea that just changing our work location, in fact, puts you in any less risk. Washing your hands, not touching things unnecessarily, avoiding travel, and keeping a strong immune system are probably the most effective things for you to put your energy into.

Honestly, for myself, I think the WeWork is the safest bet today.