Working from Home Woes: Indian-American Women Reflect

It is an understatement to say that the coronavirus pandemic has upended the life we once knew. Since March, the health hazard has abruptly changed not just the way we work, but the way we play, party and ponder as well. Video and FaceTime calls are de rigueur, as social distancing mandates have led to a more virtual existence, both personally and professionally, including being relegated to working from home.

Kids are at home, studying virtually, while parents are juggling with their own work – and all the other stuff a life in quarantine has been throwing at them. From assisting kids in their virtual classes to fixing computer glitches; from being their play date to fixing them a quick snack or a gourmet meal, parents have been performing multiple roles for the last eight months and counting.

It is no surprise that the biggest burden falls on women. Although the pandemic has posed challenges to people of all ages, several studies suggest that women have been bearing the brunt of it.

The Brookings Institute says that “COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up.”

Of course, the disruptions to daycare centers, schools, and after school programs have been hard on working fathers, but a July 2020 Women In Academia report reveals that “working mothers have taken on more of the resulting childcare responsibilities, and are more frequently reducing their hours or leaving their jobs entirely in response.”

Despite the challenges, several women have chosen to look at the positives: a slower pace of life, more family time, more time to enjoy the outdoors, so on and so forth.

Given the unprecedented times, SEEMA asked a cross-section of Indian American women the ways they are coping with the new “normal.” Are they burned out, tired and stressed? Or are they hopeful and determined and thankful for a job, family and friends and roof under their head and food to eat? Here’s what they had to say.

Falguni Shah, Grammy-nominated musician

Since COVID-19 hit, musicians have lost a lot of work and I myself had 30 shows canceled this year. To survive the pandemic, I had to learn to create online shows and work virtually with other musicians. I started teaching online through my Carnegie Hall portal. I taught myself recording programs like Pro Tools and Logic Pro to keep recording and creating new musical content. I also made a nice room in my house to do live music virtually and painted my own walls to make it pretty so I learned some cool techniques on YouTube on how to paint a wall in your house and studio. I bought recording gear and created a home studio. One major setback is that as a band we cannot play in one room together. That is really heartbreaking. We have to now either do shows alone or with people who are local and can come over with a mask, keep social distancing in mind and then do some performances but music is such that a soul sings and a soul hears so without more souls in the room it is hard to sing for yourself. But I have learned to become my own audience.

Amanda Sodhi, content writer, social media consultant and voiceover artist

I’ve been freelancing as a content writer, social media consultant and voiceover artist for several years, so I anyhow work-from-home / telecommute. However, I was used to traveling to different cities throughout the year. Initially, it was suffocating to be stuck working out of my living room, since cafes were shut down for quite a while. In between, a cyclone hit West Bengal, which threw me off quite a bit mentally and emotionally. Work was impacted due to network issues at that time. Thankfully, most of my clients were supportive.

I am very grateful I was able to spend about 50 days in Kashmir, recently. While it might not be the smartest idea to travel during a pandemic, it was a calculated risk I was willing to take that went well. I continued to telecommute there, explored the gorgeous and misunderstood land and also conducted writing workshops on-ground.

 

That brings me to the next part – adapting to the new normal. I’ve been running a tiny startup called Pen Paper Dreams for the past few years, which promotes healing through creative self-expression – primarily writing-related workshops. Pre-pandemic, all of our workshops happened offline. I looked at the pandemic as a golden opportunity to take my workshops online to cater to a much wider audience since people are now open-minded about Zoom-based activities. As a result, I have been able to draw participants for my workshops from across India (even a few people from outside of India), create new workshop topics to cater to a growing demand and even launch the first of its kind online Interactive Reading Group in the nation (we are entering into our eighth edition in December).

I also pick up various creative projects from time-to-time, including modeling assignments, theater gigs and music-related assignments. That, obviously, has slowed down quite a bit. Although, I did collaborate on a virtual shoot with a photographer from another city who found me on Instagram, and later did an actual on-ground shoot with a group of friends in Kolkata during the pandemic (We felt it was high time to get back to what we enjoyed doing, with safety measures in place, of course, as much as possible).

Chitra Divakaruni, author

As a professor, writer and speaker, my life has been impacted quite a bit by COVID. For one thing, I have had to move all my teaching online: lectures, exams and student conferences are all being conducted via Zoom and Microsoft Teams at the University of Houston, where I teach. This has been quite challenging as not all students are comfortable with online teaching. I, too, had never taught online before, so I had a steep learning curve. However, after several months, we have all become used to this new format.

As a writer, my work has not been impacted too much, except for research. I cannot get books as easily, or do in-person research in the library or on location. Most importantly, I cannot travel to India to do research as needed for my books. As a speaker, I often gave talks on my books at schools, universities and festivals, but with COVID, these have been cut down. I am doing some events over the internet, but the impact and the audience interaction is just not the same. However, overall I am very grateful that I am still able to work, and do it safely, because many people I know have been laid off or have been infected by COVID.

Anju Kalra, photographer

I am a professional photographer, and the pandemic has been very difficult for people in my profession. Events and celebrations have been canceled, so the need for photography has diminished a lot. However, the positive side was that in many families, members were together at home most of the time. This is an unusual scenario because normally someone or the other is away at college/school or work, and weekends are packed. This created a lot of demand for family portraits. Since the weather was conducive we could do many sessions outdoors. As far as adapting and making changes to my work habits is concerned, I have been pushing a lot more of these outdoor mini portrait sessions and targeting any small events that have been held outside.

Kesha Ram, Vermont state senator

Like many Americans, my focus is on those most affected by the pandemic and supporting their recovery and resilience. Both of my grandparents tested positive for COVID-19 and my grandmother was hospitalized five times due to COVID complications. We are approaching the holiday season, when some will feel the painful loss of a loved one who is no longer with us, or the sting of isolation from spending the holidays alone.

Since March, my campaign has been focused on those being left behind in the pandemic recovery. Even in Vermont, a predominantly white state, Black and Brown Vermonters are deeply disproportionately affected in terms of COVID infection rates and economic impact. New Americans are struggling to access resources and information in their own language. When I take a seat in the state senate as the first woman of color in Vermont history, I will continue to do what I have done throughout the campaign and for much of my life – uplift the voices of the unheard.

Sujata Day, actor, writer, producer and director  

(https://www.instagram.com/sujataday/?hl=en)

As a writer, nothing much has changed for me. I wrote a pilot script and my second feature film during the quarantine. Meetings and pitches have moved to Zoom and I prefer it to getting ready, driving to an office, finding parking, and sitting in the waiting area.

As an actor, the “new” normal is weird. I’ve been in Zoom producer casting sessions where all the producers have their videos off, with sound muted and you are expected to give your best performance.

Voiceover auditions are busier than ever. The industry has pivoted to what is safest to produce now and animation production is booming. Of the few productions that are shooting, most of them are getting shut down due to COVID-positive tests among the cast and crew.

As a filmmaker, I premiered my first feature film, “Definition Please,” on the virtual film festival circuit. I miss the excitement of traveling to film festivals and watching my film on the big screen with an audience. Our team has adapted by participating in a lot of virtual panels and podcasts.

I’ve taken this time in quarantine to watch films and TV shows that always come up in meetings and conversations, that I’d never seen before. I watched classics on Kanopy and Criterion – like “Sisters,” “Citizen Kane,” and “400 Blows.” I started and finished “The Wire,” “Sopranos,” and “Twin Peaks.” All incredible and inspiring. I am lucky because watching movies and TV qualifies as research for “work.” I’m putting myself through my own version of quarantine film school and learning from the legends.

The changes are happening around me. As an actor, I cannot really work. COVID has killed independent productions, which cannot afford the costly implementation of safety measures.

I write when I’m inspired and feel driven to write. I still make my pot of chai in the morning and drink it throughout the day, as I’m writing, watching and reading. I have more time to read books through the public library’s Libby app. I take long hikes around my hilly block, which I never did before. I make sure to get enough sleep and I am eating better, doing a lot more cooking at home. All of these habits allow my work productivity to flourish. In the meantime, I am fleshing out a couple pitches and outlines for my next scripts, prepping for post-COVID when all the projects can go straight into production.

Maneet Chauhan, chef, entrepreneur and television personality and author of newly-released cookbook “Chaat”

At our four restaurants, one of the most frustrating parts of the “new normal” has been how unexpected each and every day is. You can plan something in the morning and by evening, everything is completely different. But, there has been a lot of creativity, so we can come back stronger. You see the hospitality industry rallying together in an effort to make sure everyone’s entire team is taken care of. That is one of the cornerstones of the hospitality industry. It is all about nourishing — not only your stomach, but also your soul.

On a personal note, since my usually crazy travel schedule has lessened, I’ve had extra time to get in touch with my husband Vivek’s and my families in India to gather authentic recipes that I am using to put together a cookbook to pass down to my children when they are older. I have been making recipes like my grandmother’s mango achar (an Indian mango pickle) and milk chicken (a chicken and potato dish with Indo-Chinese flavors), my mother-in-law’s almond sherbet and my aunt’s Indian fudge for my family each week. All these recipes are nostalgic and hold special memories for us, so I loved having the time to document them and prepare them for our kids.

Rennu Dhillon, founder, Genius Kids Inc., and Genius Kids Development; founder of Win With Words; author, motivational speaker and radio host

As a business entrepreneur who has been self-employed since the age of 24, writing business plans and projections was something I did in my sleep. In the last 34 years, after being involved in 200+ franchise restaurants, operating a successful dating and matrimonial service as well as a world-renowned private recruiting company in the Bay Area, finding my niche in child care, to establishing a well-known franchise brand, never once did the concept of “a pandemic” come on my list of possible risks in owning a business. It has been a roller-coaster ride for the past nine months. March 16, 2020, when we were informed of “shelter-in-place,” immediately everyone, including our families and our franchisees assumed a two- to four-week possible shutdown. Never did we imagine that this would drag out through 2020 and now into 2021.

Adapting to the new norm has been beyond challenging to say the least. The child care business has been impacted severely with all the extensive and extremely confusing media coverage. They started by saying COVID-19 only affected the elderly and the most susceptible and then suddenly transformed into possibly the Kawasaki disease in children. Now we know that the virus spares no one.

The impact to the child care industry with the lack of support from local and national agencies, and a PPP fund to barely last eight weeks, impinging extensive supplies and additional restrictions to the number of children we can have in a classroom, can only result in substantial losses. It does not matter how hard you try; the bottom line remains red.

For customer confidence we immediately implemented all the necessary requirements to operate the day cares safely, ensuring our families and staff could return to school comfortably. The entire flow of how a child spends their day now includes regular temperature monitoring and documentation, among other precautions. Even our 2-year-olds know the routine where they immediately stop at the front table, holding their little chins up for a temperature check, waiting for their backpacks and shoes to be disinfected. The little cute faces are now hidden behind masks and the loving bear hugs with their teacher has become high-fives in the air.

The constant reminders, “share with your friends” or “sit down next to your friend,” are phrases we cannot even use. Instead these have been replaced with the 30-minute reminder to wash our hands with soap and water and keep those masks on.

I spend umpteen hours re-writing the curriculum to be delivered virtually in an engaging and interactive manner so our students who are confined at home can continue to develop their important learning and cognitive skills, and, most importantly, socialize with their friends and others beyond the confined walls of their home.

The students who do come in physically share their sadness for not being able to see their friends and play with them. As the CEO and a minority woman, I stay afloat determined to ensure that my staff who have been committed to their careers, remain employed. I will probably not see a pay check for at least another 12-18 months but if I can be part of the “essential services,” where I can offer quality care to the essential workers who risk their lives every day, then it is worth every penny lost.

Sometimes making these sacrifices become extremely valuable and I strongly believe every sacrifice has a reward. It is easier to give up and walk away than to stay on the battlefield until the end. I have decided not to wait for the light at the end of the tunnel but to simply light it myself.

Sarina Jain, founder, Masala Bhangra Workout

Being in the fitness industry for nearly 30 years and celebrating 20 years of Masala Bhangra this year, I can tell you that I have never seen this level of change before in my entrepreneurial life. I have had to adapt to this new norm by bringing all of our fitness classes virtually.

We offer classes virtually via video conference (i.e., Zoom) and social media. These classes have been better than I expected and very well attended. I have instructors from around the world teaching virtually. Also, we now offer Masala Bhangra Virtual Gym, where we let our students know that they can take more than one class with us. Because of this pandemic, I will say that it forced me to work quickly to get my instructor training done to offer it virtually. This was probably the best thing that happened. I can now train virtually anyone who wants to learn how to teach Masala Bhangra. It’s been a fantastic experience, and I am learning to become an expert in this new way of life.

Also, being in the fitness world, I have adapted to intermittent fasting, which I have been following since March of this year. I cannot exercise as much as I used to, so I have had to change my diet to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Staying fit allows me to motivate my students best and act as a positive role model. Offering virtual Masala Bhangra classes has helped many people stay mentally healthy and has helped students from outside of NYC attend our classes. I also had the opportunity to grow Masala Bhangra with a new, dynamic community of people that had not been done previously. Doing virtual classes together has kept us connected and in a youthful mindset.

With all the horrific things happening globally, I believe Masala Bhangra offers a pathway to health, a dose of fun, and unity.

Aditi Pal Karandikar, marketing leader at a tech startup in Silicon Valley

First off, I am grateful to still have a job while many have lost theirs. Also, I must acknowledge my privilege in being able to work from home as a marketing leader with a hi-tech startup in Silicon Valley. Even in the IT sector and although I work with geographically distributed teams, there have been many layoffs so job insecurity combined with lack of FaceTime has led to much uncertainty. This initially manifested in multiple mandatory daily stand-up meetings with teams, executives wanting to FaceTime employees and many 1:1s over Zoom. But gradually the realization has dawned that deadlines and deliverables are what matter and people have learned to relax and trust in their colleagues.

Gym breaks at lunch being a thing of the past, my health routine has evolved. As a couple we manage to fit in a brisk walk around our respective meetings schedule. I have set up a standing desk (at the kitchen counter guarding the junk in the fridge from the teen) as well as a bike work station for rainy days. Trying to eat healthy is still a struggle.

As an Indian woman the brunt of the housework does also fall on me. Like, making sure meals are ready in a timely fashion, like when the kid has lunch break or between meetings for the hubby and myself. This has led to meal-planning becoming a science. But I am cooking more on a daily basis as opposed to my weekend marathons of the pre-COVID era. I like to think I have reclaimed my weekends. And my mornings. I definitely do not miss my 5 a.m. alarm and the bumper-to-bumper Bay Area commute! I am also thankful my kids are older and that I do not need to supervise the young ones on distance learning.

Anu Ghosh, special education elementary teacher

Turkey day is almost around the corner. The Christmas lights are glinting….Yes, I am that crazy person that uses Thanksgiving as a blip in the road to Christmas joy. And here we still are virtual.

If anyone had asked me how long I thought our virtual life would last, I would have said three months at best. But nine months later, the novelty has worn off and the frustration has set in. As a special education teacher, every morning as I greet my class of five sweet boys. I see their frustration. It is palpable. The tantrums are starting. Cameras are being turned off more and more and kids are walking away, letting me know that their day is done and, hopefully, the year.

Their parents, who are stretched thin between juggling careers and demanding children, cannot wait for the kids to return to school. They have picketed the Board of Education, taken to the streets, and hit social media hard. But as the numbers of the infected rise, schools remain shut and we remain virtual.

As a teacher, I am getting more and more dejected. I feel my ability to do my job well and teach and support these children is waning. I, too, am frustrated. Living with daily headaches and eye strain is hard. I hate that I cannot hug these children, when on some days I know that is all they need. And yet, the rising numbers scare me and I am glad we are all home and healthy. Being torn like this makes me feel like I am a horrible teacher.

Yet somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I know this is the right thing to do. As for my own children, they too are tired of the social isolation and the long hours in front of Zoom. They want to walk the halls of school and hug their friends. They want to whisper and giggle, heads close together and eat lunch not virtually (as these creative kids have been doing), but sitting side by side in the cafeteria. I tell them as I tell my class and myself, “Be patient, this too shall pass.” And with Thankgiving almost upon us, let us be grateful for good health and friends and family….even if they are virtual.

Zarna Garg, stand-up comedian

I’m a stand-up comedian. A performer who needs an audience that I can look in the eye and connect with. Until March, I was walking a pretty established path, working the NYC comedy clubs, producing my own shows, applying for festivals. When COVID hit, I watched all my live shows get canceled one by one. My heart sank deeper and deeper with each email and phone call.

I knew my audience still existed. They were just locked in their homes but they definitely needed a laugh more than ever. So I pivoted my strategy and I soon started booking online shows across the country, across time zones, and across the world. I found a closeness and connection in my online shows, booked by old and new fans in India, as each one brought friends, co-workers, and family closer together even though they were apart.

When the New York City restrictions eased, I started producing free outdoor comedy shows in Central Park, each attended by more than a hundred (masked and socially distanced) audience members. And now that the weather is getting cold again, I recently signed up with the number one online entertainment platform, Geniecast, a home for world-class virtual events.

I am fortunate to still be working full-time. A lot of my comedian friends cannot say the same. But make no mistake, online comedy is even more demanding than club comedy. In a club, you walk into a room that’s buzzing with excitement and anticipation, where a single joke can blow the roof off the place! On Zoom, it’s much harder to cultivate that sense of shared experience. It’s your job to keep their attention–and you really have to work for it!

In case you’re wondering, yes, hecklers still exist on Zoom! Even before the COVID outbreak, live online entertainment was a looming future reality all performers were going to have to grapple with. But I have found online performing has a whole new range of rewards that can be just as fulfilling – and sometimes more so – than a performance in person. There are many lessons to be learned during this crisis and I am keeping an open heart and mind so I can receive them all.

Prarthana Joshi, independent filmmaker

Working on film sets has been a very different experience indeed. After the lockdown happened, the entertainment industry was completely shut down. The unions and other entertainment bodies took it upon themselves to come up with solutions to restart the productions. Until they came up with these new rules, mostly everyone was at home.

Then the new rules became the norm. One by one productions started going back in. I worked on a feature film in September that was done with all these safety considerations. All the cast and crew tested for COVID twice before the actual shoot in Barstow. We all went and lived in a bubble in one hotel. We drove to the shoot location in the morning and then came back straight to the room.

On every film set they now have cast and crew members in different zones. People in zone A have more risk of exposure, those in B have less, and those in C even lesser. I was in zone B. Cast and crew members in Zone A were tested two to three times a week, those in B once a week. Even though we were all isolated, and getting tested, we all were wearing masks for outdoor shoots, and masks with shields indoors. We would get temperature checks every morning and then throughout the day. We were separated by zones for bathrooms, lunches, and had separated snack stations as well. This was all supervised by the COVID safety officer that is now required by the union. The officer also made sure that every department was regularly sanitizing their stations, gear, tents, and so on.

When you meet new people you barely see their faces on the film set now, other than actors of course. I am not sure if without their masks I will be able to recognize a lot of crew members that I worked 12 hours every day for a month. We had to maintain 6 feet distance at all times. I also realized that people did not interact as much because of this. The physical distance makes you more distant and aloof. I hope this changes in the days to come and we are able to adapt to the new situation. I have worked on several shorter projects since then and I feel this has certainly impacted team building and the collaborative spirit. I do feel we will figure out a way to adapt but it is certainly an issue.

Diana Rohini LaVigne, chief communications officer at a government health department and a California naturalist

Since my work revolves around residents’ health and wellness, changes to my work started in the first few weeks of 2020. The new normal was operating under a high-stress, fast-moving, high-stake environment while navigating the new normals in my home life, including distance learning for two kids under 10. The physical toll was significant, but the emotional toll was beyond my wildest imagination.

I have made two significant changes in my work habits to support my success. Historically, I felt my communications team could not be highly productive unless in the office. I was wrong. To protect my staff, we decided to try working from home early on, and we found effective ways to work as a team remotely successfully. Secondly, I started to look at my work more as a marathon and less as a race. I began to prioritize time for self-care like eating right, getting a daily dose of nature, meditating, and sleeping enough. Prioritizing this has made me a better leader at work, a better mother and wife at home, and a better person to myself. As natural caretakers, I think most women leave their care for last. While I struggle to prioritize my self-care on occasion, I am deeply committed to my self-care these days.

Sonia Banota, realtor

My year started with a canceled contract days before the transaction was going to close, and I thought that was a bad omen for prospects for 2020. Little did I know there were bigger events in store. COVID came along just when the spring markets usually took off. But instead of the frantic listing activity that we can usually rely on as real estate agents, the lockdown in New Jersey ensured real estate was at its slowest ever. I was worried about whether I would achieve all the targets that I had set for my business this year, or if 2020 was just going to be a write-off. I used my lockdown stay-at-home days to catch up with my past clients and refresh old relationships, trying to make the most of the situation handed to me.

But just as suddenly as things had come to a grinding halt, once the initial New Jersey lockdown was lifted, we were faced with pent-up demand in the market that we had not seen in a while. Summer of 2020 turned out to be like no other, where demand was high for suburban homes. Buyers were looking to move out of apartments in and around dense cities and move to more open suburban areas.

Interest rates kept dropping, fueling the demand. I was swamped with new clients and new deals. I had to be careful, keeping my family in mind, if I was meeting so many people in the midst of this pandemic. I took the best precautions I could and had a COVID test prescription from my doctor at hand at all times. I got creative with virtual buyer consultations and virtual showings of homes using the latest technology tools available, like 3D tours.

I got more comfortable shooting video tours and sending them to my clients. Buyers would only physically come to see homes once they were sure they wanted to buy it. There were some cases where I handled offers site unseen! It was a crazy time. High demand and low supply were fueling higher and higher prices. I told all my prospective seller clients to cash in. Sales were going through faster than I imagined. In retrospect, 2020 turned out to be a better year than expected for the real estate business in the New Jersey suburbs inspite of COVID-19!

Ayesha Hakki, founder, Events by Ayesha, and publisher, Bibi Magazine

Ahh, the Great Pandemic. Yes, 2020 has been quite a life-changing year especially for an event planner and bridal magazine publisher like me. My businesses literally lost 80% of their revenue overnight. Yes, for a minute, I went into pure panic mode, lying awake at night in a cold sweat wondering how am I going to survive this.

Now, taking a step back and adjusting to the “new” normal, I realize that I could look at this time as a loss, or look at it (again) as a gain. What has happened has happened; I am making a conscious choice to use this time wisely and to not beat myself up over being less of a workaholic. I recognize that this time is special. I have used my down time to earn a few professional certificates, including one in contract law from Harvard X.

I literally went through all of my belongings and decluttered and organized my “stuff.” I am taking the time to reimagine and market my businesses so they are ready for the future normal. More importantly, I am taking time for me: to paint, garden, read, nap, try new recipes, sit in the sun, relax, slow down and really enjoy the small things in life I am usually too busy for. I have created more meaningful connections with my friends, and I make it a point to video-call my mother every single day.

It is not always easy to navigate through this strange time. I miss hosting dinner parties at my home, I miss planning a gorgeous wedding or cool party, I miss traveling and I miss social interaction. I hate wearing a mask, and I hate having to sanitize every single item that comes into my home. In the end, I am trying to remain grateful and positive while waiting to emerge from this pandemic well positioned and ready to get back to life, healthy (hopefully) and with a few new life lessons tucked under my belt.

Neha Mahajan, radio jockey, Radio Mirchi, US

Dolly Parton, the American singer-songwriter, said “If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.” That’s how I see 2020, an opportunity in disguise.

Instead of lights, camera, action, a radio jockey’s life is more about entering the studio, checking the switchboard or the console and pushing the on-air button, something I did every morning leading up to March 23 2020. That was the first time ever I broadcast my show from home. Never before had I heard of an at-home radio station. It seemed impossible.

As a team, we explored how to recreate the same studio level quality from home, running multiple test-runs before finally succeeding. These past 8 months of working from home have felt like a fever dream. In-studio I’d be in my zone, talking my heart out, blasting music, and dancing to the tunes. At home, these things are just not possible. Blasting music and talking my heart out would wake everyone up, and dancing would make me look crazy. What is worse is that the landscaper shows up every week for every adjoining house around our property to mow the lawn. The garbage truck crosses my street at the worst moments – when I am recording a piece and struggling against delay.

There are days when I have woken up the tech team and programming head at 5 a.m. because of a technical error, only to realize it was because the editing software was accidentally on mute. I’m LIVE on the show everyday between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m., and record for five minutes before you hear me on air.

There have been times when a family member has walked in while I am recording a client interview or recording a caller interaction! Over time, they have adapted for me, and I for them. It’s just like they say, “the show must go on!” Mirchi Mornings has been going on every single day, no matter the obstacles it’s had to jump through.

Sadaf Jaffer, mayor, Montgomery Township, New Jersey

As mayor of my town, the COVID-19 crisis changed almost everything about my work.

I had to prioritize the best way to protect the community from the virus by participating in many virtual meetings And calls with elected officials and administrators at all levels of government. I also helped develop a crisis communications plan for the township to ensure that residents had the information they needed to stay safe and healthy. In my public presence, I tried to exude a sense of normalcy and consistency through live meetings and videos. As mayor, I continued to work on infrastructure projects like participating in a groundbreaking for Montgomery Township’s new library and municipal center.

Though it has been a tough year, women professionals have done an excellent job adapting to the needs of the hour. My thanks to all the women out there for their hard work!

Parul Patel, entrepreneur

I took over operation of my family business, a historic corner store called Gem Spa located in the heart of the East Village in early 2019 when my dad fell ill.

Due to COVID-19, we closed the physical store in early May and shifted to a completely online business model. Since then we have expanded our product offerings online and our business has done really well. While my work habits are pretty much the same, working from home has allowed me to have a better work/life balance and spend more time with my family. This has certainly been a difficult time for everyone but there are some positive things that have come of it and for that I am grateful.

Annapurna Pandey, professor, cultural anthropology, at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Since the pandemic struck in March, 2020, the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I teach, declared that all classes will be online starting from spring. Like millions of people all around the world, the lives of students all over the U.S. has changed overnight. This is the third quarter (Spring, Summer and Fall, 2020) we have been teaching on Zoom and we still do not know when it will end. Just before the Spring quarter started on April 1, the faculty got an official notice that we have to switch to fully online classes without being equipped with any expertise or resources.

How have I survived? What have I learned? How have I incorporated a sense of community and care into my teaching? How have I learned to be flexible? Most important of all, how have I adjusted to this new use of digital space without face-to-face interaction between me and my students?

On the first day of class I was surprised to see the students’ names and in some cases a photograph on my laptop screen in small square boxes. The names have become my audience to give a lecture to, to involve them in discussion and get their feedback. As an anthropologist and being a people’s person, I feel alive and animated in the presence of my students. I get excited and so carried away that my whole class room becomes a theater. In my own usual cheerful way, I say, “Hello, good morning! Is anybody there?’ Then I see the chat box is active. I opened it. Slowly one after the other pop up – “Fine, thank you,” right under their names.

 My aim has been to build up a relationship with my students and give them a positive experience of learning from the teacher as well as from one another in introducing them to another culture so that they can relate to themselves and their culture more intimately. My physical presence and interaction with my students make that possible. With COVID, my physical connection with my students is broken. What I miss the most is to be with the physical bodies in a classroom space.

The classroom is no longer what it used to be. The laptop screen has presented them with a platform to articulate their own frustrations, adjustments, especially personal and family tragedies anonymously. Teaching online, I realize that students are freer to discuss their personal situation with me as they could not do in front of their peers in the class earlier.

For example, when I ask them to show their face on the Zoom video, many students privately say that they are not in a position to share their screen because they have no privacy as they have moved in with their families. It is humbling to hear their sincere apologies for things that are beyond their control. These experiences have helped me think differently about the sense of community in the online world.

For an instructor used to classroom interaction with students and sharing their experiences provided a sense of community which I took it for granted. In the present context, when social distancing has become the norm, self-alienation and isolation are creating new kinds of challenges. It has been a great learning experience for me to teach on Zoom. I have learned to have invigorating discussions and gain from the meaningful reflections shared by my students.

Tanya Deepesh, clinical project associate

I have adapted by making more FaceTime calls to my friends, spending more time with family, and pursuing hobbies that I did not focus on before. For example, I have been exercising more frequently by doing strength training, yoga, going on walks. I’ve also been able to create a platform for my interest in cooking and baking. I think all of this has definitely helped me cope with any COVID related stress.

I currently work in the clinical research industry. Ever since I’ve been remote, I think my productivity level has been the same. I cannot really compare to how it would be in the office because I started my current job during the pandemic. However, I notice that I take less breaks and am not able to make the same connections I did with my previous co workers when we were at the office.

My coworkers and I would usually go for lunch together and chat about our day but now I quickly throw some food together and eat it while I work. I have definitely tried to be more mindful of getting up in between tasks and getting some steps. I think the biggest change for me has been to check up on my coworkers by scheduling a few minutes every week to catch up instead of simply stopping by their cubicle.

Rimli Roy, Founder & Artistic Director, Surati for Performing Arts

Being the founder and artistic director of award-winning nonprofit Surati for Performing Arts, we have had to promptly adapt to a completely new system and approach. Since we produce large scale original staged shows and productions, concerts, events and programs, we have had to rethink all our programming ever since the lockdown started due to COVID. We have produced some small scale socially distanced in-person events successfully with support from our supporters, and also presented a series of online events. With online programming having a universal outreach we have changed our approach now for good.

We will be including an online component for all our future events and shows so that we can reach out to a wider audience outside a fixed geographical area.

Our classes, in person concerts and events have been hugely impacted by this pandemic. With some funding support, we have been able to continue our programs virtually, hut in a very limited capacity. The challenge has also been conducting dance and music classes online. Especially dance. At a time when parents are looking for in-person interaction with their children, especially because screen time has been at a peak for many, its indeed hard to gain momentum with online programming. However, a huge plus is that we have been able to reach audiences not only within the U.S but also outside with our online programs.

I have had to rethink presenting and producing performing arts and cultural festivals in a different way. Rehearsal space has become a challenge so I have had to restructure rehearsal space by converting some outdoor spaces to workable spaces however, with the winter, this has also been difficult. Currently we are working on a series of online concerts, documentary work, programs and educational projects. We are also working on some pre-recorded concert materials, In a way, it is probably going to be a good thing as we are adding a new medium to our work and exploring different ways of presenting. I have also been working on some online concerts, short / documentary films and music videos. I am currently in India, so dancing outdoors will probably be easier considering the weather.

Nidhi Khanna, Political and Advocacy Strategist

COVID-19 has proved to be a challenging time for individuals across the globe. For many people, it has drastically altered our work lives and for those of us that are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work from home, it can still be an adjustment months later. This year, I began working as a Census Manager for a community based organization that received a grant to help direct Census outreach efforts in Staten Island (one of the five boroughs of New York City).

Census data is used by the government to allocate the proper funding and resources to communities across the nation. My team and I devised a comprehensive outreach strategy to make sure folks would complete their Census questionnaire, but the pandemic forced all of those planning efforts to be completely halted.

As local officials were still deciding to implement mandatory stay at home orders in early March, I wanted to ensure that my staff in the field would be safe and our team needed to find creative ways to conduct outreach for this important decadal count. We immediately shifted to an all-virtual operation and relied on digital tools such as social media, YouTube videos, and even peer-to-peer texting applications to educate members of the community about the census.

My team members also created informative graphics, public service announcements, made thousands of calls, and organized virtual panel events with experts in multiple languages. Educating the community and encouraging people to complete their census was already a difficult task. Many people distrusted the government altogether and the misinformation about the census created hurdles. Nevertheless, we were still determined to exceed expectations.

As COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in early summer, we started producing new informational materials in the form of fliers, pens, and buttons and circulated them to restaurants that started offering delivery services to customers. Partnering with other organizations in the community was vital and thus allowed my team to provide informational materials at public distribution events for personal protective equipment or food.

Despite the pandemic, our organizing efforts contributed to the highest census self-response rate in the entire city at 66.1%, which outperformed many major cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston. The pandemic did make it harder for me to find a balance between work and my regular life – I needed to be available outside “traditional work hours” to be able to support my team and coordinate efforts with other partners working on this project.

Nevertheless, I believe this pandemic has changed the way people think about organizing in the issue advocacy or political world. The integration of digital tools in any outreach strategy is key even after we return to the “new normal” and can continue to do in-person outreach safely. Many of these digital tools were available in the past, but everyone was not actively using them or strategically incorporating them to the overall goals of their organizing operations.

This pandemic forced everyone at varying skill levels to leverage digital tools and to virtually meet people more frequently online. The online space can be used to serve the greater good. It is vital that we meet people where they are to effectively organize – now and in the future.

Ragini Jain, actress

As an actress living in NYC, going for auditions I was always on the go. It was a fast-paced life. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic my personal and work life drastically changed. Besides not being able to continue acting as film sets shut down temporarily, the office where I worked at a theater production company in NYC also shut down temporarily. I lived near Elmhurst Hospital, one of the worst hit areas in New York. Every 5 minutes I heard the sirens of the ambulances rushing to get someone. It was scary and very depressing. I temporarily moved to my parents’ home an hour away in upstate New York at the end of March.

After 2 weeks of being in quarantine, my life became very challenging. I was stuck at home with nowhere to go. The exciting thing to do was to go grocery shopping with my brother. Every other store was open only for a few hours or closed. I have not seen my friends in person for eight months. The only events I go to are Zoom events, which at least help me stay on top of the entertainment life. Since my office is still closed, I work on creative projects from home.

Reena Mishra, Senior Director of Marketing for SI-BONE

After eight months of working from home, I feel like I am finally settling into a new routine.

Professionally, COVID has presented several challenges for our business, as my company designs and manufactures surgical products for elective procedures. When elective procedures were halted and in-person access to our customers (spine surgeons, neurosurgeons and other healthcare providers) became increasingly difficult, we, like many others, were forced to find new ways to engage our customers and remain relevant.

The days became longer. Most days I did not even get out of my pajamas. Many days I hardly managed to get in a healthy meal. Eight months later and we’re still in this “new normal” working from home – but I have learned how to better manage my days to take care of both my physical and mental health. I am fortunate to live in California, where even winter weather is tolerable. So, at least three days a week, I take a 30-minute walk around the neighborhood – sometimes during meetings!

I do not turn on my video camera during a call if I need to eat (regardless of what time that might be) and my coworkers understand (they are probably doing the same thing). I have set a recurring block on my calendar from 4-5 p.m. each day so that I do not get booked for meetings past 4 p.m.

Perhaps the smallest but most significant lesson I have learned is to actually close my laptop when I am done working for the day. Like many other office dwellers, I do not have a dedicated space in my house to use as an office, so my dining table has assumed this role. It is easy to slip back online to just answer one more email or approve one more document when passing that brightly lit screen. When the laptop is closed, I do not even see the screen calling out to me. Instead, I use my evening hours to decompress from the day. I know these simple actions will help me get through, however long I have to continue working from home.

Amruta Kulkarni, Finance professional, Transformation at Walmart eCommerce

This pandemic has fortunately not been life changing. I have not lost anyone in the close family to the virus, my husband and I still have our jobs and can still work from home. However, life has indeed altered!

I am now full-time working from home or living at work. I need to sync up my husband’s work calendar with mine as our 3-year-old needs help while she is distance-learning so we cannot have meetings at the same time.

Being a full-time working mom of two, I used to get help with cleaning and meal prep, which I had to completely stop, thus putting a lot of additional work on my plate. We have resumed the cleaning services and have re-allocated household chores between my husband and me, so there is some relief. But between the two of us we are still doing five full-time jobs.

I am also worried about kids not being able to socialize with their friends and its long-term impact. The biggest drawback has been not being able to visit the parents in India. As taxing as it has been mentally and physically, there have been a lot of positives, too. I have been able to get back to dancing, learn new dishes, introduce kids to yoga (which has helped channel their energies), start biking again, eat a lot more home-cooked food, catch-up on reading, and, of course, binge-watch on Netflix. The biggest positive has been the veggie garden we created from scraps!

So overall I think that I as an individual, and we as a family have adapted pretty well to the “new” normal though I cannot wait for this pandemic to be over.

Pradnya Haldipur, vice president of development for Code.org 

working from homeEvery call starts with, “Please let me apologize in advance for barking dogs and interrupting children!”

My plea for understanding either elicits a shrug, a laugh, or a knowing, “Oh, me too!!” These are strange days in any line of work. Any veneer of formality or a business-like tone is long gone. We are all feeling a disruption of work-life balance and the anxiety of living through a global pandemic.

I am a professional non-profit fundraiser. Success is borne out of building strong and authentic relationships with donors. Typically, this has been done through face-to-face meetings, coffee or lunch, attendance at special events, and other meaningful engagements with the organization. We have always assumed that “in-person” is the most effective. So, imagine my surprise when connecting with donors, prospective donors, and colleagues became easier through technology.

Why? Perhaps because we have gained time in forgoing a commute. Maybe quarantine has made us more willing to engage beyond our four walls. Ultimately, I believe that shared vulnerability opens hearts and minds. When speaking to donors about our mission, I find that they are eager to look to a hopeful future.

Being more “human” together (oh, those dogs and kids!) makes for a more relaxed conversation. This understanding is the silver lining I hope to take away with me even when we can sit across from each other, coffee in hand.

Indira Mahajan, soprano and opera star

working from homeLife as a musician in the age of this pandemic has been incredibly challenging.

Most performing artists have lost their income almost entirely. Broadway theaters, opera houses, and orchestras have been closed. Theaters cannot operate safely during this time. The number of people required to keep a production running can be in the thousands. This includes musicians, stage management, crews, the staff managing costumes, wigs and make-up, and the audience members. The number of people involved is just far too great to maintain or guarantee safety.

Even opening to a smaller capacity would not generate enough revenue to pay for itself. It has been a financially devastating time for people in the arts.

In the meantime, artists have come up with many ways to express their creativity.

This year, I participated in my first virtual recording. This is an opportunity for many artists to come together and record from their own homes using iPhones, Zoom, tripods, stacking boxes, or whatever elseo is available, to collaborate with other musicians to create recordings and videos.

Many artists have also started podcasts. Music lessons, including my own and my daughter’s, are now virtual. Ironically, musicians have been able to reach a wider audience this way. Many previously recorded productions have been streaming online, giving far more people access to the theater from the comfort and safety of their own homes.

The pandemic may have slowed down life in the creative arts, but it has not stopped it completely.

If you’re looking to improve your ability as someone constantly working from home, check out these tips on how to do it strategically