Utahns adjust to life during coronavirus, turning parts of their homes into offices

(Photo courtesy of Brooke Hansen) In her home in Midvale, paralegal and law student Brooke Hansen shares her home office space with her son, Jack, 7, and daughter, Eden, 5, while following stay-home orders because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Before the coronavirus, this was Brooke Hansen’s routine: Get her children — Jack, 7, and Eden, 5 — off to school, work at her office job as a corporate paralegal, pick up the kids and come back to their Midvale home, make dinner, get the kids to bed, do her law school homework, get some sleep, and then do it all again.

Every other weekend, when the kids stay with their dad in Millcreek, Hansen would fly to Chicago, where she’s a first-year law student at Loyola University.

Now, with parts of Utah observing a stay-at-home order to stem the spread of COVID-19, Hansen’s home office also serves as Jack’s first-grade classroom, Eden’s preschool and the kids’ cafeteria. And, every other weekend, it’s where she sees her Loyola professors and classmates using a teleconferencing app.

Hansen is one of many Utahns adjusting to our new coronavirus-fueled reality: turning the dining table or a home desk into a makeshift office, messaging co-workers electronically instead of just walking over and talking to them.

Some are set up at the kitchen table. Some borrowed a second monitor from the office, while others make do on a laptop. The view can be of a backyard pond, the street out front, or the water heater in the basement. Children, cats and dogs are the new co-workers.

“The biggest adjustment is the lack of moving around,” said Stephanie Peterson, a technical writer for an energy company. “I am at my home computer for eight hours in the day, take a short hour or so break, and then come back to my computer for my [University of Utah] online classes.”

Peterson is weeks away from getting a bachelor’s degree in communication, completing a goal set when she returned to college two years ago after a 25-year break.

For Murray resident Kelsi McCabe, who works in internal communication at Zions Bank, setting up on a card table near her washing machine is a severe downgrade.

(Photo courtesy of Kelsi McCabe) In her home in Murray, Kelsi McCabe does her work in internal communications for Zions Bank from a card table, while following stay-home orders because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“At the office, my desk is able to raise up and down, so I was able to adjust it so I could have proper posture,” McCabe said. “I also had a decent ergonomic chair for back support. … I have to remind myself to sit up and stretch everything out.”

Paul White, a social psychologist who teaches at the University of Utah, has a nice basement office in a 101-year-old brick house a few blocks from Liberty Park. Then came the March 18 earthquake, and as a precaution White moved his computer to the dining table upstairs.

“I was sitting at my desk, doing some work,” White said, “and I could feel the ground — not shake, but roll under my feet.”

Bill Frost, who writes TV and web-related content for Clearlink (and TV criticism for SLUG magazine and X96’s “Radio From Hell” show), has a basement office in a 94-year-old bungalow in South Salt Lake.

(Photo courtesy of Bill Frost) In his basement office in his South Salt Lake home, writer Bill Frost creates content for TV and internet websites, while following stay-home orders because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The company, Frost said, “managed to get hundreds of people set up to work from home in a matter of days, [which was] pretty impressive.”

“I feel like I don’t have a routine yet — everything is in flux,” said Kirsten Johanna Allen, publisher and executive director of the nonprofit publishing house Torrey House Press, who’s working out of her home in Holladay, sharing her workspace with her cats.

Allen’s company has had to cancel many author events and put some book projects on hold because of the pandemic, she said. “My colleagues and I are still adapting and innovating ways to use story to connect people,” she said.

(Photo courtesy of Kirsten Johanna Allen) Kirsten Johanna Allen, publisher and executive director of Torrey House Press, shares her home workspace in Holladay with her cats.

Hannah Matthews’ new workspace looks out the front window from a home in Sugar House that her mom bought as an investment — and which Matthews shares with two siblings. Matthews is an account executive for the public-relations agency WE Codeword, and she said she communicates online with her co-workers from the Lehi office and from the company’s branches in Seattle, San Francisco and New York — all early hot spots for the virus.

Most of the people interviewed said they wish they could go back to seeing co-workers in person.

“I miss being able to yell over randomly to an employee,” Matthews said.

White agreed. “I miss getting in those random conversations with colleagues and students.”

White, who has taught courses online before, said, “It’s good to have discussions in class. The students respond differently, and having that response, in class and in real time, we can work off of that.”

(Photo courtesy of Paul White) On his dining table in Salt Lake City, social psychologist Paul White teaches his courses at the University of Utah online, while following stay-home orders because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the class he’s teaching now, a course in intergroup relations that focuses on prejudices and stereotypes, “if you had a student say the N-word in class — if that was to happen online, it would be a different interaction in [in person] if the students could respond right then and there.”

Allen said she misses “seeing folks in the homeless community near our downtown office. [I] hope they’re faring OK.”

Others miss their daily routines. For Hansen, it’s “picking up my daily iced coffee at Dunkin’.” For McCabe, it’s a breakfast sandwich from the Chick-fil-A in City Creek Center’s food court — “although my wallet doesn’t miss that part,” she added.

Something McCabe and others don’t miss: the commute.

Before, McCabe said, she would take TRAX from Murray into downtown Salt Lake City, a 30-minute trip. “Now that I’m at home, I’m able to log on earlier than I would at the office,” she said.

“I don’t miss driving at all,” Matthews said of her commute from Sugar House to Lehi.

Hansen — juggling between her job, her law studies and her children — said she misses the solitude of her drive.

“I didn’t value the precious alone time my commute gives me to unwind and transition from one responsibility into the next. … [Now,] I am home 24/7, and yet still have no time to watch ‘Tiger King,’” she said, referring to Netflix’s suddenly popular reality series.

The biggest adjustment in working from home, Hansen said, is the type of interruptions she handles.

“At the office, when you’re interrupted, it’s usually work-related and often you can remain at your desk to address the interruption,” she said. “At home, the interruptions pull you away from your desk because you need to prepare a snack, or fix the pop-up tent in the living room, or make lunch — or the kids need you to tell Netflix they’re still there, or you need to make sure their hands are actually washed. And you absolutely step on a few Legos on the way.”