Home Sweet Office
Professionals Share Their Insights on What Makes Working From Home Work
By Ilene Dube | Photography by Jeffrey E. Tryon and Charles R. Plohn
Zoom and other video chat services came along just in time for our work-from-home era. While many have called our electronic devices “home offices” for decades, attending meetings, in-person gatherings, and site visits without leaving home was the final frontier.
What will the post-pandemic future be for working from home? Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told The Wall Street Journal, “I don’t see any positives. Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative.” Others, including BlackRock CEO Larry Fink and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, according to LinkedIn News, say the adaptation has changed office space needs and will ultimately lead to less in-office staff. And according to surveys on Axios, fewer than 10 percent of Americans want to work remotely all the time.
Let’s talk about stress: Working from home reduces the stress of commuting and negotiating child care arrangements, while, at the same time, child care arrangements and being in the same room(s) with family members for extended periods of time has greatly increased stress.
Certainly, the hybrid model is here to stay. Princeton Magazine spoke to several area professionals, some of whom have had to change the way they work, others who are working the way they always have, and others who flex as needed.
Architect Leslie Dowling has just completed major renovations (“essentially new construction,” she says) on a property at the edge of the Princeton University campus, at the corner of Charlton and William streets.
“We bought it for the location and because it had a detached apartment for my design studio,” she says. “Previously my office was on the lowest level of my house, which I liked because the whole house could be shown to clients as a sort of model home. But I did find a need to physically separate my work space from my living space.”
Dowling, who earned her master’s degree in architecture from Princeton University, honed her skills in custom residential design while working for Michael Graves. She is married to restaurateur Carlo Momo, and has renovated four houses in Princeton and built one from the ground up.
The house on Charlton Street was previously a two-family property with a 150-year-old duplex residence and detached 75-year-old two-unit apartment. She converted the duplex to a two-bedroom, single family home the couple shares with their 16-year-old daughter Anna and 10-year-old Havanese, Pepper. “He hasn’t minded the seven-month work-from-home situation,” says Dowling. “He’s emotionally needy, to put it mildly, so having us all here has been perfect for him.”
The detached two-unit apartment, fronting on William Street and also a duplex, was converted to a one-bedroom loft apartment for the East Coast office for Dowling Studios. Dowling works with her twin sister and design partner Julie, who is based in the firm’s San Francisco office.
“We are a boutique architecture studio by choice,” says Dowling. “We take just a few projects per year and like to do all of the design and drawing development ourselves.”
The lower level of the light-filled space is a conference area, and the upstairs is a loft. “It is a legal apartment and was designed to be easily converted to that use should the need ever arise,” she says.
For the past decade most of the firm’s projects have been in California, so Dowling has commuted to San Francisco for key project meetings or to the projects themselves, located mostly in the now fire-ravaged counties north of San Francisco. “Several of our past projects are in grave danger,” she says. Along with the pandemic, “It’s like a two-headed monster.”
As for interacting with the outside world these days, “I am naturally risk averse and definitely do not want to get this virus, so I have been very cautious when interacting with others. Working from home has been a fairly smooth experience for me, though it has not been possible to commute to the West Coast where we have a few projects at various stages of completion. I don’t know what other architects have experienced but COVID has definitely slowed everything down in our world. Building departments have been closed, and projects have been placed on hold or are moving very slowly. It’s been hard for everyone.”
On the plus side, working from home means not having to leave Pepper alone and if she doesn’t have a Zoom meeting scheduled, the dog crosses the courtyard and goes to work with her. Then again, “it can be hard to separate work from home, though I have it very easy with just Anna at home. I have huge admiration for all of the parents out there who are working from home while home schooling and caring for young children.” Anna is a student at Stuart Country Day, which follows a hybrid school schedule.
“Toward the end of March, she was attending virtual school in her bedroom. We were under construction, so I was working from our dining room in our apartment and Carlo was running the restaurant business from the living room. That was a little stressful, but we’ve become eerily accustomed to it now.”
Princeton author Landon Jones is at work on a book about celebrity culture, which is under contract to Beacon Press in Boston. “I also distract myself writing occasional op-ed pieces, when the inspiration strikes,” he says. Earlier this year he published two in The Wall Street Journal — one on Albert Camus and The Plague, and the other with Pia de Jong about the release at Princeton University of T.S. Eliot’s love letters to Emily Hale.
Reached while visiting his daughter’s family in Maine, Jones says his office is always with him. But what, exactly, constitutes his “office”?
“When I travel, my office is my MacBook Air, along with as many hard copies of my book proposal and chapter summaries that I can carry. I like to hold papers in my hands when I can. I sometimes spread them on the floor. I seem to think horizontally.”
But he does have a brick-and-mortar office at home in Princeton.
“We bought our house from a gentleman scholar named Nathaniel Burt and his wife Winkie. The Burts had a music studio above the garage with a Steinway upright piano in it. So we had the piano moved to our living room, and we then increased the space as much as we could. Today it is a writer’s paradise, filled with books, bookshelves, boxes of clippings and files, lots of counter space, and wraparound windows.”
His commute is a 10-yard walk “which provides some psychological distance — and takes away my excuses.”
In order to be productive, he likes to have a window “with a long view so I can gaze and daydream. I like lots of counter space around me so I can organize my chapters. I am not good at organizing on my computer, so I make a mess on a counter or on the floor. Then I like some physical activity every day — walking or tennis — to keep me relaxed and get rid of any tension I might be carrying. Deadlines help. When I had a deadline on my William Clark biography, I wrote five chapters in five weeks.”
The pandemic lockdown has had little effect on Jones’ routine. “It’s pretty much the same for me. I do not have regular writing hours, like some writers do. I write whenever I find time. My social life has diminished, as has everyone’s, but then writing projects just fill up that space.”
House of Music
Soprano Rochelle Ellis, adjunct associate professor of voice at Westminster Choir College of Rider University and Princeton University, has been working from home since March 13 — that was the day of her last live performance, at the Princeton University Chapel. The other members of her home pod are wife Lucy Strauli, who teaches music to elementary school students in New Brunswick, two daughters, and a puppy.
The key to looking professional on Zoom is all in the backdrop, and so the upstairs bedroom had to be re-arranged for Strauli’s teaching sessions. Ellis — a St. Louis native who earned her doctor of musical arts degree in voice from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers — spends the day near the piano and treated herself to an ergonomic steel desk chair. As if learning to teach voice remotely wasn’t enough of a challenge, Ellis also had to move her office this past summer, as the Choir College moved to the campus of Rider University in Lawrence. That meant getting permission from the dean to be on campus, and then packing up 25 years’ worth of stuff. Although Rider is conducting all classes virtually, Ellis had a chance to see her new office and is looking forward to using it one day, though remains sad that there was never a chance to say goodbye to the old campus.
“I’m happy to be working from home, but I do miss singing,” she says. Making music is very much a social experience that she misses. “The personal interactions, the spontaneity, seeing colleagues, chatting about the news and TV and snacks — I’m a personable person and enjoy shooting the breeze.” She hopes that, when this is all over, “I can open my mouth and there’s something there.”
Meanwhile, teaching remotely she has had tech difficulties such as lag time — making it impossible to sync the piano to voice — but has since learned of audio interfaces that work with a separate microphone. Ellis is grateful for high-speed internet connection, but working from home means being your own tech support.
She has found that the situation enables students to become more independent and learn to depend on their ear and not the piano. The instructor has been teaching the origins of African American vocal techniques, classical, jazz, and blues to her students, all future music educators. “It’s an opportunity to expand their own singing capabilities. Each class spotlights a vocal technique: breathing, vowel placement, history, vocal pedagogy.”
Ellis acknowledges that no one knows how long this way of teaching will endure — it has already been far longer than anyone expected. “I don’t want to be sad and depressed, so I find exciting things to do but in a different way. You have to be active and continue to learn and be excited about what you do.”
After a lifetime of juggling — her evenings had been consumed with driving her daughters to swimming, gymnastics, riding lessons, Princeton Girlchoir — Ellis is settling into this new routine, with one daughter at Chapin and one schooled from home. It just requires having a lot of iPads, with four Zoom meetings happening at once while the girls do cello and violin lessons. “That’s part of life in the Ellis household — you have to do music.” Ellis has one adult daughter who, before COVID, sang with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
When a vaccine finally is developed, “I think some of this will stay. Look at the money you can save by not being on campus. Not everyone wants that experience. Colleges will have to adapt.”
Ellis says the cool thing about 2020 is that we can develop 20-20 vision. “This year has helped us develop clear vision about what’s important in relationships, jobs, families; what it means to be a good citizen; and what we need from our government leaders. It would be foolish to go back to the ‘good old days.’ They were not always so good. The key to life in the future is to find alternative ways to do things so everyone has a place, that there aren’t people who can’t contribute.”
“I tell my students, we will sing together — that will happen,” she continues. “As musicians we bring light into dark. Whether in visual arts or film or literature, our job is to keep the glow of this world going, to heal from this gaping wound. We have done it throughout history. You really have to pay attention — this is the time you have, and you have to make the most of it. All we can do is have faith and put one foot in front of another and do your job and love people.”
Art and Engagement With Humanity
As executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton, Adam Welch had his first official day on the job September 1, though he began meeting with staff in mid-July. “I was so eager to begin I could not stay away!”
The Hightstown resident and ceramic artist who formerly headed Greenwich House Pottery in Manhattan says he is spending as much time as he can in the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, but also working remotely from home.
The building has been open since summer, with a 12-week in-person children’s camp that welcomed small groups of masked campers, and a full lineup of virtual camps. Additionally, pod-based art experiences for students of all ages take place both inside and outside on the terrace.
“At the Arts Council we are taking this opportunity to engage an online audience that, pre-COVID, did not exist for us. The staff and instructors have worked diligently to ensure that we are reaching our immediate and ever-present community as well as those that we serve through our outreach efforts.”
Nevertheless, “art and an engagement with humanity is something that cannot be completely replaced through a screen. I feel that empathy is best gained through the human experience. In today’s world, this means you follow strict guidelines and ensure all necessary safety protocols are in place. There will be a time in the future where things will resemble the world pre-COVID, but until that time we will do the responsible thing and take every precaution.”
Welch is excited to have engaged the broader community with pop-up art experiences such as the mural on the wall at the corner of Witherspoon and Spring streets painted by Arts Council staff and artists Melissa Kuscin and Maria Evans. “The entire staff is working to bring what we traditionally have done inside, out.”
He points to the signage, streetscape, and social distancing sidewalk stickers created by the Arts Council. “Did I mention the staff here are amazing, creative, dedicated, and very aware of what our responsibility is to keep everyone safe?”
Welch also enjoys the work he does from home which “largely transpires in our home library/children’s classroom/my wife’s office. Though COVID has been tumultuous and devastating for many, the opportunity to do my work remotely has been the most rewarding experience of my life.” He does not miss the daily commute (two hours each way) to New York City that he had done for 12 years. “Working remotely, I have that much more time to engage with my family, and the rewards have been beyond measure.”
The ceramic artist credits his wife, Rachel, as the go-to person for everything in his household, but while acknowledging how “amazingly creative and active” his two daughters are, as well as the great work done by the East Windsor/Hightstown school district. “It was a difficult transition for the kids. They did exceedingly well, given the situation, but enthusiasm did fade. So, when you are working, while helping to support and nurture the love of all things educational, it is quite a different experience. Though I love to teach and would offer the gift of that passion at every turn, if you want to know about what it is to juggle working from home and doing everything, Rachel is the person to ask.”
Nevertheless, he was able to focus with great precision, he says. “It was unprecedented what the Arts Council had to deal with — reinventing the business model, transitioning what was always in-person to remote. Art, the transfer of some vision into some material, was not so easy to translate directly. We had to all work much harder than normal. Let’s just hope that the lessons learned can help to shape our future.”
To make his own work, Welch turned the garage into a studio. “For 12 years it sat collecting the detritus of life,” but when the pandemic hit and he had to teach remotely, it meant wiring up electricity for the wheel and lights. He weeded out old bicycles and equipment “and got things set up for a proper studio. Rachel also worked wonders with our internet company to upgrade our service and get a contemporary modem so I would have a strong wireless signal in my detached garage.”
In the past Welch had worked in the ceramic studio at Princeton University, where he teaches, as well as at Greenwich House. “While those studios are stocked and well-equipped, my home studio was not. Now it is and the ease allows me much more time.” And there is the added benefit of not having to make the trek to those other studios.
While his own work has not necessarily changed, “it does have me thinking more about pottery and the value and humility of the handmade.”
Has being an artist helped to prepare him to cope with challenges like these times? “There was no preparing for these times. There is not even a way to conceptualize these times and there is no way to garner enough empathy to wrap your head around the deep trauma that people are experiencing or will be experiencing around our community and beyond. Nor do we have a way to grasp the anxiety that is and has yet to manifest in our children. That said, I feel that being an artist has allowed me to view situations creatively. That is to say, to see potential in helping shape my view of things. There is opportunity in all things.”
Sports Memorabilia, Tech, and Antiques
Kevin Tylus, president of Bryn Mawr Trust, and his wife, Ginger, have lived in a charmingly renovated historic farmhouse in Skillman since 2004. The original section of the house dates to 1760, and was built by one of the earliest settlers of Blawenburg. It sits on land that was originally a dairy farm owned by Atherton Hobler, a founder of Benton & Bowles advertising agency who collected guernsey cattle. His son, the late Herb Hobler, founder of Nassau Broadcasting Company and a pioneer of the teleprompter who was a leader in numerous Princeton-area nonprofits and initiatives, lived in a nearby home.
The house fell into disrepair by the 1990s, when new owners brought it back to life and architect Max Hayden was contracted for its renovation and addition.
Tylus works from an antique library table in a 12-by-15-foot room with wood beams spanning the ceiling and a floor rise near the window that looks out on a majestic maple tree. Despite the tools necessary to work today — laptop, iPad, iPhone and its stand, printer, and a satellite phone Bryn Mawr Trust has distributed to its employees in the event of an emergency — the space is orderly and still exudes historic charm. He makes the space his own with framed photos of his family (four children and 10 grandchildren); a Larry Bird jersey (acquired through an auction benefitting the Hun School — Tylus and his children are all alumni, and he has served as a trustee as well as board president); a rack of golf balls that each tell a story of his travels, his friendships, his golf games (Tylus is president of the Springdale Golf Club); a signed photo of Mickey Mantle; a 1940s Princeton University football helmet; and the spade used for the groundbreaking ceremony of Hun School’s Global Commons. There’s a painting of Bill Bradley during his last game at Dillon Gymnasium painted by a golf champion — Tylus has infinite tales to tell about sports figures and their connections to Princeton.
Although the reason for Bryn Mawr staff working from home is unfortunate, says Tylus, it enables everyone to be more efficient. “We can do a 45-minute Webex (video conference) versus a two-hour live meeting. We’re giving time back to our people.” Tylus works out of both the Hulfish Street offices and the office in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and finds that without the commute the start of the day is less stressful. “Customers prefer to work this way too, having less contact with people outside the home.”
He cites one webinar on investing in uncertain times that drew 1,500 registrants. “We still see people in person, but only by appointment.”
Banking had traditionally been a walk-in type of business. “Customers would shop at Olives or stop for coffee and then drop in,” he says. “Now they must let us know they are coming. We put safety first, and customers appreciate the precautions we are taking.”
Speaking of stress, Tylus has sympathy for staff who feel they must work all the time when working from home, and for those with children at home whose schooling they must oversee. Among the other downsides: “You don’t have the benefit of informal interactions over coffee or lunch. New employees need mentoring and a way to learn the culture of the organization. Even though we have all this technology the word ‘society’ implies we are together.”
And then there are the power failures, which affected many Princeton residents earlier this year. Still, Tylus marvels at how we have adapted. How, for example, the food industry has evolved in its home delivery model.
One thing Tylus does miss is interaction with the community organizations Bryn Mawr supports, such as Arm in Arm, Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, and McCarter Theatre, or with partner organizations such as the Arts Council of Princeton.
Among those 10 grandchildren, five live locally but now that they are back in school, he can only see them at outdoor events for limited amounts of time. Tylus often ends his workday by going to watch one of their games. And, he says, since the start of the pandemic, golf has experienced a resurgence, both nationally and at Springdale, which has added 44 new members. “Because they aren’t commuting, families start coming to play at 5 p.m. — we’re seeing evening golf that never existed. It’s a wonderful way to work off steam.”