Nicole Epplin is a pharmacist living on an acreage with her family in the lovely hills of Southern Illinois. In the past, she was able to work 2-days a week from home with just her phone's hotspot; but now that she is working full-time from home, along with everyone else, not to mention competing for bandwidth with her three children, she's had to find new solutions to make working from home sustainable. In our interview, we talk about what it's like to work in a rural area with spotty internet, balancing work, family, and mental health when it comes to cleaning house and childcare, and how they've transitioned from one pandemic school option during the spring to their new options in fall 2020.
We also talk about maintaining connection with colleagues as Nicole's team has transitioned from working at least half if not the majority of their hours in a shared office space to everyone now working from home, how her team has managed to maintain some of their relationships, and how she and her friends and family have been able to remain connected as they're working from home and staying socially distanced.
The ergonomic chair Nicole purchased for her home office. She says it's not the same as the $500 one she had at the office, but this one's "just fine, and the price was right." She says it's a bit short for her 5' 8" frame but would work great for people who are a bit shorter. https://amzn.to/32gI4IQ
The web camera Nicole just purchased for her home office. "Just got the webcam yesterday and it’s great." https://amzn.to/3ihJ7O9
For software, Nicole really like Microsoft Teams for collaboration. "Their IM works great for group chats; and it’s fun, lots of goofy gif’s and emojis."
Nicole also highly endorses this coffee on Amazon here: https://amzn.to/35pbbvm "It was unavailable from Amazon for the longest time, and I was so worried they wouldn’t bring it back! Working from home in a rural area means no more spontaneous Starbucks or Panera. Great for the wallet. Makes it easier to justify buying pricey coffee beans for home."
If you'd like to be a guest on the Yes, I Work From Home Podcast, please go to www.yesiworkfromhome.com/podcast/guest and click on the first big green "guest interview" button to let us know more about you and your work-from-home life. We are on the lookout for people with interesting stories about how they're making their WFH life work, whether you're working for yourself or someone else. You can also recommend someone else who you think would be a great fit for this podcast using the second green button "guest recommendation."
Find out more about our host, April Malone, and Yes, I Work From Home at our website www.yesiworkfromhome.com
If you work from home as an remote work/teleworking employee, freelancer, independent contractor, or entrepreneur, please join our work-from-home community on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/groups/yesiworkfromhomecommunity
April Malone 0:09
Hello, Hello! My name is April Malone with Yes, I Work Fom Home; and this is the podcast. Today, I have Nicole Epplin with me. Nicole and I go back about, I don't know, eight years ago I think?
Nicole Epplin 0:21
Probably, at least, yeah.
April Malone 0:25
We knew each other back in--
Nicole Epplin 0:25
Our daughters were babies when we met--
April Malone 0:27
Yeah, Southern Illinois.
Nicole Epplin 0:29
April Malone 0:29
So, she lives in a small town in Southern Illinois; and she's a pharmacist. So, I am so excited to have you here today. Thank you. I didn't know you were working from home until you mentioned it when I was talking about the podcast, so--
Nicole Epplin 0:30
It's pretty unusual when you say you're a pharmacist, and you work from home. A lot of people are wondering how that works.
April Malone 0:45
So, tell us, how does it work?
Nicole Epplin 0:47
Yeah, I have a rather unconventional job. I actually maintain the software that we use. So, I do a lot of building protocols and building new medications whenever they are approved to be added to our formulary. A lot of work with order sets, protocols, and working closely with our pharmacists and designing their workflows and things in their software to meet their needs. But, we actually do have some of our staff pharmacists, that have worked from home a little bit during the pandemic, too. When we were really trying to keep everybody out of the hospitals, we were doing a little bit of remote verification. So, pharmacists were verifying orders from home for a brief period of time.
April Malone 1:23
Do you work for a hospital, medical clinic, or just a pharmacy? I don't think I quite caught that.
Nicole Epplin 1:28
Yeah, I work for a large health system--not large, large for our little rural area. We have three hospitals, one of which is critical access; and we've also got a lot of clinics. I only support the inpatient side, but once in a while I do cross over to the ambulatory or clinic side and do a little bit of work for them.
April Malone 1:47
Would you say your job is more tech based, or do you still have--do you still get to do the medical side?
Nicole Epplin 1:54
So whenever I first started, people said "Oh, you're gonna lose your knowledge; but I really have not lost, I've only gained. Because, when a new drug is approved to be on the formulary or a new drug comes out on the market, I'm the one working with our clinical pharmacist to do all the research upfront and get everything built before we even release it to be used on our patients. So, I'm the one designing all the safety behind all of those medications, in our system.
April Malone 2:17
So let's talk about how long you've been working from home. I know that you've been working from home, more or less full time recently; but it goes back a little bit further than that, right?
Nicole Epplin 2:27
Yeah, so, whenever I first took the software IT job, we had the flexibility to work from home. Initially, it was sort of on an as-needed basis; so, if you're not feeling well but you're well enough to work but you don't want to come in and, you know, expose your coworkers to whatever cold you have, or if you have a sick kid, or if you have a big project coming up and you want to be able to work from home and work more uninterrupted, we've had the flexibility to do that. And, then, they formalized it a couple years ago to two days a week.
April Malone 2:58
So, were you taking that option?
Nicole Epplin 3:00
When I could. My schedule is pretty packed with meetings; and my one up that I report to is of a generation that really feels like in-person meetings are best, and that attitude is very different from I think people in our generation. Not that I'm young, I'm not; but people in our generation are more, you know, we grew up with cell phones, from--you know, I got my first smartphone when I was in my mid 20s; and, before that, I had a cell phone at the age of 18; and we've pretty much always had internet access, even though it was like the back in the day, slow dial up. So, we're a lot more comfortable with technology and more comfortable with not having to have face-to-face meetings. We run into fewer technical glitches just, because we're used to logging in and troubleshooting on our own. Whereas, I really see that now, with the pandemic now that we've been, you know, mandated to hold all of our meetings via WebEx or Teams wherever possible, and very, very few in person meetings, you do notice that some generations struggle with that.
April Malone 4:10
Right, right. And, in the green room, where we were talking a few minutes ago, you were talking about the same generational thing coming with having kids at home while you're workingl. Do you want to talk about your family a little bit and what that's been like for you?
Nicole Epplin 4:22
Yeah, so I have three kids; and they range in age from 6, almost 7, to 11. I worked part time when they were smaller; so, I've been home with them quite a bit; and I've always had that job where I got interrupted quite a bit, even on my days off; so they're used to seeing Mom work. It wasn't a brand new thing to them, whenever I started working from home and trying to care for them; but it definitely has presented a great number of challenges. I showed you earlier my workspace. So, we moved my desk into our--we have a little like breakfast nook area in our kitchen; and it overlooks the woods, and it's just absolutely beautiful. And I love having my desk here and being able to look out and watch the squirrels and the birds and my dogs run around and play all day and my cats. It really, you know, from someone who worked in a little bitty office without windows for years, I love--I'm always outside. I love being outside; so, I love having that view. The downside was I moved it into a much busier area of our house; but, at the time, all the kids were in school; and we thought "Oh, this is this is gonna be great. The only time I work from home is when they're at school; so, it'll be fine."
April Malone 5:32
"It'll be fine," they said.
Nicole Epplin 5:33
And then the pandemic hit, and here I am my desk in the middle of the kitchen; and they're sitting, you know, a few steps away at the dining room table, trying to work,
April Malone 5:43
How much of your job is on camera or video?
Nicole Epplin 5:47
So, initially, our work-from-home days were kind of our lazy, like, pajama days, whenever we had it more informal, and it was just a couple days a week; and there was never an expectation that we turn our camera on. So, whenever we formalized the policy; and our team was actually the first to move to a permanent work-from-home situation. When we formalized that, it was with the expectation that everyone is going to have their camera on during meetings so that you can see everybody's faces and expressions and whatnot. We found that that works better than being in person with masks on; because, at least, if you're on camera, you can see someone's entire face and see if they're smiling or what other expression. So, most of us have grown to prefer it.
April Malone 6:28
Hmm, yeah. My husband is working from home, currently during the pandemic; and they never, ever, ever turn their cameras on. They just have like their--
Nicole Epplin 6:36
April Malone 6:36
--profile picture up. Yesterday, it surprised me, because he had to turn on his camera; but it was a different type of appointment that he was in. And I was, like, "I hope that our messy bedroom..." because his camera was like pointed toward my side of the bed, and it's not as clean as his side of the bedroom. He said "No, that's why I was standing up, and it was just the wall." I was like "Whew! Thank God!" Yeah. I know you're married. So, does your husband also work from home, or how does that work in your family?
Nicole Epplin 7:06
No, so he's a sheetmetal worker. So he's pretty much always on the job site; and, when the pandemic hit, his job exploded.
April Malone 7:14
Nicole Epplin 7:16
So, that's the reaction that I get from most people. He does a lot of work in hospitals and clinics and other areas like that. And, what we found was that we didn't have enough negative pressure rooms to accommodate the influx of COVID patients that we were expecting to have. So, he spent a great deal of time crawling in the ductwork of the hospitals; and, even like there's a behavioral health clinic here that they were worried any inpatient behavioral health, they needed a place to put those COVID-positive patients. So, he did a ton of work trying to get everybody ready, from an infection control standpoint, construction for the pandemic. Also, a lot of schools said "Well, we're going to be shut down for a while, we've had all these projects on the back burner. Let's get them done while the kids aren't here." So, the number of school jobs that they had exploded; and all this work was "We need it done now, we need it done now." So, he really has not been able to share very much of the childcare burden. It's pretty much all fallen to me.
April Malone 8:13
Working from home with three kids this summer. So, let's talk about what's happening right now. So, in the past, they were at school. And, then, you had them for the whole summer which--they're just going back to school, what, this week or last week?
Nicole Epplin 8:25
So, this is their third week. And, previously, in the summer and even some this summer, my mother-in-law watches them quite a bit. So, she works for the school system and she has summers off. So, she took them for me two days a week this summer which was a total lifesaver to have them out of the house. So, I would try to stack my meetings and all my projects and be as efficient as I could those couple days a week, whenever I actually got to work uninterrupted.
April Malone 8:47
And now? What kind of school are they in, are you choosing online, hybrid, in person?
Nicole Epplin 8:54
So, our school district initially wanted to go hybrid. The numbers kind of started rising in our area. We're a college town; and everyone was very afraid that, when all the college kids came back, we would see a spike in cases; and that is starting to happen. Not as bad as a lot of college campuses, you know, the ones that you're hearing about that have 1000 positive cases on campus. I think we're at about 30 positive cases on campus right now which still isn't great, but it's just part of it. You know, we're going to have to learn to manage that influx of cases. So, all of our school districts in our--in the town that I live in--ultimately decided to go full remote, at least to start.
April Malone 9:33
Full remote, like online?
Nicole Epplin 9:34
Our school district, full remote. Yeah. So, our district initially had said if numbers fall under a certain area, we'll consider going back to the hybrid plan. I don't think our numbers are going to get there anytime soon, and I don't know if they're going to revisit that. Additionally, we have a lot of challenges with internet access in our area. So, we're a beautiful rural area with lots and lots of hills; but this terrain presents a really big challenge for internet. There is a big grant-funded program in our area, it started about a year or two ago, to try to roll out more internet access to people. That doesn't help me right now. So, we were getting by with just hotspots, and the hotspots worked fine until the pandemic hit; and, then, suddenly everybody was relying on their hotspot, and the speeds just slowed down to a screeching halt. Especially, before, when I was working from home, it was just me on my laptop; and, then, suddenly, it's me on my laptop and three kids on devices; and I couldn't use a TV to distract them, because we didn't have enough internet speed to turn the TV on and attempt to use my laptop. I would get kicked off, sometimes every 10 minutes, trying to work; and you're in the middle of doing like a big build and get kicked off. It was terrible. So, ultimately, I keep referencing my handy construction husband, we ended up putting a 70-foot tower in our yard so that we could hit a tower that's about 4-1/2 miles away and finally get internet access, and it has been a game changer.
April Malone 11:03
Wow. Now, can you still let the kids stream on their devices while you're working?
Nicole Epplin 11:09
Yeah. So, now we can, we're good. They can watch TV, they can have their iPad out or have the laptop out and be working.
April Malone 11:18
Nicole Epplin 11:19
We just got that established about two weeks ago, and we didn't even know if it was going to work, even after we put the tower up. We did it without certainty that we were going to be able to hit that tower. We put it up, and then my husband had to trim a bunch of trees, and finally we were able to overcome the terrain and get it. But, when our school district announced that they were going full remote, I knew that there was no way we were going to be able to do that; because we didn't have enough internet speeds. Our school, the option they gave us to overcome that was actually, "Well, you can come park in our parking lot, and your kids can sit in the car and work all day on their laptop or whatever."
April Malone 11:54
Do you think that families are actually going to have to do that?
Nicole Epplin 11:57
There are some that are, and they--I gave a lot of pushback, and I think other families did. So, they ultimately decided to open up the computer labs at the school for three hours in the evening twice a week; but three hours in the evening twice a week is not adequate to do all the schoolwork that they need to be doing at their age.
April Malone 12:15
I know some schools are having the kids literally sitting in the live meetings all day, versus other ones, like our school, we're just doing like short meeting, sometimes 15 minutes or 20 minutes; and then there's like an interactive notebook that they can work on, on their computer; but it's not like video streaming the whole time. So what are you doing with your kids?
Nicole Epplin 12:37
Yeah, so I got way off topic there, didn't I? So, what we decided, because we didn't have enough internet access, and because we didn't have childcare, and looking at what childcare would cost us, knowing that I just couldn't keep going on, I just couldn't keep going the way things were going. So, we looked into private schools in our area, and we found a Catholic school about 20 minutes from our house that was bringing students back full time. They have a very robust safety plan in place, something that we were very comfortable with. Kids and faculty everybody wears masks, all day, even when they're outside at recess, they have to keep their mask on. They're only allowed to take it off for lunch, and the kids have even commented like "Mom, we only get five minutes to eat our lunch, because they don't want us to keep our masks off." So everybody's masked, they have dividers between the desks, they're spending as much time outside as they can, they have a couple outdoor classroom spaces. They're keeping each class isolated only to that class; so, they don't mingle with other classes. They don't allow parents in the building at all which is kind of difficult for me to swallow, like I don't even get to see where--my kids' rooms, I don't get to walk them in on their first day.
April Malone 13:44
What grade are your kids in this year?
Nicole Epplin 13:46
They are first, fourth, and six.
April Malone 13:50
Yeah, it sounds like you have way more options as far as like the safety protocols, than what we are offered here in our area. And Arizona is, um, I saw a chart someone posted the other day about like how different states are handling school safety options; and ours was not--ours was like at the bottom end; and Illinois was, like, way different. I want to hear more about the outdoor classrooms, do you know what those are like?
Nicole Epplin 14:21
Yeah, so they actually have a pavilion space that was already set up; and they use that some with, like, picnic tables. They also had ordered tents so that the kids could be outside, even if it rained. I don't think they've even had to put them up yet or if they have got those in, but they have talked about doing that. They they have a little, the kids call it the awning or something, it's a little corridor of space between the school and the church, and they've got chairs and things set up out there; so the kids can be out there. They're not doing PE right now, but they are taking them out for recess twice a day. So they get to go outside and play on the playground. They clean the playground off after each class is done and leaves; so, they're being very, very careful.
April Malone 15:03
I love it. I would feel good about--
Nicole Epplin 15:03
We feel really good about it; and knock on wood, we're three weeks in; and everything is still smooth sailing.
April Malone 15:11
Yeah, I think I would be much more comfortable with that plan than what we were offered, and so we're choosing to go fully online, remote. Home-based learning is what they're calling it right now. So, let's talk a little bit about your household and how you're managing things. I know everyone has a different threshold of how they feel comfortable as far as like division of household duties and just cleanliness. How are you handling things, or what strategies do you have as far as balancing that home-life work-life all in the same space?
Nicole Epplin 15:41
It's much better now that the kids are back at school, but my mental health was rapidly deteriorating when they were home all summer, just trashing the house all day. I did have a sitter who was here for about three to four hours a day to keep them busy during that time, and we have a pool. I really encouraged her to take them outside and keep them outside as much as she could; but, you know, kids, they're still in and out and interrupting. But, it was a godsend having her here just those few hours a day so that they weren't continually being ignored by their parent all day long. They had someone to give them attention and get them snacks and, you know, take them even to, when the parks opened back up, she could take them to the parks and things like that. But I found it very, very difficult, especially my space being in the kitchen, like I have a hard time handling it when there's dishes just piling up and piling up; and I was working and couldn't do anything about it. That kind of thing really stressed me out. We have a cleaning lady that comes every two weeks. I had her coming every week this summer; and it was worth every penny that it cost us. My husband is helpful around the house. He does a lot. We own 12 acres; so, he does all the outside maintenance, and there is quite a bit involved in that. So, a lot of the indoor falls on me which is, you know, it's fine, it's fair. But, whenever the kids are at home, your amount of work drastically increases. And the kids have chores, but they don't really do things to my standard; and sometimes it's harder to get the kids to do it than it is to just do it yourself. So, my evenings were not stacked with quality time with my kids which is what I'm used to whenever they're out of the house all day. They come home. I'm happy to see them. We do things together. We play together. We cook together, and in those days, it was walking around the house picking up the messes that they had made all day and trying to put everything back in order and working longer hours.
April Malone 17:39
How did your employer handle it when you were dealing with your children while you were working? How did that go over?
Nicole Epplin 17:46
Well, I have a really funny story. There's always a good story. So, I was on a work call with some, you know, important people, one of which was a VP-level physician at the company that I work for; and we were talking to a vendor. And it was a critical topic, a call that had been scheduled weeks in advance; and I was going to be, you know, on top of my game and really on it. You have those calls that you can kind of slack off, you know, it's just your team; and then you have those really important calls. This was one of those really important calls. So, I have a background that I set on my Teams or WebExm, whatever it is, so no one can see what's going on in the background. They can only see me. So, no one knew this was going on in the background, but my youngest kept coming up to me and asking for breakfast; so, I kept just pushing him away and pushing him away, like I do, like, you know, the mom "Go away, figure it out for yourself." So, he decided he was going to make some toast. I don't know what he did, but he ended up completely frying the toaster oven. The next thing I know, my entire house is full of smoke; and my smoke alarm is going off. And I've got my headset on, and I'm muting, and I'm thinking like "Nobody knows this is going on," like I'm playing it cool. So, I'm only unmuting to talk. And, finally, my coworkers figure out, like "We keep hearing this beeping noise every time Nicole is talking." So, finally, our VP level physician--I'm talking, and he said, "Nicole is there something going on at your house that you need to address?" So, at that point, I came clean, I was "Like, yeah, my whole house is full of smoke." I had gotten up and unplugged the toaster already; but, yeah. And, later, you know everybody laughs about it. It's a legendary story at my office, the time Nicole's kid almost caught her house on fire while she was on a call.
April Malone 17:46
And you were just trying to play it cool the whole time?
Nicole Epplin 19:27
I really thought I was playing it cool. Apparently, I was not, I was not.
April Malone 19:31
That's a good one. And, so, that helped push the idea of the in-person school.
Nicole Epplin 19:40
Oh yeah, oh yeah, for sure. And the kids, you know, educationally, they suffered quite a bit during the pandemic; because I couldn't be on there helping them get their work done during the day when it was the times they were expected to be on the Zoom call and whatnot; and we didn't have enough connectivity. It was an easy decision in the end.
April Malone 20:02
I think that different people's workflow really can make or break it as far as like how much they can help their children versus not, like if you have total flexibility and you make your own hours versus if you're expected to show up on --I can't even say it right--if you're expected to show up and be on your game that day.
Nicole Epplin 20:22
Yeah, for, you know, certain hours; and I am expected to be on from 8:00 to 4:30, Monday through Friday. Those are my working hours. I'm expected to be responding to messages quickly and any scheduled calls, and I need to be on those. And I guess there's differences between like, we're talking about generations and even departments. So, my office is in the IT department; but I report to the pharmacy reporting structure. So, within the IT department, we're all very comfortable with, you know, kind of a lax work-home balance, not clearly defined boundaries there. So, if a kid runs up to you when you're in the middle of a call or your dog or whatever, everybody just says "Awww" and thinks that it's cute. When you're interacting with other departments, they often have that perception like, "Oh, look, she's at home taking care of her kids and playing with their kids and not actually working and not on top of her game," and, you know, can kind of have a negative view of what you're actually doing; so, I've had to--
April Malone 21:16
It probably depends a lot about who you're reporting to.
Nicole Epplin 21:20
Yeah. Yeah, so I did get a lot from my boss, initially. He actually denied a couple of his direct reports' application to work from home when the pandemic started. He later got pushback from higher up to soften his stance on that and did allow some of the other employees that he had previously denied to start working from home; but there's just--especially, I think within healthcare, as a pharmacist, there's just a very long-standing view that you have to be in that setting; and you have to be right there in the middle of it all. So, it's a very new idea that someone, like me, can do their job from home. Whereas, I think if you, when you look at an IT department, everybody's very comfortable with technology and very comfortable with the idea of doing work from home.
April Malone 22:11
When I worked for Mayo Clinic years ago, it was actually an expectation and requirement that, if we had children, that they needed to have child care. It could be in-home childcare or, you know, external childcare; but we weren't allowed to be in charge of our own children while we were on the clock. We were hourly; and it was, you know, very cut and dry in that way. But, it sounds as though a lot of employers are providing more flexibility, at least through the summer. Did you feel like--did you have other coworkers who were kind of dealing with the same thing and, like, empathizing with you in that area?
Nicole Epplin 22:50
For sure, and like I said, within the IT department, there was a completely different comfort level with it, compared to the pharmacy department, which was my reporting structure. And that's kind of a generalization. There were many pharmacy employees, those with young children, who were very sympathetic to the situation; and, from very high up at my organization, there was a lot of sympathy toward working parents; and that has helped tremendously. They sent a survey out. When all these schools were announcing that they were going remote, they sent a survey out that said "What could we do to help you?" They're like "We don't know if you know if if we don't know where the problems are we can't help you. So help us find the problems. We don't know what kind of solutions we'll be able to come up with; but we're here for you. We're going to work with you." And having that level of support from very high up has really helped soften some of those people's stance on work from home.
April Malone 23:41
I love it. So, they told you from the beginning, "we're listening."
Nicole Epplin 23:44
Yeah. And they said: "We need you. We need you. You know, we don't want to lose our employees over this. You know, a lot of you are good employees. You've been here forever, and this is not your fault. You didn't ask for this. You don't have any other options. So, we'll work with you."
April Malone 24:01
I love hearing that.
Nicole Epplin 24:03
Yeah, that was really inspiring to me.
April Malone 24:05
A lot of people have felt as though they have to choose between work and family.
Nicole Epplin 24:10
April Malone 24:11
So, well, let's go back a little bit to the beginning. When you first started working from home, those two days a week or as needed, what were some of the initial challenges that you faced as you were just trying to figure this out.
Nicole Epplin 24:25
I really did not face any challenges. Whenever it was, you know, me working from home a couple days a week while the kids were at school, it was all just beautiful and amazing and everything it was cracked up to be. I wasn't burnt out on working from home. Not that I'm necessarily burnt out on it now; but it is lonely, and it is isolating, and it's strange to me. Everyday, I dropped the kids off at school and then came home to a quiet, empty house. In those days, it was--
April Malone 24:52
I miss that!
Nicole Epplin 24:52
I know! In those days, it was only two days a week, so it was wonderful; and I could really sit and focus. So, I just absolutely loved--I treasured those days, and I felt so much more productive when I had those work-from-home days.
April Malone 25:07
So, what were those things that you enjoyed? Like, what freedoms and flexibilities made it made it feel wonderful for you?
Nicole Epplin 25:15
I didn't have to put real clothes on. I could stay in my pajamas all day if I wanted to. No interruptions. So, my work setting--we actually outgrew our office space three or four years ago? We crammed a building that's meant to host about 50 employees, we crammed about 100 into it. So, I actually shared an office with two other people; and they were people that do the same job as me, and I have an amazing working relationship with them, and I miss them. We've been doing like a weekly lunch and trying to get together where we can, and we message back and forth on Teams or Jabber all day long and still have that connection. But it was a very distracting environment, sharing an office with multiple people, and not really a lot of boundaries in that office setting, either. We had a lot of cubicles and just not very much private quiet space where you could really sit and focus and get your work done. So, that's what I really enjoyed about those work-from-home days early on.
April Malone 26:16
Do you feel as though, when you're working from home, that you still get the, I don't know like, the small chat, the water cooler talk?
Nicole Epplin 26:28
You don't. So, like I said, I prioritize communicating closely with my teammates; and we message back and forth all day, every day; but, you know, I do miss that running into somebody else in the hallway and saying "Oh hey, how are you? How are the kids?" and that kind of small talk and getting those relationships. Because, I mean, what I've found every job that I've ever had, what makes or breaks the job at the end of the day really is your coworkers and your working relationship with them and even personal relationship with them. If you're working with people that you can relate to and people that you want to get up and see every day, it makes that job a lot more satisfying and enjoyable. So I miss that, and I feel really bad for the new employees that we've oriented during this; because they don't know any of us, and they were just kind of thrown in--not thrown into it--but started under less-than-ideal circumstances, I guess, and probably do feel isolated.
April Malone 27:26
So you've hired, even during the pandemic?
Nicole Epplin 27:29
Not many. We've hired, like I said, one, we hired a VP level physician, who was hired prior to when the pandemic started. We hired a new CIO, who started in the middle of the pandemic. Poor guy. So, we have had a handful. There's not a hiring freeze necessarily, but we did face furloughs. In the beginning, I was furloughed halftime, pretty much the whole month of April and then furloughed full time in May for a while, and then went out on FMLA following surgery for a few weeks after that.
April Malone 28:01
Nicole Epplin 28:01
So, I guess that was kind of the difference also, to go back to the kids doing remote work in the spring versus looking at what it would look like in the fall. I was only working half time in the spring, really more than halftime; because who actually can get everything done in four hours? But, working halftime that whole month of April, I still couldn't get everything done. So, I knew there was no way I'd be able to do it full time in the fall.
April Malone 28:26
Right. Now that your kids are back in school, in-person school, and you improved the internet connectivity, do you feel as though things are kind of feeling normal again as far as like what you experienced before the pandemic and the freezes and everything.
Nicole Epplin 28:42
So, it's a new normal. You know, everybody's got a new normal right now. As everyone says, we're not going to go back to normal until we have a vaccine and everybody's been vaccinated the point of herd immunity. We're still several months away from that. I believe that, as a pharmacist, we're still several months away from that. As much as everyone would like to get back to normal, our normal right now is working from home. It is. At any point in time, my kids could be removed from the school setting. If they have a child test positive in their class, that entire class shuts down for 10 days. We're not entirely clear on if their siblings can continue to go, but it's possible that their siblings would have to stay home. So, I know that, at any point in time, it's pretty much inevitable that we will be back in that situation of the kids doing remote learning with me at home with them.
April Malone 29:37
Right, right. So let's talk about present frustrations. We talked about the challenges that you didn't actually experience early on. Other than knowing that your kids might come back at any time, as you're working from home for some time now, and you've been into it for several months, full time--have any new things cropped up that make--that are a challenge for you?
Nicole Epplin 30:02
Work-life balance, for sure. It's not something I've ever been good at, setting those boundaries. We take call one out of every three weeks; so, I'm used to always having had my laptop with me and being able, you know, getting a call at any point in time. Even the weeks that I'm not on call, it's not unusual for me to get a call after hours, especially in these days of COVID. We could be facing surge planning at any time where we've outgrown the current size of our COVID unit, and we need to expand it. There's new treatments coming, on and off the market, all the time and having to build the protocols for that. So, I really don't have much work-life balance; and it's that much harder if your desk is in your kitchen and is sitting there, staring at you while you're trying to cook dinner, and you know that there's that email that you didn't answer; and you start thinking about all those things you didn't do. It's harder to shut off, and it's really tempting to go back and open the laptop and do a little bit more work, but you have to--
April Malone 30:58
Have you thought about possibly moving your desk again? Where was it before?
Nicole Epplin 31:03
So, the room that it was in before, we're now remodeling. So that room is out of the question. What my husband and I talked about was, if the kids were to continue with the remote learning in the fall, we talked about moving it into the basement, into a quiet space. I really didn't want to do that, because I really like my view; and it really does help morale. I think I would not do well if I was in a basement without any natural light and alone and isolated and lonely for several hours a day. I think that, mentally, I would have a really hard time with that.
April Malone 31:33
Logistically, I wonder, if--Do you sit next to your router? Are you connected with Ethernet?
Nicole Epplin 31:39
I do connect with Ethernet, now. Yeah.
April Malone 31:41
Would you be able to do that if you moved down to the basement, could you move the router with you?
Nicole Epplin 31:45
That's a very good point. So, yeah when we talked about doing this before, we were doing the hotspot thing. So, no, we actually ran the router directly into where my office space is so that I would be able to connect and know that I would have a good connection.
April Malone 32:00
Right. I've lived this life.
Nicole Epplin 32:02
April Malone 32:03
Almost every single time I've moved, my employer required me to have the router in the same room and the Ethernet connection; and, so, I've had the cable guys out in all of my houses, poking holes in the walls. In almost every single house, we've had to do that.
Nicole Epplin 32:19
Yeah. So question for you--
April Malone 32:22
Nicole Epplin 32:22
Do you feel like--do you feel like, as time goes on and more and more people are working from home and employers are being more, hopefully, being more accommodating, like my employer is being. Do you find some of those requirements being relaxed a little bit? You know, the childcare requirements, being plugged into an Ethernet, things like that; or do you think that will continue to be strict?
April Malone 32:45
Hmm. Well, it depends on who you work for, I think; and I had been working for that employer that was strict about it; but, now... Well, actually, I do teach in the mornings, in the early--like 2am, I start teaching sometimes 3am, 4am, or 5am, before my kids are awake; and my husband is always just sleeping. So, if they need something in the middle of the night, they go to him first, like if they're barfing or something, he's the one who gets up and helps.
Nicole Epplin 33:12
That is a huge perk to your schedule.
April Malone 33:14
Yes it is. It is good, except for having to wake up at 2am; and I'm not a morning person. So, but, the people--I am an independent contractor for those companies, but they do have a requirement that children are not to be seen or heard, more or less, when you're on camera with your clients. One of the companies was a little bit more lax about that when I first started; and I'd have like, maybe after our session was complete, and I was just saying goodbye, I had a little--my son actually walked in; and he was kind of being shy, and he was off camera; and I was doing my very first lesson ever with this little guy in China, and I invited my son to come in and say hi. Well, that little boy ended up being my regular student for almost two years now, and I think part of it is because he met my son; and they've even had a few like little video messages for each other on WeChat a few times, and I think that's one reason why I've been able to keep that student for so long; because they know that, you know, I have a son the same age, and they kind of have that little connection. His mom even tried to send me masks when she knew we couldn't get masks, she tried to--she tried. She looked into it; and, at that point, they weren't allowing a lot of international shipping; and there were requirements as to how many they could have shipped. I was like "Just please keep the masks for your family, because it wouldn't have worked."
Nicole Epplin 33:17
That's very sweet.
April Malone 33:21
So, building that connection. And then, sometimes, cats. My cat would come in, and they'd want to show me their cat, and I'd show them my cat; but I think, since then in the last maybe six months they've been more strict about that. And then the other company that I was working with was like "No cats, no dogs, no pets, no kids." But, again, you know, they're sleeping. When I worked for Mayo Clinic--I don't know what they're doing now. You know, part of it is I get to control my own schedule, I get to pick whether or not I'm gonna accept clients during such and such days; and, so, I can plan around kids' stuff a little easier. And, so, I think, if I was still the hourly employee--I don't know. I don't know what their protocols are right now. It's a good question. I just hope that people are being understanding and flexible. Those who don't have children need to talk with their friends who do and hear it, you know, firsthand from someone they like rather than, you know, as a manager, just being annoyed by the disruptions.
Nicole Epplin 35:35
April Malone 35:35
But I think parents also need to--well, we were talking about this beforehand, just need to have a plan in place, you know, if you do have little ones. We talked about personalities. Let's talk about the personalities of your kids. Mine are in my face. How about yours?
Nicole Epplin 35:51
Yes. My kids are very, very high energy and very high maintenance. And I love that about them, and we have always encouraged them to be that way. We started them all in gymnastics when they were two or three, because my mother-in-law said "Your kids are just like your husband. You need to put them in gymnastics, or they're going to fall and get hurt." So, we started them in gymnastics so that they would learn to fall without getting hurt. So, they're always bouncing off the walls. We have a high bar in our living room which I can see from my desk here, and they are flipping on it all day. We bought them that as an Easter present, and it has been a true lifesaver. It gives them something that they can do to get some of that energy out whenever they're stuck in the house
April Malone 36:33
When I worked for the emergency room, I worked--I typed their emergency room notes for many years; and I swore, we would never own a trampoline, we would never, you know, do Motocross or anything like that. Then I gave birth to my son; and he, like, literally, needs, craves, requires to be able to bounce; and if we don't give him a trampoline--and we just got a little rebounding one, like an exercise one for adults, probably. We have pretty strict rules about who can jump on it, one person at a time; and it stays in the garage when it's not in use. But, if we don't give him that, he'll jump on the couch, he'll jump all over you, you know. And, so, just giving them something to expend the energy into is good.
Nicole Epplin 37:16
And there--our kids are used to, when we're at home, getting more attention from us. So, it's really, really difficult. I think the younger they are, it's difficult for them to continually be rejected by their mother and watch their mother continually putting her job before them when they're at home. They don't understand that, and I think that can be damaging in the long run. You have to be very, very careful about trying to set boundaries with your kids but knowing that it may not be possible, depending on the personality and age of the child.
April Malone 37:45
And your youngest is six.
Nicole Epplin 37:47
April Malone 37:47
So, I'm thinking about those people who have 2-year-olds and 1-year-olds and 5-year-olds. We actually hired, like, we called it a mother's helper or like a part-time nanny that would come into our home, even just four hours a day. And it was a big sacrificial, sacrificial expense for our family; but it was necessary. I wasn't sleeping. Because I was working in the night, I wasn't sleeping unless I had someone watching my kids and keeping them safe. You can't just drop a kid into their highchair for four hours. You have to have, you know, some sort of supervision.
Nicole Epplin 38:19
You and I talked about this earlier. I feel like our society right now has this stigma that, oh, well, parents can just work from home; and then their kids can do their schoolwork; and this is going to work out for everybody. Our kids stay out of the schools, nobody gets exposed to the virus, everything's great, right? In reality, that does not happen. You cannot supervise a child and do your job well. What I kept saying the entire pandemic is I feel like I'm failing at everything. With my kids here, I'm failing at being a mom; and I'm failing at being an employee. I couldn't do both.
April Malone 38:50
Yeah. And my hope, my dream for this year was I have a kindergartener going to school full time; and I'm going to finally be able to change my schedule back to daytime hours and live a life with sleep and the same schedule as my family and family time on the weekends; and I'm coming to that realization that--hmm--might still have to be on hold for another year. Because I am still having to wake up super early to start all this stuff before they start school which--I can get a tiny little bit of work done while I'm supervising, but my husband's on the clock. Like, he is logging in at a certain time and logging out, and when he takes his one-hour lunch break, I am like, "Okay, I'm off duty. I'm going to go do my work now." And then I'll come back and help the kids as soon as you go back in. We have to coordinate meetings. If he's an important meeting, then I have to keep the kids, you know, away. And, so, it's a lot to juggle; and that's with two adults in the home, who love the children and are supervising them while trying to work. But, basically, I have to be on call. You know, my daughter couldn't log into three of her classes the other day; and it took two hours. I held up three fingers, but it took two hours to try to remedy that and get to a solution for that; and it was two hours I couldn't do work.
Nicole Epplin 40:04
I feel like I spent the entire spring and summer, and the more time went on, the more I felt like I was just hanging by threads. And I was hanging by threads, thinking, "This is going to get better in the fall." Like everybody kept thinking this is going to get better, right? Like, our numbers are going to decrease, the virus will go away, that's what everybody's hoping. And that isn't what happened, and I felt like "I can do this. I can do this until the fall. If there's an end date, I can continue to do this and get by. And, then, when we started to realize there's not an end date here, I knew we had to do something different.
April Malone 40:35
Right. I know we were just thinking that it was going to be just one month, back when spring break happened; and, then, I was like "Okay, we'll start school in July. We have decided to keep our kids home for the year. But it's taken me about eight weeks to, like, embrace that concept and just reconcile the fact that my life isn't gonna look like what I expected for the next year.
Nicole Epplin 40:59
April Malone 40:59
It's a very gradual acceptance. Let's talk about social life a little bit, before pandemic and during and, maybe, after. You said you communicate with your coworkers, and I don't even know what Jabber is, can you tell me about that?
Nicole Epplin 41:12
It's Cisco's product that's kind of like instant messaging, similar to Teams, have you used Teams?
April Malone 41:18
Nicole Epplin 41:20
We use Teams with just the IT departmen. We're kind of trialing it to see if we want to roll it out hospital-wide, but a lot of our non-IT facilities are still using Jabber; so we use both. One of the things that our department did that I absolutely love. They've always had a culture committee, but they kind of ramped up the culture committee to make it specific to how do we keep a good working culture when we're never together? So, one of the things that the representative from our team came up with was doing monthly block parties. So, once a month from 4:00 to 5:00 on Thursdays, we get together; and it's a fun meeting. This is the meeting where people are encouraged to bring their kids and their dogs and their cats, and your family's encouraged to participate. You know, even after 4:30, if you want to have a glass of wine with your coworkers, you can have a glass of wine. Oh, and we do kind of like icebreaker little topics. The one last month was "What's the most exciting thing that's happened to you this month?" And then do just a lot of interactive dialogue, and it's been it's been really fun to get to still connect with them.
April Malone 42:20
And has that just been more recently, or were you doing that in person before the work-from-home situation?
Nicole Epplin 42:26
I guess it never felt necessary when we were in person. We would do informal gatherings and things, get together for happy hour here and there, or go out to lunch together with your coworkers, that kind of thing; but none of those are really possible right now. A lot of people aren't even comfortable with outdoor dining--with our family, we are comfortable with that; and we do, you know, meet friends for dinner here and there and eat outside. Luckily, the weather has cooperated so far. That'll be a different story when the weather turns cold, and the days are short; but, for the time being, at least we can do that.
April Malone 43:02
So, when we knew each other back in Southern Illinois, back in the day, it was before my baby was born; and she's 5. So, about 6 years ago, 6, 7, 8 years ago, we would get together once a month, a couple times a month, to do our baby-wearing walks; and we all strap our kids on our back or tie them onto our front or whatever and get a few strollers and push them around the lake. Which, looking back, those were really good times. What are you doing now, as far as just like friends or hobbies?
Nicole Epplin 43:30
I think a lot of people do this. We have a couple friends that we are very close with that we kind of formed a little pod with, you could say. In the beginning days, when everybody was very, very afraid to do anything, even leave the house, my friend and I decided, well, we can still run together. So, we would run together three or four times a week; and that was, like, life saving. Like, you'd spend all day like waiting, okay at least I get to meet my friend and run tonight.
I remember, pretty early on in the pandemic, a bug flew in my eye. And I was trying to fish this bug out of my eye; and my friend was standing there like, "I don't want to touch you, I don't want to touch your tears. I'm not supposed to be even, you know, running this close to you; but there's this bug in your eye, and I can't help you get it out."
April Malone 44:14
Did you get it out?
Nicole Epplin 44:16
I got it out.
April Malone 44:19
So, you've been running; and that's been kind of like your outlet for a long time now, right?
Nicole Epplin 44:24
Yeah, and we have a camper; so we've done quite a bit of camping with our friends when the campgrounds opened back up, because you can stay outside, you can do it safely.
April Malone 44:33
Right. I want to talk about your office one more time before we finish. Can we talk about ergonomics for a second? You mentioned that your employer provided your headset. Did they provide anything else for you to bring home?
Nicole Epplin 44:46
They provided the standard office equipment. So, we get two Dell monitors. Most of us already had laptops. They provided a docking station. Before, I was just plugging my extra monitor into my laptop; but, now, I have a full docking station. They didn't provide any office equipment, like chairs and things; and I did find that the chair that I had before--I was really having a lot of neck and shoulder pain. So, I ordered a new chair, and that's helped quite a bit. Once in a while, if I have something that I really only need one screen for, I'll even sit on the couch all day and recline; and that's pretty nice to be able to do that.
April Malone 45:20
Mm hmm. Yeah, that's one thing that I've heard again and again and again as I've been doing some market research and asking a lot of people, they talk about the chair, more than you would expect. I think a lot of people--
Nicole Epplin 45:29
Yeah, I had no idea what a difference it made.
April Malone 45:31
Yeah, what kind of chair were you sitting on before you ordered one?
Nicole Epplin 45:36
It was an office chair; but it had a really, really high back, so I couldn't lean back; and I was pretty much stuck in an upright position. I keep meaning to get one of those balls to sit on. I had a standing desk whenever I was in my office which was nice, because I could work and stand; so, sometimes, I'll set my laptop on like a higher tabletop surface and be able to stand to work.
April Malone 45:59
Well, I think we're gonna wrap up here. Do you have anything that you would like to share as far as just advice for someone who's just starting working from home or is kind of thrown into it, unexpectedly, during these times?
Nicole Epplin 46:13
I would say don't count yourself out from having a work-from-home job. When I was in pharmacy school, I certainly never expected that I would ever have a work-from-home job. And, now, a lot of people in my profession have been forced into this work from home; and I hope a lot of these changes are permanent, because it is a satisfier. But you have to understand that it doesn't come without challenges. It was all rosy and beautiful whenever I got to do it just two days a week; but, when I got thrown into it full time, I did have to make some of those adjustments to make it work, both with work-home balance and staying productive and staying on task and getting the job done.
April Malone 46:50
I have loved this conversation. Thank you so much Nicole.
Nicole Epplin 46:55
Thank you, April.
April Malone 46:56
And, we'll see you next time! I think we're gonna call this, and it's been about 45 minutes and yeah. Thank you. Well, continue having more conversations like this. The person I interviewed last, he's a work-from-home dad, and he's doing a lot of gaming and things like that; and, going forward, I think it's nice to talk with people who are in corporate versus entrepreneurs and kind of having that mix. So, I appreciate a completely different personality and insight and experience coming from you today. All right, thank you so much Nicole!
Nicole Epplin 47:34
Thanks April, take care.
April Malone 47:35
You too. Bye bye.