Please welcome Sarah Penner to WU today! Sarah is the debut author of The Lost Apothecary, forthcoming in March 2021 from Park Row Books/HarperCollins. The Lost Apothecary will be available in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and translated in eleven territories worldwide. Sarah works full-time in finance with a Big Four accounting firm. Sarah and her husband live in St. Petersburg, Florida with their miniature dachshund, Zoe.
Sarah reached out recently to ask about running a survey with the WU community regarding workplace changes, and offered to then craft a post around that data. We answered with an enthusiastic YES. Thank you to all who participated–nearly 450 voices. What did she find? Read on to find out.
Creativity in a Pandemic: Navigating Changes to our Work Environment
I think many of us can agree that in the early days of the pandemic, we (somewhat excitedly) let this thought cross our mind: No social engagements? Work from home during lockdown? I’m going to get so much more writing done!
My, how naïve we were.
I’ll be the first to admit that months ago, as lockdowns began, I overestimated the number of wide-open hours I’d have to dedicate to my work-in-progress. Similarly, I underestimated my pandemic-related anxiety. But when I developed a mild case of shingles in April, there was no denying it: deep down, I was stressed. And this whole writing-during-the-pandemic thing was, in short, not going well.
We’re more than seven months into this thing, and reality has hit: writing in a pandemic is hard. Everyone’s work environment has shifted, for better or worse. No matter if you’re a parent or student, employee or retiree. If you’re a writer, you’re feeling this.
I work full-time in finance for a large consulting firm, and I used to commute to an office. Now, I quite literally sit down at my desk and log in from eight until five each day. It’s a pretty typical situation for many office workers these days, and I am so, so sick of this desk. I envision many of you nodding along with me: the “desk fever” is getting real.
Recently, I tuned into a virtual launch party for another author. She doesn’t work a 9-to-5, but she writes full-time and has a young son at home. As she explained the strange experience of launching a book in a pandemic, she commented on the very real struggles she’s facing with her child at home. Like many parents, she has now found herself responsible for at-home schooling and full-time child care, in addition to her writing.
After her launch event, I spent a few minutes musing on the struggles she’d outlined. She doesn’t have an office job, and I don’t have children. Yet despite how different our lives and routines appear, we are both facing changes in our work environment—and dealing with the repercussions of it, whether good or bad.
I began to wonder about the broader population of writers, and the impact of changing work environments on our writing time.
The results were eye-opening, to say the least.
Our recent survey
You might have spotted our recent Writer Unboxed survey on social media. We received hundreds of responses, and the data made me realize that despite differences in work, family, and routine, we all have much more in common than you might expect.
Nearly 57% of respondents said their daily work environment has changed since the pandemic began. This primarily included in-office work transitioning to work-from-home, or the presence of household members (roommates, children, or partners) in one’s work environment.
For some respondents, this shift has benefited their writing time. For many, it has not.
Challenges to creativity in a virtual work environment
More than a third of survey respondents indicated that pandemic-related changes to their work environment have resulted in less time to write. This metric is disappointing, although not entirely surprising. Anyone skimming Twitter regularly will see countless writers bemoaning their lack of productivity during the pandemic.
Why do many writers have less time to write these days? Two-thirds of respondents blame pandemic-related stress or the distraction of other household members (like children or partners.) Further, half of respondents are dealing with the impacts of children out of school/daycare, or struggling with fewer places to write as cafes, libraries, etc. are shuttered.
Opportunities in a virtual work environment
For another third of respondents, the change in work environment has actually had a positive impact on the time available to write.
For these individuals with more time to write, many said a more fluid and flexible schedule has been the difference-maker, as well as less time spent commuting. I actually fall into this category; I now save an estimated ninety minutes a day when considering the time it takes to get ready for work and commute there and back.
We’re all dealing with this
The final third of respondents said they have the same amount of time to write as pre-pandemic. This seems a positive thing, though not to be underestimated is the emotional and psychological toll we’re all facing. The internal shift is undeniable, no matter the changes to our workspace.
Even for those survey respondents who said they now have more time to write, it’s not necessarily a good thing: some respondents indicated they have more time due to job loss, a reduction in hours, or because they’re socializing less with loved ones. A trade-off exists, no doubt about it.
This goes to show that we mustn’t let ourselves judge other writers who seem to have more time on their hands these days. Their productivity might seem enviable, but we often don’t know the full story.
Expectations for the future
Nearly 60% of respondents indicated they do not expect to return to their pre-pandemic work environments in the next six months. This is an alarming figure, one which necessitates an honest evaluation of what we can and cannot control.
We can’t control how long we’ll be dealing with pandemic lockdowns. We can’t control school or office re-openings. We can’t control changes in the publishing or book industry, or the necessity of virtual events when we’d rather be interacting in-person.
But, this doesn’t mean we’re helpless.
What we can control amid changing work environments
For those who are struggling with less time to write—no matter the reason—here are a few things you can control in your work environment.
- Establish log-in/log-out routines and workspace variety. Some respondents indicated that their creative space has now merged into their job workspace, so it’s important to switch it up. Personally, I used to find my commute a useful “partition” between my day job and writing. Now that my commute doesn’t exist, I have to artificially create this mental split between work and writing. For instance, I will log off work in my home office, go to the kitchen to make and eat dinner, then sit down on the patio to begin writing.
- Turn your cell phone on “do not disturb” mode or adjust notification settings to hide social media alerts.
- Set aside specific times of day to check the news. Install phone app monitors, which kick you off social media or certain websites after an allotted time period each day.
- Do your best to establish boundaries for spouses and roommates: a closed door or a sign on the wall can help indicate that you’re in the zone. Noise-cancelling headphones work wonders, too. (And for the pesky salesmen who inevitably ring the doorbell during writing sessions and virtual book events? I recently bought a ‘No Soliciting’ sign and posted it in the front yard.)
- Schedule writing sessions with accountability partners. This is helpful even when we’re not in a pandemic. I know of one group who logs in at five am each day, and after a couple of hours of writing, they share their progress (virtually) and commend one another’s progress.
- Finally, adjust expectations accordingly. None of us can expect our same output given these new pressures. I’ve encountered many writers who now aim for 50-75% of their “old” daily word count, and that’s perfectly okay. In March and April, I was logging about half my normal wordcount. In time, it’s ticked upward, and I’m back to my normal quota. We’re all learning and adjusting as we go.
What about your own work environment has changed since the pandemic has begun? Do you have more or less time to write than before?
Do you have tips or tricks for those struggling to write amid changing work environments?
Share them below!