The Australians finding unique ways of working during COVID-19 lockdowns
Liam Green is used to dancing on some of Australia’s biggest stages, but for the past two and a half months he’s been confined to his living room.
Like many people across Sydney, members of the Sydney Dance Company have been forced to work from home as COVID-19 ripples through the state.
As a result, the 26-year-old’s Potts Point apartment, which he shares with his house mate, has become his dance studio. Preparing for a full day of classes and rehearsals now means pushing the coffee table to the side and sliding over a winged-back armchair to act as a bar.
“I’ve got a whole set up of my dining table, with a monitor and computer, so I can see everyone and be able to use the space and see myself as well,” he says, “there’s a lot of camera adjustments to get the feet in.”
As the reality of life with COVID-19 sets in, a big unanswered question is what the future of work looks like. For many non-essential workers, all indications suggest some degree of working from home will remain long beyond the pandemic.
Earlier this year, before the current outbreaks, ABC’s AustraliaTalks survey asked people how many people worked from home before the pandemic compared to in March. About 30 per cent said they had done some work from home before the pandemic, compared to 43 per cent when the survey was completed. The number of people working from home full-time had also tripled.
But while those whose work involves a laptop at the dining table may be relishing the flexibility — and looser dress code — of the work from home life, for others the arrangement raises some challenges.
“We’ve been utilising [Zoom] breakout rooms to talk about partnering sections,” says Liam. “Even though we can’t touch, we can still vocalise the ideas and techniques that are necessary when we do get back into the studio.” When you have a “two-by-two metre box” to dance in, he adds, “it is hard to get the heart rate up”.
In a normal week, the dancers work roughly 9-5, Monday to Friday, and their days begin with a class before a full day of rehearsals of up to 10 performances at any one time. While they’re still keeping up their morning classes and rehearsals throughout the pandemic, afterwards the dancers have also been redeployed to other parts of the organisation.
Some are putting together video dance classes for the public, others are teaching virtual workshops for school students. “And that takes us to the end of the day,” Liam says, “honestly, it’s been really busy organising that.”
Dining table engineering
Sebastian Parsons, a research assistant in bionics at the University of Sydney, has also been busy at home during the lockdown: he’s helping to build a device that restores vision for people with a disease that impacts the retina — a process that usually requires heavy machinery.
“Working from home doesn’t quite allow that,” he says. Instead, Sebastian, who lives in Centennial Park, has been working on a prototype to improve the manufacturing process while he has “the spare time”.
To do this, he took home a 3D printer which has pride of place on his dining room table — next to where his housemate is also working. While some of the 3D printers at the university lab are two metres long, thankfully the one he’s using is only about 30 by 50 centimetres.
“I still can’t properly test [the prototype] without the actual leak tester, which is sitting in the lab — but it’s certainly a start,” he says. “I’m surprised at how much we’ve actually been able to accomplish working from home.”
A garage respirator
During the last lockdown in Sydney, Sebastian’s colleague, biomedical engineering Professor Gregg Suaning, used his garage to build a respirator that could be used if hospitals were overrun with COVID-19 cases.
The project was in response to a call-out from NSW Health, which asked various universities whether they had a solution in case the outbreak got out of control and respirators ran out.
“We thought, well, maybe we can build one,” Professor Suaning says. “I asked all of our students if they would like to be involved, and we had a massive response.”
Hundreds of engineering students shared information via Slack and email, Professor Suaning says. They approached the project with the idea that if things got really out of control, the ventilators would need to be battery operated so they could be used in tent hospitals — like those seen in New York at the height of that city’s outbreak last year.
At the time, though, there was a global supply issue with ventilator components. So, the team used scooter batteries, which were widely available.
“As much as we possibly could we assembled things from the garage, but eventually we had to go back to the University of Sydney to use cleanroom facilities,” he says. “I can’t just make human life support equipment next to where my dogs sleep.”
By the end, the project received emergency permission to supply from the Therapeutic Goods Association and was displayed at a media conference next to Premier Gladys Berejiklian. “So, if things did take a turn for the worst we could supply those to Australian hospitals,” he says.
An (almost) empty zoo
Even with the most creative thinking, some jobs just can’t be done from home, and many organisations have been forced to find alternative ways to keep workers safe.
Featherdale Wildlife Park in Doonside, in Sydney’s west, was forced to shut its doors to visitors as a local outbreak took off earlier this year.
But while the Delta variant caused chaos and anxiety, managing director Chad Staples says the animals — which have remained on site — wouldn’t have noticed anything strange going on.
“It is really hard when you just don’t know how long it will last,” Chad says. “But the animals are never going to go without. Whatever we have to do — beg, borrow, or steal — to make sure they’re fine, that’s what we’ll do.”
Animal care workers are classed as essential, meaning they are permitted to travel in and out of work. At Featherdale, however, the zookeepers can go an entire day without seeing any of their colleagues, communicating only via radio and telephone.
“What we have had to do is go to a Team A-Team B scenario — so I don’t have my entire team working at one time, and you have a close contact or casual contact and wipe out the entire team,” Chad says. “Then it’s been ensuring that when on site, all the guys work completely on their own … to protect against the ‘what ifs’.”
While his staff have been forced to work in isolation, Chad says their contact with the animals has been a blessing. “Everyone who works at a wildlife park or zoo does it because they have a passion for animals, so to still be able to surround yourself with animals is very good for the mental and emotional health — that’s for sure.”