Working From Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic by Lynne Nakashima, BC Cancer, Canada

By Lynne Nakashima, BSc(Pharm), PharmD, FCAPhO, Provincial Pharmacy Director, BC Cancer

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the entire world in just a short time.  The impacts have been enormous and far reaching!  For the world of Pharmacy, it thrust us into the spotlight, as front-line workers, both in retail and hospital sectors where most of the Pharmacists, Pharmacy Technicians and Assistants work in front line positions, caring for patients.  These are the staff that are featured in the news and on television.

But there is a smaller number of Pharmacy staff who are more "behind the scenes" and who were not right at the front lines.  These roles and work could be moved to a "work from home" arrangement to help reduce the traffic to the centre, to protect the patients and staff who had to come in.  It also gives the organization a back-up plan for staffing, should the crisis deepen.  Keeping some staff at home, and hopefully healthy, may mean that they are available to step in, should there be an outbreak amongst staff in the centre.  

The Provincial Pharmacy team at BC Cancer is one such group.  For us, the notification from our organization came very suddenly.  On Fri. March 13th, our team was asked to move our work to home, if we could.  And by Mon. March 16th, the majority of our team started working from home, with most transitioning over the course of the week.   This is a gigantic task to arrange in such a short time, and in the middle of a crisis, when things are changing rapidly, it is a challenge to be successful.   It is also a challenge to lead a team from afar, and for the team to remain cohesive and connected.  As of this writing, the team is still working from home, while planning has begun to safely return the staff to work.

The first and major challenge came in the technology needed to work from home.  Although we are computerized and had some pre-existing access to our network, this was a significant barrier in the early days.  The additional stress of taking a large number of teams and giving them remote access made the systems very slow.  This took some time to resolve and created frustration at the start.  But we stuck with it, and with some enhancements implemented by our information technology department, things improved.

Communication, collaboration and meetings are another challenge.  Quite often, we'd gather ad hoc to quickly discuss an issue.  It's easy to poke your head around the corner and ask a quick question.  But when everyone is apart, these simple communication vehicles become a challenge.  It isn't as easy, somehow, to pick up the phone as it is to have a quick in-person consult.  Some folks are good about texting and emailing, but it still isn't the same.   So this has to be organized more regularly.  We increased the frequency of our team meetings and made sure we had more time to connect with each other.  Video meetings are significantly better than teleconferences.  Just seeing the individual makes a huge difference to feeling connected.  Just don't forget to "unmute"!

Working from home requires discipline.  Focus is required.  It's  easy to get distracted - pets, children, laundry, that messy area we suddenly noticed - all can take our attention away from the task at hand.  Keeping to a schedule is a good idea, as it helps to define our workday.  It is easy to keep going into the wee hours of the night when we don't have the natural barrier of work separated from home.  It was important for us to remember to  take some time for ourselves too!

And finally, I know some of us experienced a sense of guilt, at least initially.  We were able to work from home, but most of our colleagues and friends were not.  They were essential on the front lines.  It took some time for us to realize that the work we were doing was important, and even critical, and that, by staying home, we were also helping to protect the patients and our colleagues.  

It's been a learning experience for all of us, as we've navigated this new world.  I've never been more proud of the Pharmacy staff at BC Cancer, than I have been through these past few months.  Despite all the challenges, everyone has put their forward their best.  And as it continues to change, we will be ready to meet the challenges head on!

Lynne Nakashima working from home