• Laura Owens

Sarah Owens: ...that the world needs a reset

Laura: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: And I'm Jan Black.

Laura: The pandemic has defined our lives since last March as it's taken many, many lives and altered the lives of the rest of us. On this episode, we want to talk openly about how it's impacted us and our family and what our hopes and fears are for the future.

Jan: Laura and I live in San Francisco. My older daughter and Laura's sister, Sarah Owens, lives in New York. She's joining the conversation on this segment to compare notes with us. We hope that wherever you're hearing this episode, you'll feel a part of our conversation too. After all, as we've been hearing so much these last few months, we're all in this together. Sarah, thank you so much for joining us.

Sarah: Thank you so much for having me.

Laura: What is life like now in New York versus when we all started to stay home when the pandemic started and we just didn't know how long it was going to last, and we were all getting adjusted to this work-from-home thing?

Sarah: I think that New York was one of the first places that was hit really hard with the pandemic. In March, especially, it was a very dire time. We were seriously on lockdown, we were experiencing a shortage of ICU beds. We were in a position where it really felt like the world was ending. Slowly but surely, New York got a bit better. Unfortunately, the pandemic continued.

But in summertime and in the fall, we began to reopen pretty strongly. I think that, at least for us, New Yorkers took it to heart that they needed to distance, they needed to wear masks, they were following directions. We were able to get to a pretty good point. Now, of course, things have definitely spiked again, this second wave has come. Still, we seem to be a lot more open than California is at this time, we'll see what happens after Christmas. As of right now, it seems like we're in a better place than San Francisco is, for sure.


Jan: You used to travel, we looked forward to your visits every couple of weeks. You would travel between New York and San Francisco because your company is based here in San Francisco, you were born and raised in San Francisco. Since last March, you've only made the trip home once, that was back in October. We miss you. We're wondering what is that like for you, to all of a sudden…

Laura: Go from seeing your family and your friends from the town you grew up in all the time, to now, you see them virtually.

Sarah: I think that you can answer that question in so many different ways. On the one hand, it's made us realize, from a work perspective, how we used to travel unnecessarily way too often. It became something where I was used to waking up and falling asleep on an airplane, or waking up and falling asleep in a new city, it got to be a lot. You miss the routines that you had at home, you miss the people that you were building relationships with, you missed that day-to-day of being in one place. From a work perspective, it's made us realize how much we really can get done virtually.

Obviously from a personal perspective, I miss being in San Francisco and being with you and being with my friends on a regular basis. I do think that we've found ways to stay connected in ways that we wouldn't have done previously. I think that we've all turned to video chatting and Zoom far more often for personal use. I had my birthday party over Zoom, we've done family Zooms for different holidays and events. That's been nice to make it feel like you're actually in-person with people when you're physically not able to be. But it's definitely taken a toll on the relationships and the closeness that I had been able to feel with people in California.


Laura: I would imagine too, the relationships you feel with people at work in general, it must be harder to communicate with your team knowing that you're not really in the same place. It must feel kind of helpless.

Sarah: Interestingly, I actually feel more connected than ever to my team. That may be because I've always been working, for at least the last few years, I've been working as one of the few people who are remote when everyone else is in the office. Previously, we had relied solely on phone calls as the way that we communicate. Being in the same position as everyone else, we're all working from home, but we're all working with our video cameras on. It's brought a closeness, for me being a typically remote worker, in a way that I haven't had before, at least since I was in the office. From that standpoint, it's actually been great because it's almost a level-setter for all of us. None of us are in the office, none of us are remote, we're all in one place.

Jan: What is that like for you, as far as working with clients on Zoom that you've never met before? How do you establish those connections that, otherwise you would have established in-person; reading the facial cues and the body gesture cues from a new client?

Laura: You would think too, that with that you have some people who would shine in person but maybe can't figure out the technology to shine on Zoom, right?

Sarah: There's two parts to that question. From the first perspective, just thinking about who shines over Zoom and who doesn't, surprisingly, a lot of the people who used to be a little bit more fearful of public speaking, do better in remote and Zoom conversations. Reason being, they can change their screen so they're not actually looking at a room full of people or a wall of Brady Bunch faces, they can actually change it so that they're just staring at their browser or at the presentation. I think that there's a lot of anxiety that goes down when you're not looking to see the reactions on the faces of the people that you're talking to.

The other thing, in terms of building relationships with clients, I have found this not just with clients but also for internal folks, you have a sense of vulnerability faster than you would in person. We're actually seeing these people at their homes, we're seeing what they have on their walls, their kids are interrupting, their dog is barking. It's a more human side versus a very polished business, almost that Instagram-perfect lifestyle that you try and portray sometimes in meetings. I think it brings us together, faster in a way. We relate to each other more as human beings versus a client-vendor relationship.


Laura: Because all of that stuff is going on, do you find that it's harder for you to focus sometimes?

Sarah: Yes and no, it's hard to say. There's definitely instances where it would be nice to just be able to have a side conversation with people. And other instances where you're in a meeting, you know that a person would do something that's really charismatic and get out of their seat, walk around the room, point to something, and grab everyone's attention in a certain way that you can't do over Zoom. I think that, for the most part, the first few months were definitely hard. A lot of businesses have been able to adapt and their teams have just figured out ways to make it work.

Jan: One of the things that you've been doing, that I know a lot of people have been doing, is sheltering in place and working from home with a loved one, in your case, with your fiancée. How do you do that when he needs to be on business calls and you need to be on business calls, how do you make that work?

Sarah: Funny enough, we had been managing pretty well in a studio apartment with two adults and a dog, up until shelter-in-place happened. That was fine when you weren't working and living in the same spot. When all of a sudden, two of us are needing to be on video calls, which is pretty much required by both of our companies, and we have a dog, and you're in one space. We got to the point where we were, in the beginning of every morning, looking at our calendars and negotiating. "Okay, whose meeting is more important? Okay, you can have the living room, I'll take my call from the bathroom." You're trying to do new business calls, you're trying to do calls with clients, sometimes with videos and my background is my shower curtain. This was before we had Zoom backgrounds that were required. That's part of why our company instated a policy where you have to have a Zoom background.

Laura: But then I guess you can't see somebody's dog, if you guys have to have those and they're required. I didn't know that was a thing.

Sarah: It's better than sitting on the toilet and having a new business meeting with that background.

Jan: Right, right. Or seeing moldy tile in the shower.

Sarah: Yeah.

Laura: You guys had to upgrade. Not necessarily an upgrade, you just had to get a bigger place.

Sarah: Yeah.

Laura: Not because you wanted to, but because you needed to.


Sarah: I think a lot of people have experienced this, especially living in cities. Our building got down to 40% capacity because so many people had just left the city to get more space in the suburbs or they've given up their apartments completely, rents were dropping like crazy. We were fortunate in that we were able to snag a rate, that was basically what we were paying for our studio, for a one-bedroom apartment.

That has been a game changer for us because one of us works in the living room, one of us works in the bedroom. Aside from seeing each other in the kitchen, which is basically like seeing a co-worker in the kitchen, and a nod in the middle of the lunch day, that's about it. I think that negotiating that in the beginning, whose meetings were more important and how we want to do that was difficult. Having additional space has been very helpful.


Jan: I'm wondering how your daily routine has changed, you touched on that a little bit. I know, for me, I'm staying up later at night and sleeping in later in the morning. What's it doing to you, in terms of the structure of your daily routine?

Sarah: We were waking up, before the pandemic, so early to try, because we both like to workout before work. We were taking 6:30am classes, which means that we were leaving our apartment at 6am, taking an Uber to wherever the class was, then showering at the gym or the boutique fitness studio, then taking a train or taking a car to work, and then being there all day. All of that was time-consuming, and took a toll financially too. Now we are able to sleep in a bit later. We both take a workout class together, but we do it over Zoom. That happens at 8am, whereas normally we're taking classes at 6:30am, leaving by 6am, that's already saved us two hours right there.

What I've actually really liked is having a dog during this. It has allowed me to take breaks during the day just to walk her around the block or take a quick walk in the neighborhood because she has to use the bathroom. That's a break in the day that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise. Whereas, before I was, not chained to my desk, but I just wouldn't leave and take those breaks. In the morning, being able to sleep in a bit more, workout from home, shower and get ready here has saved so much time. The ability to spend more time taking a break from work and take the dog out and just have some fresh air. It's been a total game changer.

What I will say is, at the end of the day, the delineation between work and home life is blurred. As of right now, it's almost nine o'clock and we're still technically working, both of us, and we haven't had dinner yet. There's not this clean break between when we would typically leave the office, go home, and have a moment to switch from work mode to personal mode. Now those lines are blurred, and it's an ongoing, always on thing.


Laura: It's interesting how many couples have either made it or broken up during this pandemic time because of that same problem. You were in the lucky group that, you got a dog, and you got a fiancée during the pandemic. What do you think you guys did right, in terms of managing that work/life balance at home, which is so hard to do, that the couples who didn't make it didn't do?

Sarah: It's a combination of a few things. I think that the communication aspect is key. Even in the beginning, just figuring out, "Okay, I recognize and I respect the fact that you have this meeting that is really important to you. I'm going to make sure that you're able to have that without distractions, I'll figure out something else for me. There were some times where he had more important meetings and sometimes where I did, but we were both respectful of that. I think that acknowledging that during the workday we both need to work, it's not something where we can distract each other. Like I said, aside from a nod in the kitchen, we really let each other do our own thing and focus on work individually. It's not like we're completely cramping each other's style.

The other thing that has been nice with it is figuring out the points in the day where we do want to connect. We have routines where I typically take our dog, Gracie, out in the morning. I'll switch off with him to do it in the afternoon. If we can, both of us, at the end of the day, to signify that the day is over, we'll take her out together. Finding those points to connect, finding and identifying those opportunities where we need to be separate, and communicating, and respecting each other throughout the entire process has been key.


Jan: Companies normally have end-of-the-year holiday parties. I'm wondering how that's impacting your company this year.

Sarah: Honestly, it's been something that we've been struggling with. We usually have a big party at the end of the year where everyone gets together, they can have their plus-ones there, probably similar to a lot of other company parties. It's dinner, it's dancing, it's drinks, some sort of entertainment, and you can't have that. As much as we want it to be in-person, we wanted to find some way, virtually, to get-together. We've opted to have a class where, there are plenty of companies that do this, we found a company that teaches online bartending. They send you the kits, everyone has gotten a kit, our holiday party is actually tomorrow.

Laura: I've heard of a lot of companies that are doing these classes together, whether it's a workout class or a cocktail class, like you said. It's almost more fun, I think, to do an activity like this, whereas a normal holiday party would just be people drinking. And would be more awkward.

Jan: You don't have to worry about somebody getting drunk at the party.

Laura: And driving.

Jan: Yeah.

Sarah: I mean, I love a good holiday party.

Jan: You love a good party, Sarah.

Laura: You do.

Sarah: I love a good party in general. I think a lot of companies are struggling to figure out how you maintain company culture when you can't be there in-person together. We tried over Thanksgiving to do something where we gave everyone an Uber Eats gift card and they can order food, because we normally do a potluck thing. We all joined Zoom and found that we were all just staring at each other while we were eating because nobody wanted to talk while they were eating, but we're all there. It was super awkward.


The idea of having an activity to do together at least, and also having an outside host, I think is nice so it's not someone who's in your company. We're also doing an ugly sweater contest, we have different categories for most festive, funniest, etc. The winners of that are able to win Uber Eats gift cards that were left over from Thanksgiving.


Jan: I have another question about the holiday spirit in general. I'm finding it really hard to celebrate this season because so many people are suffering. I just find it's difficult for me to get in the spirit of, "Oh wow, what a great time of year."

Laura and Jan: A magical time of year.

Jan: When you see so much suffering and people who've lost loved ones and people who are sick.

Laura: People who are going through their first season without their families.

Jan: And maybe lost a job, and maybe lost a business, and...

Laura: Feel fear. It's not joy. It feels like your priorities are really wrong if you're focusing on trying to give somebody or get some very expensive thing.

Jan: I'm just having trouble getting into the spirit. I'm wondering about you, Sarah.

Sarah: I have taken a totally opposite approach on that. I've been searching for something to provide joy this year. There have been so many negative things, there have been positives, of course, as well. For us, the day after Thanksgiving, any idea of getting a day closer to 2021 and hopefully some silver lining. We went, literally, the day after Thanksgiving, to get our Christmas tree. We decorated it and we put lights up.

It's not about getting the most expensive gift this year, it really is more about being grateful for what we have. It's being thankful that this year has given us a lot of good and reflecting on the positive that has happened in our lives. Just trying to find small ways of celebrating and being joyful this season has been almost more important this year than ever, to me. It feels different, obviously. I'm not going home, we're not doing gifts together, we're celebrating separately. Just trying to find some way to put a positive on, what otherwise has been such a roller coaster of a year, it's been nice to try and find that.


Laura: Now that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine, what advice do you have for young people, old people, who might be listening right now, and feeling like, "We're so close. I want to go out, I want to celebrate the Christmas season. I want to go see my loved ones," and they just feel like they can't wait.

Sarah: This is what I was telling Mom when we were trying to make the decision of whether to come back to California in December or not. I talked to one of my friends about this, and her father had told her something that was basically like, "We've gone this far. Let's go one more Christmas so that we can have future Christmases, you know?" That hit home for me. We are so close at this point. Is it worth risking, for the sake of a 'not normal' Christmas, going back and potentially giving something, knowingly or unknowingly, to someone who's vulnerable. In my mind, we're so close. Let's just get through this, let's get the vaccine, let's get to a point where we don't have to worry in the same way that we've had to do so for so many months at this point. Let's just get to that place and then we can see, celebrate, and be joyful with our loved ones. It's not worth it at this point to try and force something quickly when the negatives outweigh the positives.

Laura: What better gift could there be than that? Than to keep, not just our family, but people we would encounter at the airport or just in our everyday lives safe. That's the best present of all.

Jan: Definitely. Have any of your friendships suffered? Or do you know of any friends who've talked about losing their friends because the friends wouldn't social distance, or wouldn't wear a mask.

Laura: Just different attitudes in general.

Jan: Had different attitudes.

Laura: How did they handle it?

Sarah: I think, definitely people have different attitudes about it. As far as my friendship circles have gone, I think that everyone has been super respectful of whatever that is. There have been some people who've wanted to have an outdoor picnic, or an outdoor socially distanced birthday party, or whatever it is. In all of those instances, whether it's a written invitation or it's a conversation, it's always caveated with, "Only if you're comfortable." Of course, if you're not like, "No worries. Everything's fine," kind of a thing.

It seems like, to me, at least in New York, we've had a lot closer contact to the negative impacts of COVID. I know a lot of my friends, either their families have had it, or the doorman in their building have had it, or their neighbor has had it, or they've had it. Because of that, I think we understand it and are a lot more respectful of people's attitudes, willingness to show up, and meet up or not, maybe more so than some of my San Francisco friends. In general, I think that people have been pretty understanding about all this.

Laura: Sometimes I catch myself going to hug somebody or shake their hand. It's so hard not to do, especially with people that you care about and you haven't seen in a long time. I've run into that being kind of an awkward situation because you're like, "Well, how do they feel about this? Do they want me to? Do I need to apologize for not doing it?" Have you encountered that as well?

Sarah: Oh, absolutely. I think we pretty much always net out with, "Oh, I would hug you, but COVID" and then we do kind of an awkward virtual hug, not even virtual.

Jan: Air hug.

Laura: You say, "Air hug," and that makes up for it. But you miss the touch.

Sarah: An air hug. You do miss the touch. It has, in a weird way, brought a lot of people together in a way that we hadn't been necessarily before. Of course, there's so many negatives from all this, but I do think there are some positives as well.

Jan: I read an article in The Atlantic saying that the pandemic has released us from the expectation that closeness requires physical proximity. I'm wondering whether you think all friendships can survive that, or do you think some friendships will fall by the wayside if you aren't able to see each other in person?

Sarah: I think it's like any relationship. I think relationships take work and it takes two people both putting effort in to try and continue those things. Even before COVID, if people were living on different sides of the country but had friendships in a different area, if they were still communicating, if they were texting, if they were calling, if they were video chatting, if they were still putting in the effort to stay involved in each other's day-to-day lives, those relationships thrived and they continued. If people don't, then yeah, they do tend to fall by the wayside. It's something where, at least among my friend group, in the beginning of all this, we're like, "Oh yeah, Zoom, that's so cool. We'll do a weekly Zoom catch-up." After you do seven of them, you're like, "Do we have to do them?"

Laura: "Can I be the first one to drop it?"

Sarah: Exactly, exactly. I think Zoom was the thing for a while and then people got Zoom-fatigue and then they find other ways. I have really good girlfriends in San Francisco who were planning on doing an in-person, annual girls holiday dinner. They were still going to do that and I wasn't going to be able to join, but I was going to join via Zoom. Then the shelter-in-place regulations came and now none of them are joining in-person and we're all doing it by Zoom. I think still, for big occasions or for reasons, if you can connect over Zoom, that's great. If you can connect even by text or call, that's great too. For the friendships that matter, you'll find ways to stay in touch. For those that don't, it probably wasn't as strong of a relationship as you thought in the first place.

Laura: This is a question that could have so many different answers. What did nobody tell you about the biggest change that life would have in store in 2020 that you wish that they had in 2019?

Sarah: Nobody told me that the world really needed to reset. I think we had all gotten used to a culture of 'go, go, go.' Always working, always traveling, always going from one place to another. Never being comfortable just being sedentary and in one place, focusing on one thing, and focusing on the things that are important. In a way, 2020 has allowed us to take a step back and realize what's important. It's allowed us to take a pause and focus more on where we want our work to be, where we want our friendships to be, who those people are that are important to us, and really listening to our bodies about what we need. I feel like I've caught up on a years' of sleep. I don't know about all of you, but I don't even think I realized how exhausted I was until a few weeks into working from home and you're like, "Geez, how was I possibly sustaining on like six hours of sleep a night? That's crazy."

Jan: You traveled so much.

Sarah: I was used to the fact that I would wake up and I would have to take a moment to realize like, "Okay, I'm in San Francisco today," or "I'm in New York," or "I'm on a plane right now." That's just not really a way to live. It's been nice to just take a step back and refocus and reset.

Jan: Sarah, we thank you so much for joining us and having the conversation with us. It's has been really, really fun to catch up with you.

Sarah: It's been great to catch up with you guys too.

Jan: Our thanks to Sarah Owens for joining us on this episode. We hope this finds all of our listeners and their families feeling healthy and staying that way. We thank you all so much for your support. We look forward to continuing our connection with you in the future. I'm Jan Black.

Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.

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