Working from home blurs lines between job, family

Sam Gygax juggles decisions about product demand and supply as well as two young children, Josephine, 2, and Kathryn, 6 months, as she works in isolation from the kitchen of her Roswell home on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. Gygax is the demand planner for High Road Ice Cream. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
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Sam Gygax juggles decisions about product demand and supply as well as two young children, Josephine, 2, and Kathryn, 6 months, as she works in isolation from the kitchen of her Roswell home on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. Gygax is the demand planner for High Road Ice Cream. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is tracking what happens to one local business during the coronavirus pandemic. The AJC is focusing on High Road, a Marietta-based ice cream manufacturer. This is the second installment of an occasional series.

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About a month ago, Sandra Gurley got the phone call.

Someone at Kincaid Elementary School in East Cobb County had tested positive for coronavirus. The worldwide pandemic was now just a breath away from her second-grade daughter.

“Hers was the first school in East Cobb to close down and shut the doors,” Gurley remembered. “I picked her up and brought her home.”

As she was driving back to her office at High Road Craft, the luxury ice cream maker, she began having second thoughts.

“I started to think about the movie ‘Outbreak,’” she said. “Should I even go back? Will people be paranoid? My daughter doesn’t have it, but people are going to look at me knowing she is from the school where someone tested positive and start to worry.”

She texted Keith Schroeder, High Road’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “He said, ‘Get everything you need, go home, and you can work from home. Stay there until we tell you to come back.’”

That was the last day at the office for Gurley, the director of brand at High Road.

Four days later, Schroeder sent the remaining nonessential office staffers home.

For the office workers, the pandemic has rendered daily life nearly unrecognizable. They work in isolation from their colleagues, holding video conferences, posting and reading Slack, the communications platform, while managing the suddenly relentless demands of home life.

Most of High Road’s 18 office workers are women.

“They used to have a commute. They used to have a teacher who was taking care of their kids and a school lunch program,” said Nicki Schroeder, Keith’s wife and co-founder of High Road. “Now they say, ‘I’m the lunch lady; I’m the teacher; I’m the janitor; and I’m the worker and I’m the wife’ — and it’s a lot.”

» Read the first installment of the series: Pandemic response with planning, will to survive

Gurley’s days now are filled with working with her husband to juggle the needs of two kids while focusing on reimagining the brand of a company in the fight of its life.

Many at High Road have worked from home before, so little of this is novel. Even so, suddenly being forced to mingle work and family is disorienting. A normal workday creates boundaries: Employees focus on work at the office and on their families at home.

Those boundaries are dissolving.

“It’s definitely changed how people look at working and how to prioritize things in their day,” said Nicki Schroeder, also the chief brand officer. “I notice some folks have really had a hard time just prioritizing the work and setting up boundaries.”

Employee Samantha Gygax and her husband, Matt, have developed a tag-team system. She has a standing 10 a.m. meeting. His is at 11. They take turns managing their two small children, trying to allow each other space and time to work. In the evenings, they negotiate their work plans for the next day.

“It’s kind of shifting the girls back a forth between who has a meeting and who hasn’t got a meeting,” she said

Days grow longer. Lines blur between work and family. More time for kids in the morning but more work after bedtime. Tuesday is hard to tell from Saturday.

Gygax has established her home office on the kitchen table. A jar of baby food sits perilously close to her laptop keyboard. A child seat for the baby is fastened to one end of the table so she can simultaneously keep an eye on her toddler, Josie.

At Gygax’s feet is a baby bouncer so she can rock 6-month-old, Katy, who constantly goes from there to an empty lap to a play mat and — hopefully — to bed. The background mix features such classics as “Wheels on the Bus,” “Rain, Rain Go Away,” and “The Alphabet Song.”

Meanwhile, Gygax calibrates the company’s vital flow of materials and product, working closely with other aspects of the business – operation, logistics and sales. She’s High road’s demand manager. “I’m ensuring that we’re able to fulfill the orders that are coming in, identifying what the future orders will be, what needs to go in production and are we able to get it there on time,” she said.

All this while planning dinner.

Tombstone pizzas, Coca Cola and Cheez-Its

Keith Schroeder’s thoughts drift these days to places like Bentonville, Ark., home of Walmart Inc.

He suspects that executives at large retailers – “working at home in their boxers” — are prowling for efficiencies and simplicity to streamline their operations.

“One of my fears is that the big retailers will start to minimize assortment and array of products at the expense of a lot of small businesses,” he said. “Once that’s done, we’re going to walk into the grocery store and see nothing but Tombstone pizzas, Coca Cola and Cheez-Its. And that’s terrifying.”

For High Road, such simplification would add complexity. The upstart could find itself competing for finite shelf space against bigger more established brands.

With the restaurant side of the business collapsed, the importance of grocery sales can’t be overstated. So far, demand has been robust – with online orders jumping 700%. Overall, the company’s revenues are running 40% to 50% above expectations.

Owner Keith Schroeder pauses in what he calls an eerily quiet sales and marketing department at his business High Road Ice Cream on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Marietta. The department is normally bustling with 16 employees who are all now working from home. (Photo:    Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)
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Owner Keith Schroeder pauses in what he calls an eerily quiet sales and marketing department at his business High Road Ice Cream on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Marietta. The department is normally bustling with 16 employees who are all now working from home. (Photo: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

One new product, Wallops — ice cream encased in cookie dough and chocolate — has blown up. “It seems to be the perfect I -don’t-give-a-(expletive)-if-I-get-fat product for the apocalypse,” Schroeder joked, noting the departure from the company’s focus on healthy eating.

The plant is at or near capacity, and Schroeder intends to expand by rearranging shifts and adding employees. His head count has jumped from between 60 and 70 to 86. Most of the new workers come from the restaurant business, which is dear to Schroeder’s heart. He’s a former chef, and High Road was cradled in Atlanta restaurants.

He’s pleased with his new hires, whose restaurant skills match well with High Road’s needs.

So far, Schroeder’s biggest worry – an infected production worker – hasn’t materialized. His anxiety about an order of medical-grade masks was eased after the mother of Rebecca Haynes, his director of research and development, sewed 60 masks.

Schroeder also is working to help the community. He’s involved with a consortium called HOSP-ATL, which supports Atlanta’s struggling hospitality workers. The initiative gives him an important sense of purpose. “I was ready to poke my eyes out going from home to High Road, from home to High Road,” he explained. “Servicing Walmart was not my number one life goal.”

The other day, he choked up thinking about what was happening to restaurants. “I was just sad,” he said. “This sucks.”

“It’s disconnected everybody”

Steve Jobs, the late Apple founder, wasn’t a fan of working remotely. “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions,” Jobs once said. “You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” Pre-pandemic research suggests working remotely is a mixed bag. Productivity rises, but other aspects may suffer. People in the same room tend to solve problems more quickly than remote collaborators, and working remotely can harm team cohesion.

Nicki Schroeder sees that. “It’s disconnected everybody,” she said. “It feels like you have to work a lot harder to make everyone feel they’re like part of a team. Before, you could just pop into an office or the production floor to talk to someone. Now you’ve got to use Slack or use videoconferencing to say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about you, I care about you, and here’s some direction.’”

But she also believes that being away from the office has boosted her creativity. “I can work 24/7, and that isn’t good, but it does allow an uninterrupted flow for my creativity,” she said.

Sandra Gurley juggles decisions about branding as well as two children, working in isolation from the dining room of her Marietta home with daughter Cassidy, 8, and the family dog Tessa on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. Gurley is the director of brands for High Road Ice Cream. Her son Liam (not pictured) is 13. (Photo: Curtis Compton  / ccompton@ajc.com)
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Sandra Gurley juggles decisions about branding as well as two children, working in isolation from the dining room of her Marietta home with daughter Cassidy, 8, and the family dog Tessa on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. Gurley is the director of brands for High Road Ice Cream. Her son Liam (not pictured) is 13. (Photo: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Gurley believes this period will test everyone’s resilience. “I think we’re going to learn how to lean on each other and be one another’s heroes,” she said. “I think a lot of positives could come from this. For my kids, they could remember this as a happy time when they played in the yard and learned to be mommy’s helpers.”

Samantha Gynax worries children may never know the world that was before.

“The girls are so young that they don’t really know what’s going on – other than mommy and daddy are home all the time.

“A lot is going to change,” she continued. “It’s little things – I see people taking off their shoes before they walk in the door. I’ve hadn’t seen that before. Our brains are going to change when we’re out in public.

“We’re going to be changing our day-to-day habits, how we maneuver grocery stores and restaurants – wondering how they’ve been cleaned and how much distance to keep.”

Among the unexpected events at her house has been a sudden addiction to the bizarre and crazy popular documentary “Tiger King.”

“Both of us were sucked into it,” she said, laughing with astonishment. “The ratings are so high because nobody has anything else to watch.”

Bert Roughton Jr. is a special correspondent for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He can be reached at ajcbroughton@gmail.com.