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Work It: Home

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Home is where the heart is... not to mention work and family during a pandemic. This week on Work It, we’ll get you out of your house and into the homes of other Charlotteans by introducing you to a carpet installer, web designer and realtor.

How has the pandemic defined (or redefined) your idea of home? On the fifth episode of the Work It Podcast, we’ll get you out of your house and into the homes of other Charlotteans by introducing you to a carpet installer, web designer and realtor.

Everyone has a "Work It" story (whether it involves home or not). Who should we interview next? Submit your guest idea in the box below or leave us a comment on Facebook.com/WorkItPodcast.

Receive the Work It podcast as soon as it's available: subscribe for free (and leave a rating/review) on Apple Podcasts, NPR One or on your favorite podcast app.

READ THE TRANSCRIPT:

Episode 5: Home

Stephanie Hale: Jill, can you even remember life before COVID-19?

Jill Bjers: Vaguely. I think I remember something about date nights in a restaurant on Fridays.

Stephanie: Oh, yeah, didn’t you eat at the same Vietnamese restaurant every Friday for years?

Jill: Yeah. Memories of sitting in the restaurant feel like those old timey silent films. What about you? What was your last night out before lockdown?

Stephanie: I was in New Orleans with this guy I was falling in love with. We went to music every night and ate out what seemed like 5 times a day. He lives in a different state, so it was fun to meet for the weekend. It would be four months before I heard live music again, ate out again or saw him again.

Jill: I’d generally consider myself a homebody but even is this wearing me down. I’ve been working from home for decades, but now I have both my son and my husband working from home. Which seems like it wouldn’t be a lot since we’re all adults, but it is.

Stephanie: I really enjoy being out, seeing and doing things that don’t fall into the buckets of work or housework. And now that’s merged into work-from-home and housework. Oh, then there were those few weeks where I also had the added pressure of trying to get a defiant high schooler to do online school! Looks like we’re going to do that for months now. For our family, that was one huge power struggle that I’m probably going to lose.

Jill: Yeah… these are super weird times, for sure. But I will say this new normal has given me a perspective of being really grateful. Other than my family being a little on top of each other, which is making me feel like my house is shrinking, we’re healthy and secure. Plus, I’m not online-schooling. Adjusting to working and schooling from home sounds like my nightmare.

Stephanie: It’s been rough. But just as bad as a full house is an empty one. It must also be hard to isolate when you live alone!

Jill: Home is no longer just where the heart is. It’s where everything is.

Stephanie: Everything! Cases are picking up in Mecklenburg County, and it seems like there is no end in sight to the orders to stay mostly at home. I will do my part and stay home as much as possible, and also, can I just say, I’m so tired of being at home!

Jill: Me too. I’m sure we aren’t alone. Since so many of us are working from home, playing at home, exercising at home, everything at home. Let’s dedicate this episode to home. We’re going to chat with a web designer who has worked from her home for years, a carpet layer who works in other people's homes and a realtor who works to help you find your perfect home. That’s coming up on the Work It podcast.

Act 1: Lisa

Jill: For many of our listeners, working from home is a totally new concept that is taking some adjustment. Both Stephanie and I have been working from home for a while, but because of COVID-19, Steph has the added strain of online schooling.

Stephanie: Yeah. We’re just taking it one day at a time. But we’re going to kick off our home episode with someone who might have the “house keys” to working from home success.

Lisa Ellington: Lisa Ellington. I am a web developer and graphic designer.

Stephanie: Those sound like two really different jobs to me.

Jill: Sometimes they are. You see, a website is two pieces, the structure and design of what you see, and the functionality of the website. She is both designing what you see and coding the structure of the website.

Episode 5 - Lisa Ellington.jpg
Lisa Ellington is a web developer and graphic designer.

Lisa: I do print collateral and brand identity stuff, but it's just kind of shifted for me to where designing websites and putting the front end together is really what I like doing. Because I like seeing that immediate result of solving a problem. I think it's fun.

Jill: When you see Lisa in person, the first thing you notice is her smile. It hints at something mischievous. She’s mid-40s with shortish blonde hair that balances practicality with artsy. Our first conversation was during North Carolina’s stay-at-Home order. So we connected over the phone and talked for a while. I could tell that we definitely both needed someone new to talk to. Our first conversation was 2 hours and only ended when our phones decided that they needed a break. Lisa is so easy-going and casual that from our very first conversation, it was like talking to an old friend. To add to that “new friends chatting” vibe, we decided to sit on our respective couches for our conversation.

Lisa: …a really big, comfy, deep gray couch, and I have a bunch of pillows on it.

Jill: …and me in my soft, gray couch with minimal pillows and a few blankets. Just like the IKEA showroom floor. One of the unspoken side effects of marrying a Swede.

Stephanie: Sofas are the new recording studio. What is her home office like?

Jill: Actually, she doesn’t have one.

Lisa: I have found that I feel really isolated in a space that's not more common. So the house that I own right now, my workspace is in my living space. I have a standing desk in that space that I can convert to a sitting desk. And a lot of times, I'll sit on my sofa and work, or I'll sit out on my back porch and work, or sometimes I'll even sit in my bed and work.

Stephanie: I work like that too. Some days, I’m in my office. Other days, I’m at the kitchen table. I really need that variety.

Jill: For Lisa, it’s not just the variety but also being around her kids, who are 12 and 15. She splits custody of them with their father. So when they are with her, she really tries to spend as much time with them as possible.

Stephanie: I completely understand. My office doesn’t have a door on it for much of the same reason. There is something comforting about being in the mix with the kids. I love eating lunch with them. Having the flexibility to move around to be near them when you want to be and away from them for a phone call is awesome. It’s like it makes it possible to be both productive as a parent, available when they need you, and productive as an employee, able to be focused when the work needs you.

Jill: Lisa takes that flexibility one step further to not only include where she is working, but when she is working. For her, the day of the week is irrelevant, which means she is often working seven days a week.

Stephanie: Like 24-7?

Lisa: No, I am not a workaholic. Not a workaholic at all. I don't really keep a normal schedule, and I'm okay with that. I don't feel like I'm constantly working because I build so much free time into my weekly daily work schedule. It doesn't feel overwhelming for me. It's just the way it works well for me. I'm not super organized in that I have to get up and shower and then sit at my desk and do the eight-hour thing. For what I do and the way that I have structured my business and my life around my business, it's more fluid.

Stephanie: It’s so great to hear that she has embraced this kind of flexibility. I’ve noticed that during COVID, as so many people have started working from home for the first time, the prevailing advice from websites and publications is that success lies in replicating the office environment at home.

Jill: Yes, they’ve been saying that for years. I remember when I first started working from home in 2003ish, the advice was to do everything as if I’m going to the office. Which is weird, since if I wanted to do that, I’d just go to the office.

Stephanie: Exactly! We leave so much of the productivity benefits of working from home on the table if we don’t adapt our routine to our own natural rhythms. I read this book called “When” by Dan Pink last year, and it’s basically about managing your energy not your time. It turns out, this 9-5 we hold so sacred as “working hours” doesn’t really capitalize on the best energy times for most of us. Research he cites says the better working hours for most people would be 6 a.m. to noon, and 3 p.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. So maybe she’s not just non-traditional. She’s smart.

Jill: Yeah. Lisa has definitely figured that out.

Lisa: It doesn't matter if it's a weekend or weekday. I don't really typically stop on the weekends unless I feel like I need it. There are times when there's a day during the middle of the week that I just need a mental health day, or I feel like I won't be able to get much done because I'm under stress about something with life or whatnot.

Stephanie: Yes! This is exactly the kind of mindset I think the world needs, especially now, but it seems like it is hard to reconcile this kind of self-management with the relentless American ideal of working round the clock to climb the corporate ladder.

Lisa: My goal in life is not to make the most money. It's to make the most out of my time and my space here in this world. Of course, I want to do well. I want to be able to make work work around my life and, it's been really cool. It's super cool. It’s a dream. It really is.

Jill: Is working from home a dream for you, Steph.

Stephanie: In my pre-COVID work life, I would say yes, I had a dream scenario. I worked from home and then traveled a lot. That was a dream for me. I got to be home when the kids got home from school much of the time, but then I also got to be in new cities around new people often, which is really energizing for me. We won’t be doing any work travel through the end of the year and I’m really missing it. But once in a while, I admit, I miss the camaraderie of the office. How about you Jill. Is it a dream for you?

Jill: Dream? That’s a strong word for me. But I have always liked working from home and its perks. But I also miss traveling. Although my work arrangements haven’t changed a lot, my husband is now working from home and you’d think that wouldn’t have a big impact on me because we have separate home offices, but it has. I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed the routine of him coming home from work. To me, he is home. So his energy changes the house from my workplace to home, which has definitely affected my productivity. So yeah, while COVID hasn’t changed my work, it’s changed the feel of my work routine by changing his work routine.

Stephanie: Lisa is pretty lucky, COVID hasn’t upended her routine much.

Lisa: It's pretty much the same other than the weeks that I have my kids. My kids are 15 and 12, so they're pretty self-sufficient, but I do get interrupted more during the day when they're home, and I'm working from here and can't go to a coffee shop or whatnot to work. Other than that, it's pretty much the same. Maybe it’s psychologically knowing that I have to stay home, but I do feel a little more isolated.

Jill: But she is feeling a bit of the fatigue that we’ve all been feeling.

Lisa: The last few weeks, I've just been not quite as productive as I normally would be. I feel a little less motivated than normal. And that's something that everyone is kind of going through right now.

Stephanie: Lisa’s way of working is becoming more the norm, but when she started her career very few jobs offered this kind of flexibility. How did she get started in this career?

Lisa: When I was a little kid, I would make books. Typography was always something that was really, really interesting to me. Even as a little kid, I remember reading Shel Silverstein poems. There’s one book called “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” and in it is a poem called “Lazy Jane.” The poem is like “Lazy, lazy, lazy Jane. She wants a drink of water. So she waits and waits and waits and waits for it to rain.” And I don't know why I remember that, but the way it was laid out was with all these words typed out so that they fall to her mouth. And the illustration is of a girl at the bottom of the page. Looking at that, even as a little kid, I knew it was really interesting to me.

Stephanie: I remember how the kids fought over the Shel Silverstein books at the school library! I guess that was most kids’ first exposure to the power of visual design, even if most of us didn’t realize it at the time.

Jill: Lisa did though. Fast forward to college and that love of design was still there, but she didn’t immediately see it as a career possibility.

Lisa: I wasn't figuring out what I wanted to do. I was really flailing a little bit. Cause I just couldn't find the right fit. And so my second year in, I was like, “I got it.” I saw the catalog. I looked at it. I was like, “This is what I want to do. This is what I needed to be doing.”

Jill: But her parents didn’t see an art degree as a good investment, so they stopped paying for her schooling.

Lisa: And so I got loans, and I figured it out, and I went through school and it just so happened that's when the internet was starting to come up.

Stephanie: Ha, remember when there wasn’t the internet?

Jill: Yes! But shhhh! You're confirming our old lady status for our listeners. Ugh, do you remember how ugly the internet was back then?

Stephanie: Yes! Mismatched fonts and weird spacing and everything took forever to load.

Jill: Drop shadow everything.

Stephanie: Forget the internet! I remember our first home computer. My dad was doing some graphic design work, or what they called typesetting in the 1980s. When I was in middle school in the early 90s he told us that we had to get a computer at home for him to do his work, and it was going to cost a fortune, so we couldn’t touch it. It was a little rectangular Macintosh.

Jill: Fancy. I was totally fascinated with the family computer, an Atari 800, when I was a kid. My first book report printed out on a dot-matrix printer was a huge source of pride for my 8-year-old self. I don’t even remember the first computer that I could call my own. But Lisa does.

Lisa: So we had computer lab at school, but you know, that closes at a certain hour. So we would sneak in every once in a while. We knew how to get in, but I wanted to complete our home. I couldn't afford it. I mean, my parents were blue collar, they couldn't afford to just go by spend $2,000 on an Apple computer. One summer, I calculated how much money I could make, and that I could almost get the entire amount by the end of the summer to buy my first computer. I saved every penny that summer. And I bought a Mac 2SI with 16 megabytes of RAM. It was a really rocking computer. Making that sacrifice and getting that computer allowed me the freedom to experiment at any time that I wanted.

Jill: And it turns out that the ability to experiment on her own made all the difference.

Lisa: I started my career right when the internet was just starting out, I mean like mid-90s. So to get anything as a designer to work online, you kind of had to figure it out yourself. I was just plain lucky or the timing was perfect when I was going through college and starting my career, because if I would have been a couple of years older, the internet wouldn't have been around when I was in college, and I wouldn't have had time to experiment with it.

Stephanie: I love it. It seems like our careers are driven by a combination of choice and chance.

Lisa: My favorite aspect of my job is actually sitting down and writing code and watching it come to life. I mean, it's a totally freaky thing, but I love doing that. It’s the creativity part. We start our day in something that didn't exist, and now it exists and makes someone's life easier or helps a business sell a product that helps a family put food on their table or whatnot. And it's just the creative processes is so fun.

Stephanie: Lisa’s creativity and love of problem solving shows up not just in her work but how she works.

Lisa: So my kids think that it’s very normal that parents just are around all the time and can go to all of their events and all of their things. I have to explain to them sometimes, “You guys are lucky. Not all kids have their parents to do those things.”

Jill: And this gets at the heart of why Lisa has created this kind of life for herself. Many people, especially women, struggle to make their work and their families co-exist well. Also, as more and more dads start to shed that old stereotype of the uninvolved dad, they are feeling it more and more too. It doesn’t seem like Lisa feels that though, her lifestyle allows her to be a thriving designer and entrepreneur and a highly engaged mom without burning out.

Stephanie: It’s funny because her style may leave some people with the impression that she’s a slacker. But actually, nothing could be farther from the truth. She worked at agencies early in her career and really loved the camaraderie and collaboration with other designers but what she didn’t love was the agency pace. It was too slow for her. She works hard and fast, so sitting around the office, killing time until quitting time, just didn’t suit her.

Jill: Yeah. Working from home allows her to work within her own rhythm. It’s important to note that part of why she can set her own pace is that she works for herself, which gives her more control over her time and schedule. Although, she does have clients that sometimes dictate her schedule, that isn’t the norm for her. You can hear it in the enthusiasm she is able to maintain for her job.

Lisa: Oh my gosh. I love it. I have the best job in the world. I swear. I get to wake up every day and create something new every day. I get to solve people's problems and help people promote their causes and their businesses. And I'm the luckiest person in the world.

Stephanie: Yes, wake up and create. Not wake up ready to create but first do all this non-creative, de-energizing stuff like ironing work clothes and commuting. She really seems attuned to her creative energy. Spending a little time in Lisa’s house has been invigorating! I wish I could work from her house once in a while!

Jill: Right, but I still have an itch to get out of my own home.

Stephanie: What would be great is if I could work at a different house every day! Maybe that would give me the variety I miss so much!

Jill: Our next guest gets to do just that. Ron the carpet installer brings new meaning to the term “work from home…” or “homes…” since he works in a different home every day. That’s coming up on the Work It podcast.

Act 2: Ron

Jill: We’ve clearly established that I like working from home, and I like my family. But the adjustment kind of makes me wish I could work from someone else’s house sometimes, just to mix it up.

Stephanie: Our next guest gets to do just that. Ron Reed is a carpet installer, and he has been working from other people’s houses every day for nearly 40 years.

Ron Reed: I think if I do the math correctly, I have put in over a million yards of carpet.

Stephanie: For a little context, that’s like carpeting from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Lansing, Michigan.

Jill: Wow! That is a long drive. Let alone to carpet that distance. My knees hurt just thinking about it.

Stephanie: Maybe. But Ron’s gait doesn’t show any signs of sore knees. Only his knuckles give him away. His knuckles have enormous calluses, and on the day we met near his home in Ballantyne, they were cracked and looked like they had bled recently.

Jill: Hmm, I would have thought the knees would take the brunt of the strain. His knuckles?

Ron: I tuck it in behind the tack strip and where my knuckles rub against the baseboards for three and a half decades, it has caused it to look like… well, I don’t know what!

Stephanie: But you’re right about the knees, they have also taken a little wear and tear but it's not so visible.

Episode 5 - Ron Reed.jpg
Ron Reed is a carpet installer based in the Charlotte-area.

Ron: I'm okay when I'm down. I’m okay when I'm up. But it's the up and down. But to be honest with you, I mean, when you're 53 years old and you're in any type of trades that's, you're pretty much going to have that. Work is work. I expect to sweat. I expect to hurt. Yeah. I expect to come home and be sore, but I don't let that stop me.

Stephanie: When you hear nearly 40 years and hundreds of miles of carpet, you may be thinking Ron is going to be an older man. I did. But when I met him in the fall of 2019, I was totally surprised. He could pass for 40. Hardly any gray hair, totally relaxed and noticeably fit. Not like ripped CrossFit type fit, but functionally fit. Broad shoulders, trim belly. He doesn’t even work out. Work is his exercise. And he says it has to be that way for him. He even goes so far as to say that staying still and sitting at a desk would break his body. His body craves the movement. He is really smiley, walks with a spring in his step and immediately is ready to start telling me stories of his life in the carpeting business.

Jill: Wait Steph… 53 minus 38. Ron started laying carpet at 15? Is that right?

Stephanie: Yes, just 15. The same age as my son now. Also the same age as Ron’s son. Despite having good grades, Ron dropped out of high school to begin full-time work with his father who was also a carpet layer.

Ron: I didn't have that option. I mean I did, but I really didn’t. You know what I mean? I knew the writing on the wall, I knew we were lower middle class with a father who was alcoholic. I knew I wasn't going to college. I knew my escape was going to be on my hands and knees. So for me, it was never a decision that it took longer than seconds to make. And I never, honest to God, ever went back and regretted it.

Jill: Aw. He grew up so fast.

Stephanie: Yeah, imagining my son facing that kind of unfair choice makes me sad. But imagining my son growing up into a man with as much clarity and commitment to his values as Ron, that thought makes me really happy.

Jill: Starting that young, it would be easy to be resentful but Ron isn’t at all. And each day is a new house to work in.

Ron: I wish it didn't take so long for me to learn was that in the trades. When you work in someone's house, your mentality is, “This is my job. This is my workplace.” The truth is, it's the customer's home, and you really should be honored that they will allow you in their home.

Stephanie: Ron doesn’t see his job as just putting carpet down, he sees it as much more than that.

Ron: We go into a home where it's God-only-knows disgustingly nasty. And when we're done, and we're walking out, and when our vacuum has just vacuumed the last step, it looks gorgeous. And that feeling is something that has kept me going all these years. I still get that feeling. I mean on every job. “Wow, that looks good. I can feel good about that.”

Stephanie: Yeah, I recently had new carpet put in and when I inspected the job, the installers and I looked around and I was like, “Yeah! Wow. My house looks good.”

Jill: My work isn’t tangible in that way. I know that I’ve helped people, but I don’t see them through to the end, like Ron gets to.

Stephanie: Yeah, knowing the work is done is awesome and actually is at the heart of a change in the flooring business that Ron attributes to his father. Did you know that back in the 70s, carpet installers didn’t vacuum the floor after they installed it?

Jill: How would I know that? How old do you think I am?

Stephanie: Older than I am so I thought maybe you would remember.

Jill: Well, my memories of the 70s are pretty focused around Wonder Woman and my tricycle. But even my 5-year-old self would have been so disappointed if they just left the scraps all over the floor.

Stephanie: They considered it women’s work to vacuum so they left that to the lady of the house. Until Ron’s dad started vacuuming before he left so the customer could have the best possible experience. The other guys laughed at his dad at first, but now they all do it.

Jill: Ah, that explains why Ron is also so focused on making sure his customers get the best experience. He learned it from his dad.

Ron: That's the number one thing is, especially in today's world where people are so on edge, is it to really make the customer feel safe. You know, because we deal with a lot of female customers, and I always want my men to visualize it. Say that you were working for your wife or working for your mother. How would you talk? How would you walk?

Stephanie: Ron is so focused on making sure his customers are comfortable and satisfied that he employs a pretty unconventional strategy to keep him truly customer focused.

Ron: I'd never sat down to this day and figured out whether or not I made a profit or a loss. My accountant of course does, but I don't look at jobs that way. Once I start looking at people as a dollar sign, I lose that whole relationship with them.

Stephanie: Because to Ron, the relationship is paramount. Several times, he made comments about being proud that there is no bad blood anywhere in his work life.

Ron: I'm fortunate enough to where, even though I've made a lot of mistakes, I don't think there's any place I could go where I would have to go down another aisle.

Stephanie: Here's a story to illustrate how this shows up for him. He got a job putting in some really high-end carpet for a woman who ran in the same circles as his wife. He describes this story as...

Ron: an embarrassing thing. I messed up the carpet in a couple of spots. It was a looped carpet, and when we stretched it, we busted a couple. I went to trim the loops with my scissors and, even though the loops were trimmed evenly because they were no longer loops, they were now visible.

Jill: Two loops in a whole room of carpet, that doesn’t sound embarrassing, just part of the job, right? Sometimes there is a scratch here or a drip there on all home improvement things.

Stephanie: Well, this lady was not happy, and she didn’t want to pay for the job and demanded that he pay her back for the carpet. It took a few months for him to pay her back in installments.

Jill: You’ve got to be kidding me. Over a couple of loops in a whole room?

Ron: You know, it's a situation that could have been absolutely ugly because it's a situation where some guys would have said, well, you know, that's part of carpeting. But the truth was that I was able to recognize I didn't give her 100%. She got 98% or 96% and the fact was that she paid for a hundred. And that was cool because it was shortly thereafter this experience happened. I just happened to be in the neighborhood, and I was that the red light and sure enough, who pulls alongside me is her sister. And how embarrassing would that have been had I told this lady six months ago, “I'll see you in court, you know, heck with you.” Yeah. I would never been able to see her without being totally humiliated, you know?

Jill: Hmm, I see what you’re saying. Integrity and customer satisfaction are really important to him. He must get a pretty candid view into the real nature of people by being in their homes.

Stephanie: Yeah, he does. And he has noticed a shift over the last couple of decades. He says he sees a lot of customers who are so particular about their homes that he wonders if they may be experiencing an OCD like anxiety and he also says he sees an alarming number of hoarders.

Ron: I'd say probably 10%. I mean, there's hoarders to “you can't open up the kids' closet doors and get into the kids' bedrooms.” But then we got customers where, I mean, it's like this sickness where they've got six sofas in the living room and stuff in every room piled from top to bottom.

Jill: That is pretty crazy. I wouldn't have thought that there are that many hoarders.

Stephanie: Yeah, that’s a small minority of course but the common thread among all these observations he sees in people’s behavior at home is anxiety, sometimes big and sometimes small.

Ron: People today are less comfortable than they were, say 30 years ago, when you're in your home. So I do more today to make the customer feel more comfortable. They're uncomfortable with having strangers in their house. I mean today's world's, you know, very seldom does somebody knock on your door in the first words, there's, “Who the heck is knocking on the door? Who is that?” World's not as sociable as it was 20 through 30 years ago. Even like in the South where there’s supposed to be Southern hospitality, and I don't want to upset my Southern customers, but we won't be offered a glass of water on most jobs. I mean, people will just be on the computer and not say two words.

Jill: What does he make of all that anxiety?

Stephanie: He kind of chalks it up to the busyness of the lives of his customers who are mostly upper middle class or higher. But he himself tries hard not to get pulled into that lifestyle.

Ron: We’re pretty simplified.

Stephanie: In the pre-COVID days, Ron would drop his son off at school and pick him up every day and work the 6 hours in between. His son is involved in a couple of sports but other than that, they just like to spend time together as a family.

Jill: So one thing that I can’t help but wonder is if Ron ever went back and finished school.

Stephanie: Nope. He didn’t.

Ron: You can do it without one. It’s just a piece of paper.

Stephanie: But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel the sting of what that piece of paper means in our society sometimes.

Ron: I’ll be honest with you. Yeah, there's always that feeling that I guess the education puts people in a higher social status. So if I'm sitting here with a doctor, a lawyer and a CEO from a company, I'm going to feel less than, naturally. Not saying I am, but I know that that's just an innate feeling that I'll have.

Jill: Ugh. I hate that.

Stephanie: Me too. It’s funny. I think of him sitting there next to executives, the kind of guys that hire people like me to coach them so they can lead in a way that is more humble and aligned with their values, or maybe to help their organizations become more customer focused or dedicated to excellence. And I’m thinking, “You know who should really be coaching these executives... Ron! He’s got all of that nailed.”

Jill: So what about his son? Will his son follow in his footsteps?

Stephanie: Ron’s son is growing up with a very different set of options than Ron had, and Ron doesn’t want to push him in either direction.

Ron: No, no. I have nothing against education. I mean the truth is, you can't learn how to swing a hammer, how to bring a piece of carpet in, up a flight of steps without scratching up the lady's walls and all of that. That's all stuff that really you have to be able to see I think a job differently. You can't teach that to somebody. That's the problem. The desire of wanting to be independent, wanting to be proud of your own work, wanting to be proud of work period. It's just something that you have to have.

Jill: Ron is so right. Even though I loved college and have advanced degrees, I knew it wasn’t where my son would thrive. So I didn’t push him. He did a few part-time semesters but because moms are always right, he didn’t love it. Now, he’s working in tech, loves it and is supporting himself without a degree, and I doubt he will ever need it.

Stephanie: Ron’s education in carpeting came from his father. He describes his dad as volatile, demanding and hard to please and they undoubtedly had a complicated relationship but his dad taught Ron everything he knew, and Ron still clings to those lessons on the job.

Ron: I hear my dad still yelling in the back of my ear… “Hurry up son, don't bleed on the carpet! Watch the walls! Keep the door closed when you come in.” Yeah, little pet peeves he'd have her on the job. But you know, he was good though.

Stephanie: Yeah, and you know what’s really interesting? I spoke to Ron initially before the pandemic and then checked in with him during the spring to see how his business was going. He told me his business was booming, he was busier than ever. At a time when people were worried about their jobs in most other sectors, Ron says now more than ever people want to improve their homes.

Jill: Totally makes sense to me. Being quarantined in the house with three other people made me really start to question what was a priority when we bought our house, just three years ago. Mostly, the size of it. I had no idea how small my house would be once four adults were in it, all the time. That will forever be in the my mind when I look at a new house.

Stephanie: Yes, I think many of us are feeling like our houses have shrunk over the lockdown.

Jill: Yep, like our jeans!

Stephanie: Right!! Maybe that will mean a big uptick in business for our next guest, Ian Leonard the realtor.

Act 3: Ian

Ian Leonard: It's always kind of been a family business. I grew up in it and then of course, as most people do, that's what I ran away from it first.

Stephanie: His parents are owners of a real estate firm?

Ian: So my parents are actually not.

Jill: He has many family members in the business, but they don’t own a business as a family. What might be more accurate to say is that his father was the inspiration for his passion about real estate.

Ian: My father… always our Sunday thing was to go and look at houses being built and stuff. Like it was just something that always interested him. And I feel like it was always something he wanted to do, but he never did.

Jill: As he said, Ian first shied away from being a realtor and took a different interest in a related line of work.

Ian: My background is actually in urban planning and after working through that, I got to the point where I realized that urban planning is great, but it wasn't that instant gratification. It was, long term, “I might never see these things happen. I may be dead before this road gets built or before I see that sidewalk.” So it came back into real estate, and I enjoy it because I feel like I do get to see a goal reached within just a few months for most people.

Stephanie: Another characteristic that drew him to real estate is his natural desire to see what’s behind closed doors.

Ian: Strangely yet, I'm very curious as a person. So part of going out and exploring houses with people, it's fun to see like the weird stuff that people do and why would someone do that crazy thing to their house?

Stephanie: What is a weird thing he has seen?

Ian: When like Rose Gold appliances came out like, “Wow, that's pretty cool. I've never seen that before!” You know, it wasn't a long trend, but it was kind of cool.

Jill: Rose gold? That is a weird trend. I wonder if that is when the rose gold iPhones came out?

Stephanie: Hm. I wonder.

Jill: Note to self, Google Rose Gold appliances after the episode. I would have loved to have interviewed Ian in his home to see which trends he adopted in his own space, but you know…

Jill and Stephanie: COVID.

Episode 5 - Ian Leonard.png
Ian Leonard is a real estate agent for the Charlotte-area.

Jill: Yeah. So instead we met on Zoom in the spring of this year, just as Charlotte was beginning to ease out of lockdown. I found Ian on Facebook, when a friend posted a link to a house he had just sold.

Stephanie: Does Ian have that classic realtor cover look photo? With his hand propped up on his chin and a little extra gloss photoshopped to his lips? Is that still a thing or has that look gone the way of the business cards they were printed on?

Jill: I know the look you mean, and no, it seems like social media has given way to a more human realtor image. Ian’s photo does not include a smoky background or obvious photoshop enhancements. But he does project a very clean-cut image. Short, side parted hair. Crisp white collar, smile that says approachable but not eager. Even though we’re both fantasizing about going into other people’s houses, I was a little surprised that people are buying houses during a lockdown. It seems like people would be afraid of the germs. So I was really excited to talk to Ian. I had so many questions about how you even do the home sales process during a pandemic.

Ian: This is one aspect that has gotten easier because now it's, “Don't touch anything.” And there's a good reason that you're not allowed to touch anything. Like if you want me to open the closet door, I will open the door with my disinfected wipe and don't touch anything, really keep your hands in your pockets with your gloves on

Stephanie: Pre-COVID, he had a different problem. Rather than telling people to make sure they had their gloves on, he had to remind them…

Ian: Try not to be too nosy, but definitely pulling buyers back a lot of times like, “Hey, hey, hey! You can't open and go through stuff. Obviously, hands off. Their dresser has nothing to do with the house.”

Jill: Ha, ha. That’s funny that people would go through the drawers. Thank you COVID for teaching people some manners!

Stephanie: Yeah, Ian talks about another way COVID has changed professional manners.

Ian: It's gotten a lot less personal, which is the hardest thing for me when meeting someone for the first time, like not shaking hands saying, “Hey, you kind of have to be far away from me.” You know, those things have been the biggest struggle for me. As far as putting the gloves on, taking shoes off and wearing a mask, it doesn't bother me. I realize it's for safety. It doesn't bother most of my clients.

Jill: Steph, have you met anyone new since the pandemic?

Stephanie: Um. No. I don’t think so.

Jill: It’s super uncomfortable to not be able to shake their hand. The awkward elbow bump is even more awkward with a stranger.

Stephanie: Oh yeah. I thought that cheek kissy thing was awkward when I lived in New Jersey but this is even weirder. Are we trying to high five with our forearms or kiss with our funny bones? I honestly don’t know the etiquette.

Jill: Yeah. But even though Ian has to do business differently now. I was surprised to learn that he doesn’t report a big decrease in the housing market so far related to the pandemic.

Stephanie: Which of course we asked because Ian says, that’s what everybody asks. At least those people who don’t run after hearing that he’s a realtor because they don’t want to be on the receiving side of a sales pitch.

Jill: Yeah, Ian is definitely not the sales pitch type. But people are always asking him about the market, about what their house might be worth and other questions that he’d have to be clairvoyant to answer off the top of his head.

Ian: A lot of those things are hard to tell in real time too. You know. If they've just announced a new building yesterday, I can't tell how that's going to affect the market immediately. I can guess that I always still feel like that's just the guess.

Stephanie: In that way people often overestimate the scope of a realtor’s knowledge, they can’t see the future of the market.

Jill: But in other ways, Ian says they often underestimate the expertise of a realtor. Many think that they just show houses.

Ian: Our work really starts once we find the house. It's easy to put a deal together. Well, it's somewhat easy to put a deal together. It's really hard to make it close. I mean, by the time you get through inspections and appraisals and all of that, I mean, most deals if they're going to fall apart, fall apart, dealing with repairs from the inspection. So there's a lot of back and forth on figuring that out. And going back to your handyman and contractors like, “Hey, what can we do to get this fixed and get it fixed right.” At a reasonable price that everybody's happy with.

Stephanie: Yeah, I can see that. Most of the hard work is done behind the scenes, so much of his value is hidden from their immediate view. I’d never move if I had to do all that work myself! Are there any other myths about realtors we should dispel while we’re on this topic?

Jill: There is one more misconception that really bothers Ian.

Ian: People think that just anybody can get a real estate license and, and it's easy. It actually is really hard. You go through the school, and you think you've got it, but then you get to that state exam. This is a lot of information to remember.

Jill: Ian has both a bachelors and a master’s degree but chose a career that didn’t require either of them. This has been a theme with many of our guests over the season. It seems that there is this persistent belief that you have to have a degree for every job. But over and over, we keep finding people who never got a degree (like Ron), or who have multiple degrees (like Ian)... and they find their passion elsewhere.

Stephanie: So what is it about real estate that makes Ian love this job so much?

Ian: I love the relationship building of it all.

Jill: But when you look at the essence of how these relationships began, it’s pretty crazy.

Ian: I meet strangers online, and then we go see vacant houses together.

Jill: But he meets with them over and over, house after house, through the appraisal and inspection and eventually, they really become friends. I can see why Ian is a great real estate agent, the whole time we were talking, he wanted to ask me questions to get to know me. I had to keep reminding him that I’m interviewing him.

Stephanie: I would have the same problem if I was being interviewed. Realtors are really good at making a personal connection. When I moved from New Jersey to North Carolina, my realtor was one of only a handful of people I knew in this state. We moved in early November. so she invited us to have Thanksgiving at her house with her friends, family and a few other clients.

Jill: Oh, that was sweet of her to make sure you were part of a community for the holidays.

Stephanie: It was. A year later, I was considering selling my house. When we were out house hunting, I got the news that my marriage was irreconcilable. Poor thing had to witness that disaster. But with grace, she cared for my kids while I struggled through that moment.

Jill: You don’t think of that being in their job description. But buying a house is a really big deal to most people. That would give realtors a peek at a very personal side of their clients. Those kinds of experiences have had a pretty big impact on Ian.

Ian: I’m in a room with another person who I barely knew 3 weeks ago for three or four hours. So the conversations go a lot of places and you really learn a lot about each other. But I think it’s really opened up my view of the world and how other people’s lives are and what their day to day is.

Stephanie: One thing that he has noticed about people’s day to day, is pretty similar to what Ron notices about how people keep their homes.

Ian: It's amazing to go into someone's home sometimes and be like, “Wow, this is immaculate. Someone really lives in this house, and all their shirts are organized by color, it's spotless and it smells like I just walked into the W.”

Stephanie: Jill, what does the W smell like?

Jill: Oh, posh hotels smell so good. The W smells like almonds and fresh flowers.

Stephanie: Ron described this population as those who are really particular about their house, almost obsessively so.

Jill: Ian has seen them too. Like us, he is also surprised by the number of people who could be described as hoarders. But unlike Ron who has to work around their stuff, he has to help them clean and organize it in order to sell their home.

Ian: And it's one of the things that was hardest to me when I list a property and to tell people, “Hey, you need to do this.” But I found the way when I have someone who wants to list their house, and it's just a wreck, the easiest way is to not beat around the bush and just rip the Band-Aid off immediately and go through with the clipboard and say, “This, this, this, this… this all needs to go away. You need to clean this. I'll help you do it, but we can't let people in this house with it looking like this.” I do find it very interesting when I go in someone's house, and it's just a complete mess. And I'm like, “You knew we were coming, right? You realize that we were going to be here trying to sell your house?”

Stephanie: He must really have a lot of trust with people to do that part of the job which might be embarrassing or frustrating for his clients and still maintain the relationship to work through the other parts of the sale.

Jill: Understanding that rapport and balance helps him build relationships, which ultimately builds his business. My parents have lived in the same home for 45 years, so I don’t think of people buying and selling houses frequently but for Ian most of his clients are repeat customers or referrals.

Ian: There is a house down the street I have sold three times now.

Stephanie: But there is one moment in the process that Ian finds a little awkward, the actual closing.

Ian: You get to the closing table and it's like, “Do we hug now. Do we open champagne? What's the next step?” You know? And in North Carolina, it's so weird because you don't get keys until it's actually recorded. So they closed on the house and then it's this letdown moment where, “All right, well, I'll let you know when it's recorded, and I'll come bring you your keys!”

Stephanie: I’ve bought homes in three states and didn’t even notice this difference in North Carolina. I can see that being awkward. Don’t worry, Ian finds a silver lining.

Ian: So the first moment’s a letdown, and then you meet at the house, but what's great about that is I do get to see the people at their house. You know, I'll usually tell them, “I'll meet you at the house with your keys.” So you get to see them go into the house the first time.

Jill: That moment means the world to Ian. All the hard work of wrestling through the showings, lendings, inspections... all the bureaucracy finally pays off.

Ian: It brings a sense of pride to help people. And just to know that maybe you got them to do something they would've been uncomfortable doing otherwise and change something in their life. I've had clients before who have money, it's not like they're struggling to get by, and they're buying their first house. That's a $400,000 house, and we've been at the closing table, and they say, “I never would've made it because I'm too scared to make decisions. I've always felt like it was such a big decision, and I never would have made it unless you would have walked me through it.”

Jill: I am one of those people Ian is talking about. As a late bloomer with those exact same anxieties. I only bought my first home 3 years ago and we had to get through the whole process in under 6 weeks. We never could have done that on our own! Home has always been where my family is, even while renting, but customizing our home to us has been a different level of making a home. Even if it isn’t properly sized for a pandemic.

Stephanie: We started this episode promising stories about people who work at houses or in houses for their jobs, but what I find so interesting about our guests today is that they all actually work at Home. If we define home as that place where they feel safe, and comfortable and connected to their family.

Jill: Lisa works in her house because to be most creative she needs an environment that feels comfortable. Without business hours or dress codes.

Stephanie: Ron’s home has always been the flooring business. His father was a carpet layer and from as early as he could make the case that he was a man, he has been a carpet layer. Ron recounted a complicated relationship with his dad, but I saw a sweet look of nostalgia on his face when he told me that he still hears his dad’s voice in his head on every job. It’s like when he’s working, he is home.

Jill: Yeah, Ian has a similar experience. After trying a different career, he returned to a career with connections to his father and their shared love. Eventually, he found his way home.

Stephanie: I think I understand my unrest about being stuck at home now. All this time I have been thinking it was about missing the travel, the experiences and the people out there. And yes, I miss those things of course. But I’m just now recognizing that I am also mourning the loss of coming home.

Jill: Mmm, yeah.

Stephanie: Sometimes, when I would get home and open the garage door to pull the car in, I’d find a kid waiting for me in the garage. I used to be a little annoyed by them pouncing on me before I even could get out of the car. But gosh, I miss pulling into the house and seeing those expectant faces waiting for me. Or dropping my purse and suitcase and kicking off my heels and just exhaling. Nothing feels as good as coming home.

Jill: Oh yes. Because of my mom’s illness, I had to fly back to Utah in April, during the beginning of the pandemic. Which was totally terrifying. But my parents needed me. So I donned what was basically a hazmat suit and did it. My parents still live in my childhood home. So living there as an adult with my parents, is kind of strange. But the weird thing is, it gave me the sense that I was coming home. I was physically there with them in the home where she took care of me, so I could take care of her. It was really special. I left home to go home. Then left home again to return home.

Stephanie: Dorothy was right. There’s really no place like home. I wish I could click my heels and have that going home feeling again.

Jill: That sounds like a wonderful socially distanced way to travel.

Credits

Jill: The Work It podcast is a production of WFAE. This episode was hosted by Stephanie Hale who calls her hammock her second home

Stephanie: ...and Jill Bjers is most at home in her soft, cat pajamas.

Jill: Our producer is Joni Deutsch who’s heart is in her home state of West Virginia. Our editor is Greg Collard who is making a new home with his new wife. And a special thanks to our guests for today’s episode: Lisa, Ron and Ian. We heard their stories. And now, we want to hear yours!

Stephanie: Yes, you, listening right now, we want your story.

Jill: Go to WFAE.org/WorkIt or leave us a comment on Facebook.com/WorkItPodcast and share with us why we should interview you for an upcoming episode.

Stephanie: And while you’re at it, make sure to subscribe to the Work It Podcast so you can hear the next episode as soon as it’s released! You can subscribe to Work It on NPR One, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Jill: Until next time, keep on working it.

Stephanie Hales's fascination with people, their work, and the things that drive them is central to her work as a leadership development consultant in her adopted hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. Hale lives in the University City area in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of Brigham Young University and obtained her master’s degree from Queens University.
A true Jill-of-all-trades: mother, wife, author/playwright, organizer, and travel junkie. Jill Bjers is originally from Salt Lake City, Utah. She currently lives in Seversville area in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the University of Utah.