As I write this, I’m currently finishing day 378 in my job.
Despite that, I’ve not met 99% of my colleagues. I’ve never been to the new office my company moved to last summer. I don’t know any of the nearby lunch spots, or where I’d go for Friday after work drinks. I’ve never physically attended an all company meeting, or bumped into a colleague while having a cigarette. In fact, I’ve never had a spontaneous interaction with any of my colleagues.
Like many, my last year has just been a constant stream of shared documents and instant messages, punctuated by the odd video call. I’m happy in my role and a part of my companies’ furniture – but yet in many ways, I still feel like I’m new. And some point, with “normalcy” months away at best, it’s hard not to wonder: will this job ever be the one I applied for?
You never really know what to expect from a new job. You can google the name, look over the website or snoop on people’s LinkedIn, but that doesn’t prepare you for the reality of working in a new company, with new people and in a new space.
But I had high hopes, when I got an exciting job offer in late February 2020. I’d been doing some on-off freelance work for several months, after a campaign I was involved in had unceremoniously ended. While I had enjoyed it, I needed the financial stability and structure of a full-time job.
Everything I’d be told about this new role sounded right up my street. The work hard, play hard mentality of the people there and various events invitations. I wasn’t to know at the time – but clearly everyone reading this does – that was not going to be my life for the next 13 months.
“I started my job on a Tuesday. By Friday, I’d left for several weeks to work from home. I'm still there.”
I started my job on Tuesday, 11 March 2020. Many of my colleagues who I was meant to be working with were off sick with a kind of flu that was apparently doing the rounds, so the office was only half full anyway. By Friday, I’d left for several weeks to work from home.
I’m still there.
Starting a new job in a new industry is difficult enough. Doing so is uniquely hard when you don’t know anyone. Many of us have been surviving lockdown by bedding down with our current relationships and friendships, including in a work context. So, when you start in a place where you don’t really know anyone, that makes acclimatising more difficult.
For instance, when you begin a new job (or perhaps just if you’re desperately insecure like me), you need regular positive affirmation: Does this look right? Could you look this over? Were you happy with that? This is basically impossible online, without messaging your manager every ten minutes.
Much has been made of the pros and cons of video conferencing. What has been under-discussed is the non-verbal cues which are missed – the shrugs, eye rolls and sighs which message the incredibly useful things which can’t be said. When you don’t know the people who are giving them or the culture and context they are given in, these messages can be missed.
To sum up, someone once described organisational culture to me as “the way we do things around here”. If there is no shared ‘here’, organisational culture, ways of working and shared language are clearly far harder to build.
“The pandemic has the potential to embed long-term poor working practices. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve personally said, “I’ll pick this up later, it’s not like I have plans”.”
What this might mean for the future is clearly up for debate. Most companies seem to have settled on a “hybrid” model – partly in the office and at home – at some point in the future. While appealing in principle, this could be a recipe for conflict in practice without clear guidelines. Who will decide when I can work from home, and when is it okay to drag me into the office at short notice for an emergency? And when I do go in, will I just be in a building, looking at a bunch of screens of people at home?
It’s clear too, that the pandemic has the potential to embed long-term poor working practices of waking up to emails and dipping into tasks in the evening. Often this is self-enforced. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve personally said, “I’ll pick this up later, it’s not like I have plans”. A hybrid model is likely going to have to define what different days are for and their associated tasks. Managing this is going to be incredibly difficult.
That being said, there has clearly been some massive upsides in organisations realising the vast range of what can be delivered working from home. At a very basic level for me, it has been a major convenience as I’ve moved into a new home with lots of deliveries and inspections. For working parents and people with disabilities, if done right, there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to genuinely open up lots of companies to the full range of talented and passionate people out there.
If and when this situation is over, I’ll go to my office, meet my colleagues for the first time, and start again. Maybe I’ll find that after-work pub.
Richard Brooks is a communications consultant. Follow him on Twitter at @Just_RichardB.
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