It has now been a year since I joined my current workplace. This week, on Zoom, around 35 colleagues came together to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the firm. The celebrations were held over chocolate cake, meticulously delivered to each employee’s home, across the country. The celebration was with people with whom I exchanged a year of video calls, emails and texts but have only seen through pixelated screens. The experience in retrospect feels surreal.
I joined the communication firm after having lost my job as a lifestyle reporter during the pandemic. It was a career change I had hoped to make a couple of years later. Changing your field of work and joining a workplace virtually is a weighted challenge, especially when you have colleagues and bosses scattered across the country and continent. While technology built the connectivity bridge at all times, across time zones, communication and bonding remained aloof.
As a person who reads people before interacting with them, my learnings of human traits remained decapitated in this setup. Not being able to make out who they are, stifled me. My brain did not have a voice to connect to when I received their text messages or emails.
Is it hoarse, shrill or with a bass?
Do they have a regional accent attached to their English?
Are they tall or short?
Whose picture do they display on their work table?
These questions alluded me through the first month as I swam in an abyss, trying to figure out those I engaged with for over 8 hours a day, five days a week. During video calls, sudden background noises like a child’s demand for snacks or even a Disney princess wallpaper helped clear the cloud. I desperately looked for these clues to their personality to frame a mental image that went beyond their display picture.
Saved by the ring at the new workplace
Then came the bliss of the humble phone call. Slowly and gradually, the audio connected bits and pieces in my mind. As they asked how I am doing, I shared anecdotes of the Calcutta weather. The safest topic you can depend on for conversation starters. Later, as COVID deaths piled across the country and my intimacy with my teammates grew, I simply replied ‘Still Alive’. Over the course of time, non-work-related calls saw us talk of divorce, being pent up with family, struggling with clients and even missing street food. Funny how humans manage to connect even without tangibility.
In the course of the year, I have seen new colleagues come on board at the workplace, fight COVID, take leave to recover from it or even quit. Some lamented not being able to interact in person. They said it would have reduced misunderstandings. One of them wanted to find more clarity in life after having a near-death tryst with an invisible virus. For me, the office space was missing but the emotions of losing a colleague who quit still persisted.
Video calls capturing it all
The mode of work changed and brought with it awkward moments. Most of these were displayed on video calls or heard on conference calls. From a random dog bark to my boss quizzing whose canine it was to everyone revealing the dogs they own. During a virtual farewell party, a colleague also revealed getting a new puppy. This perfectly balmed the soreness of losing a perfectly competent colleague. It also fascinated me to find out that 3 out of 4 of my bosses were dog parents. It made for a bonding moment. In a physical workplace, I would have possibly stumbled upon this fact in the first month. In a virtual workplace, it took me 10 months.
The video call awkwardness was however not limited to team calls alone. They also embarrassingly extended to client calls. From a solemn-faced national head’s wife serving him tea midway between healthcare communication strategies discussion to a scientist bringing her life-saving innovation as close to the screen as possible to explain its mechanism from her lab in Europe. We all held our breath and watched it play out on our laptop screen with amusement.
The work video call blooper existed on my end as well. Like my dog napping in her golden glory on the sofa in my video call background and my mom walking into the background to gaze from that one window out of the 20 others I have in my house. She wanted to hear me converse in English. It silently made her feel proud of her struggle to put me through my convent education.
I don’t know of the experiences I missed out on due to working from home. More so because I changed my usual fast-paced newsroom workplace to a more targeted and calculated communications job. Going back to an office now will certainly take getting used to. As an ardent lover of working from home, it sent chills down my spine when the smiling optimistic face of the founding partner announced he hopes to see us all in the office next year.
Yet, the missing human connection of a workplace would be something to look forward to. Not to mention exchanging food at lunch.
Also read: Sending job applications during a pandemic