It was April 2021; the city was under the second lockdown due to Covid-19. I had spent the last year working from home with meetings, interviews and everything in between conducted over Zoom. What I hadn’t done, was joined a new workplace, virtually.
On my first day, instead of warm and helpful colleagues to show me around in a new office space, I was greeted with five boxes on a video call. A cheery bunch greeted me and welcomed me to the new team. A cat appeared briefly, looking far from cheery, for good measure. It was the new office team I would be interacting with every day.
I didn’t do much in preparation except threw on a neutral-coloured T-shirt. New workplace conundrums no longer involve picking out your first day outfit or coordinating travel and traffic to make sure you reach in time on your first day. It was as seamless as it was, isolating.
Over the course of the month, I was beginning to know my colleagues better, from the occasional picture of a home-cooked meal or muddled cocktail, or those of vaccination and the devastating storm that hit Mumbai. Some were appearing on those video boxes from different cities, and a comfortable camaraderie was beginning to develop. And yet, the references to the physical office space and shared workplace jokes, were lost on me.
The process that may have taken a few days in shared spaces was going to take months in virtual ones. I knew I wasn’t alone and wondered what others with a similar predicament went through.
Bonding with your new team
Suchismita Saha, account manager with Bangalore-based advertising agency McCann, joined her new workplace in May 2020. “Fortunately, I had received the offer before the lockdown. I have only been to the office for the interview and have never seen it after that,” she says. After a delayed joining date, owing to the pandemic, Saha had no clue that she will not see her new colleagues for a whole year. Work in the pandemic, was hectic, and nobody had time for detailed introductions. She was thrown into it almost instantly, and that was the only way bonds were built. Processes remained the same, Saha says, as did the work cycle with her reporting managers and colleagues. While she was welcomed and admits that there have been no communication gaps with the team, she does not know them very well. “There are a few people I know only through their display pictures (DPs) on WhatsApp,” she says. It was only after five odd months that she got on a video call with her colleagues and saw them all face-to-face together.
“When work is hectic, I miss having those two to three people in office you could go talk to, to let your frustration out. That no longer happens, and I haven’t found those people yet because I haven’t met anybody,” she says.
Team banter be gone
Aishhwariya Subramanian, a Bangalore-based writer, had never imagined she would be taking up a new job mid-pandemic. But life had other plans and she joined Target, in October 2020. The only time, she visited the office was to collect a laptop. There was no shortage of material support, she says, from WFH allowances to care packages making their way to employees, in line with these times. However, human connections were limited to Zoom calls only.
“My initiation was through Zoom. I had to make human connections with my colleagues via Zoom and WhatsApp messages. I had to forge friendships with my peers completely virtually. Although now I have become very comfortable having conversations with people over Zoom even when the video is not turned on,” she says adding, “We have catch-ups twice a day. I tend to be an extrovert by nature, so it wasn’t difficult for me to push through the awkwardness and crack bad jokes. Sometimes we do TGIF meetings with our videos on”.
For her, familiarisation calls before she actually joined the company, went a long way in making her comfortable with the new team and reporting manager. What she misses most, from a real office space, is the clothes, and the camaraderie. “I don’t wear formal clothes and am mostly in sweatpants and workout clothes. And if things got overwhelming at work, I could step out for tea with friends and blow off some steam. That’s just something I can’t do anymore. I have to be stuck to my laptop or risk miss something important,” she says.
Learnings of a new culture
Imagine a world when you are working with strangers and new rapports haven’t been built yet. For me as for several others, interactions can be strained initially. Everyday information and instructions might be easier but the challenge is with feedback sessions and other such tasks that require strong interpersonal bonds.
For most new joinees we spoke to, formal orientation programmes couldn’t do much to foster integration. Workflows, however, were streamlined quickly. After all, everyone involved has spent more than a year working from home. Over and over again, it is the value of workplace bonds and work-life balance that comes from segregated spaces, that was emphasized in these conversations.
The biggest learnings I have drawn from joining a new workplace in the pandemic has been the need to cultivate new communication techniques that allow for complex conversation including feedback without feeling alienated yourself or letting the other person feel so.
Secondly, work-life balance isn’t easier to maintain when working from home. It’s crucial to take conscious steps to switch off and bring in leisure to prevent a burn out.
In memory of tea breaks
Much like my own experience, Purvi Bakliwal, a Mumbai-based advertising professional, took up a new job in February this year. She was introduced to everyone in the agency virtually on her first day, in the absence of walkaround introductions.
While work has taken on pace and she feels comfortable with her colleagues, she can’t wait to return to office and put a face to every name she has interacted with over the last few months. “I have no office stories or office jokes,” she laments.
Bakliwal also points out that the pandemic has ensured that our work-life balance is non-existent and that communication with colleagues is restricted to work alone. “We don’t talk about anything else except work virtually. Everybody just wants to finish up and shut their laptops. This doesn’t happen with physical spaces. You share jokes, go out for a cup of tea, for lunches and develop a bond,” she says.
We don’t know when the pandemic will make way for the return to offices, or if ‘normal’ will ever be the same again. Until then, all we do, is find solace in memories of shared cups of tea at the office tapir (tea stall), and the occasional laughter over Zoom call catch-ups.