‘I have never met any of these people in my life’: What it’s like to start a remote job in the COVID-19 era
Lauren Bennett, KSL.com
SALT LAKE CITY (KSL.com) — Many workers across the globe have transitioned to working from home at some level since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
But what about those starting new jobs with a virus preventing most in-person socializing with those outside your household?
While remote jobs themselves aren’t new, working remotely in 2020 looks different: it’s usually not a choice, and no one knows how long it will last or what work will look like in the post-pandemic world.
Starting a new job is hard enough, but it can feel downright impossible to understand work culture, coworkers and expectations all through a computer screen. It can also be difficult for already established workers to get to know the “new guy” when they’ve never met in person.
Whether it’s misinterpreting tone in an email or not being able to tell if someone is joking, getting to know people purely through technology can be tough.
So, what’s it like to 100% remote start a new job this year?
“It is very weird,” said Allie Serd, who recently began working for a small tech startup based in Chicago. “I have never met any of these people in my life.”
While Serd lives in Chicago, her company employs other remote workers from all over the country, including some in Utah and New York. If there wasn’t a pandemic, Serd would be working out of an office — something she misses.
“I feel like it’s hard to find my place in a company,” she said. “We’re all kind of social creatures, whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert.”
Serd personally identifies as an omnivert — a combination of both personality types — and said she misses an office environment that allows her to feed off other people’s energy and be part of a group. Even with the challenges she has faced adjusting to remote working, she does love her job.
“It’s pretty rad,” she said.
While face-to-face video chatting technology — like Zoom, Google Hangouts or Facetime — has made it easier to stay connected while working from home, it’s difficult to really get a sense of who someone is from just a video chat, Serd said.
“You seem cool over video and group chat, but what’s your vibe? It’s kind of hard to read people,” she said.
For employees who worked in person with coworkers before offices shut down in March, these things aren’t really a concern since they already know each other. But for new employees, it can feel daunting to try and forge friendships and rapport through a screen.
“It’s much more formal,” said Bryan Mortensen, who works for a South Jordan real estate company.
In an office setting, it’s easy to simply walk over to someone’s desk and work together on a project. But from home, calls have to be scheduled, and it’s hard to truly know a person’s communication style. Do they prefer a Slack message, an email, a phone call or a video chat? Serd and Mortensen said it’s hard to get a feel for that kind of thing.
To combat these challenges, both of their companies have tried to create a welcoming environment for their employees as they work from home. Serd’s company recently used a technology that randomly pairs two co-workers together for a fun virtual chat as a way to get to know people better without the pressure of randomly striking up a conversation with a stranger.
It’s been a good experience to get to know coworkers, but it still can be tough to navigate social cues through technology.
“It’s hard because you don’t know what to share or not share,” she said. “You don’t know what questions to ask. It’s kind of hard to get to know someone.”
Mortensen also recently participated in his company’s virtual water cooler session, which is designed to be a pressure-free way to hang out with colleagues while you work.
“They are really concerned about trying to keep the culture really welcoming, and also a place people love to work,” he said, adding the chat was initially awkward to navigate but ended up being really fun.
“I was a little bit hesitant at first about the idea, but towards the end of the day it got really fun and I got to know a lot more people in a way that I wouldn’t have, had we not done that activity,” he said.
Serd’s company also hosted a Zoom cooking lesson where a chef taught everyone a recipe virtually. It was fun, but a little hard to follow along with, she said.
Virtual activities are an interesting new territory for team bonding. Seeing people in their homes through a screen is a strangely intimate experience, Serd pointed out. “When you’re in non-remote life, you never see people’s homes,” she said.
Now, you can see if they have a plant or how they’ve chosen to decorate their living room — which can be cool, but almost feels invasive, she said.
“I would rather not see their personal home; it’s kind of weird to me,” she said, adding she misses when she was able to grab coffee with a coworker and get to know them in a neutral location.
All in all, finding creative ways to socialize at work has been a positive experience for Serd, who said she can get lonely living by herself. While she has two cats to keep her company, sometimes a meow isn’t as helpful as a conversation with a co-worker would be.
But, it’s better than what others are going through, she added.
“I can’t imagine how it is for people that have kids,” she said.
Mortensen doesn’t have to imagine — with 2-year-old twins at home, he says it can be distracting to work from home. He’s set up his workspace in the unfinished basement of his house to help maintain a separation and avoid distraction during work hours.
Still, it’s hard to hear his children playing and running around upstairs with his wife and not be able join them, he said.
“It is always tempting to want to go upstairs and be with them,” he said.
Thankfully, Mortensen’s company has been really flexible to work with when it comes to a home and work-life balance. When he’s had to miss the first few moments of a meeting because he’s busy wrangling his children, the response hasn’t been anger but overwhelming understanding.
“There was an immediate ‘OK, is there anything we can do to help? Do we need to move that meeting?’ And so I really appreciated that sort of flexibility,” he said.
Having patience with employees who are learning how best to work from home is key, and Mortensen said he’s been impressed with how management at his company has exemplified this.
“They really stress, ‘Hey, you need to take care of yourself.’ Everyone’s trying to make this work in different ways, so we need to be patient with each other,” Mortensen said.
The biggest benefit to remote working for Mortensen is the added time he’s been able to spend with his family, on lunch hours or quick breaks throughout the day.
His new job, which he started in September, is actually Mortensen’s second time starting at a new company during the pandemic. Early on, Mortensen briefly worked for a Utah tech company and didn’t have as good of an experience.
There, he said the work culture wasn’t positive and it was harder to achieve a work-life balance. “The executives were all working all the time because they were home and not in the office, so we were expected to as well,” he explained.
Now, balancing his work and home life is a lot better, but still not as easy as when he was working out of an office, Mortensen said.
For Serd, finding that balance has been a challenge. “One of the toughest things that I’ve found is I don’t know how to shut it off here at home,” she said. “I actually work really late here sometimes.”
As an avid book-reader, Serd really misses her morning commute. She used to ride the train into the office at her old job and read a book on her way. It was her time to decompress and get ready for the day.
Now, her morning routine is waking up and pretty much starting work immediately. And she finds herself with hardly any time to sit, relax and read — she feels that time could be spent working instead, since there’s always a project she could be getting ahead on.
Mortensen said he missed the commute as well. He saw it as a time to get into “work mode” and missed his drives home, which he used to get in “home mode.”
Ultimately, both Serd and Mortensen said they felt lucky to have the opportunity to work from home, especially amid a worldwide pandemic that has left millions out of jobs, or in jobs that put them at risk for COVID-19 exposure.
“My job doesn’t require me to take a lot of risk, which I’m super grateful for,” Mortensen said, noting he used to work in retail and can’t imagine doing that during this year’s circumstances.
However, both said they prefer to work in an office environment and look forward to returning once it’s safe — which could be several more months.
As a vaccine against COVID-19 seems more promising by the day, it will still take months to make and distribute doses. It likely won’t be widely available until the spring at the earliest, experts have said.
In the meantime, working from home seems to be the indefinite future for much of the workforce — whether you want it that way or not.