The Colleagues We Never Meet

For the eight and a half years I’ve been in my current job, I have always worked from home. I live in the Chicago area, and headquarters is in New York City. Over the years, I have had the luxury of time and patience to make working from home work for me. There has been lots of learning along the way, along with a fair amount of missteps and mistakes.

The one consistent along the way has been my colleagues. They are amazing. And certainly, since March of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began, my colleagues who have worked at headquarters now appreciate the challenges and benefits of working from home in ways that maybe they didn’t before. Our playing field is much more level. There is a common understanding that maybe was not there before.

It used to be that when I attended meetings on Zoom, I would be the only one calling in remotely. Everyone else was together in an office or conference room, and as I struggled to hear every word and stay connected to the items being discussed, I could see people whispering to each other, or giving nods or shrugs to others across the table. That playing field was not level. I was on the outside.

It used to be that I would go to New York for my monthly visits, and people would stop in my temporary office to chat. Now that I was mainly working from home, I forgot how important that experience of simple social connection was. Catching up over a cup of coffee. Asking about family and travel. It was a restorative experience for me. Just talking with someone face to face was rejuvenating.

It used to be that I would be working from home on projects and initiatives for weeks at a time, and though I was in touch with colleagues along the way, it wasn’t until my trips to New York that those projects and initiatives really came alive. It wasn’t until we could be in the same room together that we could reach a necessary level of common understanding and establish meaningful goals, that we could joke around with each other in between conversations, and that we could connect with each other over dinner at the end of a long day.

So many positive things came from my New York visits, but they also surfaced challenges inherent with any type of interaction, be it personal or business related. Casual conversations that quickly devolve into arguments. Asking the wrong questions. Giving the wrong answers. Miscues and missteps. Relationships would become stressed, and would sometimes remain stressed until the problem had a chance to be resolved, either during my next visit to New York or our next Zoom call.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Travel was stopped. Offices were closed. Everything was now remote. The playing field changed, and the work continued.

Emma was hired in February 2020, right before the pandemic shut down began. Though there was no plan for Emma and me to work directly with each other at that time, we did have an introductory Zoom call when she joined the team. I could tell right away that Emma was smart, she was eager to get to work, and she had enthusiasm for her work and the work of our organization that spread quickly. Everybody who met Emma liked Emma right away. I looked forward to meeting Emma in person during my next trip to New York. Of course, that meeting never happened.

In response to the pandemic, our organization made the difficult decision to reduce staff size by 20%, and in May 2020 Emma and I found ourselves on the same team, working together. Remember, I did not interview Emma. I did not hire Emma. Emma and I had never even been in the same room with each other. Now, we were working together every day.

I was happy to be working with Emma. We both recognized the challenges ahead, and the work that needed to be done. We met almost every day on Zoom. We enjoyed those calls, and every day we learned a little bit more about each other.

Emma lives in a studio apartment, and is soon moving to a larger place. She and her boyfriend have been dating for about a year, and I feel like I have gotten to know him a bit through her social media posts. Emma is a big fan of true crime books, for all the right reasons. She wants justice for the victims, and she wants justice for the perpetrators. Emma loves animals, and almost cried when I showed her a picture of my daughters’ new puppy.

When vaccines became available, Emma and I began to talk about how we finally might be able to meet in person with the hopes that I would soon return to New York. We could work with each other in an actual office. We could use a white board to strategize and plan. I would be annoyed by her energy and enthusiasm. She would be annoyed by my sarcasm and bad “dad jokes.” It would be great!

But then there was a new wave of COVID-19 infections, and any hopes for work travel were once again dashed, at least for now.

I want to avoid using the phrase “New Normal.” I don’t know there is much normal about anything that any of us are going through due to COVID-19. But, I do think that we all need to get used to this idea of spending more time working by ourselves, and less time being in the office with others. The balance has changed.

I think back to my work life when I began in this job, and it was almost an existence of extremes. Weeks of relative quiet and solitude punctuated by exciting travel, important meetings and big decisions. Peaks and valleys of activity and interaction. Connecting with colleagues on Zoom always with the promise that I would see them soon on my next trip to New York.

I still don’t know when I will see colleagues next. I still don’t know when my next travel opportunity may be.

Emma and I were able to establish a level of consistency to our work. We had standing meetings every week, and we knew if the other person’s Zoom “presence” indicator was green (available) and we needed to talk, that we should ahead and give that person a call. We learned a lot together, and we served our constituents well. There may not have been the exciting peaks and valleys of travel, conferences, meetings and lunches, but the work was still able to move forward, and it moved forward well.

The pandemic continues. Zoom meetings continue without the promise of ultimately working together in the same space. Connecting with more people from home. Learning. Networking. Maintaining relationships.

Just a few days ago, Emma just told us she will soon be leaving for a new job. She has been in an administrative role with us, and now she will be a manager for an exciting tech start-up company in New York. I’m so happy for her. I’m so proud of her. I’m so sorry we will not have had that chance to work together in the same actual space.

Yet somehow, we made this work. We met each other, on Zoom. We worked with each other, only on Zoom. We got to know each other, we joked with each other, and we complained about the state of the world with each other, only on Zoom. When those rare arguments and conflicts came along, they were quickly resolved and we got back to work, on Zoom. We never met, but I feel like we became good friends.

I look forward to getting back to New York soon. I look forward to returning to that existence of extremes. In the meantime, we will continue to work with people we have never actually met, and we will continue to find better and better ways to get our work done.

Good luck, Emma. I’m sure we’ll meet someday!

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