Starting and Working Remotely in a Pandemic

Estimated Reading Time: 8.5 minutes

A colleague at work was recently leaving his job for a new one and in wishing him luck on his new venture, I emphasized that if there's anything I can do to help, to let me know.  He asked if I had any tips for starting a new job in the pandemic.  He asked because that's what I did back in April 2020 when I started up as the Educational Programs Manager at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, which I have been working at for nearly 10 months, entirely remotely.   Since my colleague asked and I wrote up some pointers, I might as well share them.  

A photo of a dried chestnut shell.  With its prickly coating, it resembles the microscopic image of the coronavirus

Obviously, I'm not the first to work remotely nor am I the first to start remotely in a pandemic.  So much of my advice can probably found elsewhere.  And, of course, we should always heed Baz Luhrmann's commentary on advice from "Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)":  "Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth."  

Yet, if there is a particular niche that I would draw out here that might distinguish this advice, I think it is that it is about starting remotely in a pandemic when most of your colleagues have all worked together in physical space--thus, they rely more heavily on that kinetic familiarity and it can make things a bit harder than if everyone has always been remote. 

Being new and remote can create a bit of a challenge.  Often, when we start new jobs, we're physically present and that helps to demonstrate that we are a part of the organization.  But also, early on, it can sometimes be hard to know exactly what to do (dependent upon one's job) as you orient yourself, get familiar with your roles, and connect with colleagues.  That can create a sense of feeling like you want to make sure others do not think you are wasting time or just making sure you show people know you are there.  

Ultimately, there can feel a bit of performativity in your work--making sure people know that you are there and engaged. This can happen by being active on work-communication channels (Zoom chat, Slack channel, email, etc) and sometimes, doing so that goes beyond the hours of your day, mostly just to show you're a team player.  These aren't necessarily the best practices but I know I found myself here at times.  After all, between the pandemic wiping out so many jobs, the anxiety-inducing 90-180 day "trial period" (depending upon where you work), and trying to make sure you can demonstrate your work from home, it can feel like the stakes are a bit higher than when going to a physically-based job.  

Putting Yourself Out There
So I talked a little bit about performativity in the previous section and I return to it here to actually encourage it a bit.  The balance in the last spoke to the balance of work and life--not letting the two blur too much (for various reasons, it's nearly impossible for them not to blur if you are working remotely).  

What do I mean by performativity in the context of putting yourself out there?  I don't mean that you need to be anyone other than who you are, but think about working remotely is like trying to communicate underwater. Your affect is muted, hard to hear, blurry to see, and possibly sluggish or slow to be understood.  That's digital communication's lag on capturing our humanness in ways that physical space does really well.  (Note: I'm not saying none of this is impossible digitally, but it usually involved high-touch interactions between a small number of people over a sustained time--and often, that's not the opportunity afforded to us at work).,

For me, this meant I often went the extra mile in expressing myself--not in ways I wouldn't express myself--but in ways that were natural extensions but maybe a little bit more than I would face-to-face.  I made sure to join in on punning threads, I made goofy remarks at my expense, I shared silly facts about my cats, and showed my garden's progress.  I also made the video below, joking about how they didn't want to let me into work (The video is here too in case it doesn't show up below).

It wasn't just joking--I emphasized other aspects of my personality to help my colleagues understand me better and to connect better with them. It required a bit more thought and effort but it also helped us all understand each other.  

Because so much of remote work feels appointment oriented (e.g. making zoom meetings and the like), it's also important to make time to connect with your colleagues.  This can be done in simple ways, coming to the start of the meeting with opener questions (beyond "how are you?") such as "did you have lunch?  Anything interesting?"  Maybe ask about what are people streaming or what's their biggest challenge this week or latest accomplishment?  The idea is to give space for smaller talk and to learn about your colleagues.  You can also do this is in larger ways by offering opportunities to talk beyond work.  Several times, I ended up meeting colleagues for face-to-face (ok, mask-to-mask) walks just to get out of the work mentality and creating a better relationship.  There are other ways to do this, sharing interesting or relevant articles with people based on their interests or just taking the time to randomly chat with folks.  The idea here is to just make sure you're building working relationships that aren't 100% work-focused.  While that is possible, I find it draining because especially during the pandemic, I'm stuck in my house with people I have no real connection to and that doesn't sound fun by any means.

It took me about six months to realize that I was missing this and I realize this is something that might be quite different for many folks. Typically, when I land on a campus and start working, one of the first things I do is go to the library and make friends with them (I *might* be a library groupie and I'm ok with that).  Once that's done, I branch out from there.  Ok, I don't actually seek out librarians for librarians' sake but since I'm often using the library, they're the first familiar faces I begin to see outside of the area that I work.   

But needless to say that hasn't happened this time around and it's offered some challenges for me.  Part of the benefit of making friends and colleagues outside my immediate area is I get a larger sense of the institute, find opportunities to collaborate wtih folks, and just feel more connected to the organization.  Those are valuable work elements for me.  In this new situation, it is harder to make friends outside of those you are in Zoom meetings with, which are typically people you directly work with.  

I haven't solved this puzzle entirely yet but there are a few things I did.  The first is that I kept my ears open for other new employees who started during the pandemic. I eventually created an informal group of newer employees to meet and connect so that we might have some space to learn from one another.  I did this in part because I had the luck to start the same week as a colleague and in that first week, we decided we would meet weekly.  Our work intersects so we planned to meet weekly for the focus of work but we also made the commitment to meet weekly just to share information and learning.  We realized that we were both in a situation where we had a lot fewer information access points than in a traditional office environment so by meeting weekly and sharing our discoveries and insights.  

Besides creating this small group of folks, I also made efforts to meet others through different trainings and gatherings both within my immediate area and through different internal professional development opportunities.  This helped me to meet a few more people who I would then work to stay in regular contact with, whether it was via email, monthly zoom meetings, or other opportunities to connect.  Similarly, I realized that I did know some people here already it and might behoove me to check in with them and just maintain a working relationship with them as they might not just be helpful in better understanding the institution but also in just having more people to have to talk with.  

Much of this is a no-brainer in many ways and folks often do this without thinking.  But remotely, I think it can be hard to remember to do it and to make sure to give it time and attention.  I think if I had to do it over again, these are things I would keep in the forefront from the very beginning and maybe even be asking questions to get at some of these opportunities from the very beginning (e.g. the interview process).  

What about you?  Have you started remotely and what things have you observed that you needed to adjust or do, in order for work to feel a bit more aligned with your style of work?  

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