For some people starting new jobs during lockdown, stepping foot in the office is never going to happen. We asked women what it’s been like working a job when you have never met anyone on your team.
But for some of the 6.1% of people who, according to the Office for National Statistics, changed jobs in the second quarter (April to June) of last year, starting a new job in a pandemic has had its own difficulties. With 27% of adults in the UK still exclusively working from home, many people are starting new jobs without ever actually meeting any of their colleagues.
Georgia Smith, 25, is one of the many people who is yet to say so much as “hello” to any of her colleagues in real life. After moving to London four weeks ago to start a new job in marketing, Georgia doesn’t know her office’s culture, except for the regular exclamations of “you’re on mute” or the collective moaning about unstable internet connections.
Starting a new job remotely has been easier than Georgia expected, but she admits that the lack of face-to-face interaction has placed some restrictions on establishing relationships. “Even if you are able to sneak in a conversation about life outside work, it feels like there’s a timer on it when you’re in a scheduled meeting,” she says. “You get two minutes of chat and then it’s like ‘right, okay, let’s do some work’, Whereas if I was grabbing lunch with them, we’d have more time to chat about stuff.”
Having worked in supermarkets and bars in the past, Georgia is used to making her colleagues a genuine part of her life and meeting up with them outside of the workplace. So, instead of Friday drinks or coffees out, Georgia and her colleagues have resorted to exchanging memes or funny YouTube videos.
“I am lucky to be in a team that is so friendly and does things like send smiley faces and exclamation marks. It really makes a big difference,” she says. “It helps that I’m very used to texting people or messaging them online. I know how to communicate how I feel using words and emojis and stuff. I literally just sent a gif from Schitt’s Creek.”
But she admits that this has its downsides and has made her struggle gauging people’s tone when it comes to interacting with people who don’t communicate as informally as her. “Because I’m so attuned to it [gifs and emojis], it makes me misread things as rude or blunt when, actually, someone’s just asked me a question without an emoji,” she says.
Emma Bolton, 28 from Swansea, has had similar difficulties with the inability to assess people’s body language or become accustomed to their different mannerisms making it hard for her to read certain situations.
“I struggle quite a lot with reading people’s tones via email,” she says. “If my boss is being quiet – usually because he’s incredibly busy and doesn’t have time to elaborate on an answer when a short one will do – I always jump to the conclusion that I have done something wrong.”
Usually this isn’t the case, but it takes time to get used to people’s way of communicating.”
Having started her job in PR in June last year, Emma says that she has found herself working extra hard to convey her sense of personality, to make up for the lost in-person connection.
“In our Monday meeting, we always ask how weekends have been and things, so I use this time to try and show my fun side a bit more and think of anecdotes or funny things to say as other conversations are usually very work focused,” she says. “I hope I have been able to get my personality across, but who knows, maybe everyone thinks I’m boring.”
Though Emma says that she is lucky that a ridiculous amount of Zoom calls have helped her bond with her colleagues, with the nature of her work meaning that they naturally gained a closeness, she admits that she is missing the freedom of office life – particularly getting to know her colleagues by piecing together the small things they do in their everyday lives.
“I miss just being able to spontaneously go for a drink after work if it’s a nice evening. Or taking lunch outside together to get away from the desk. It’s the small things,” she says.
While Emma and Georgia have largely had positive experiences of not meeting their colleagues, others haven’t been so fortunate, deciding that no amount of Zoom calls or email threads can replace water-cooler chats or coffee runs.
Holly Wilson, 23, from Nottingham, started and finished her job as a copywriter without ever meeting a single one of her colleagues. For nine months – from June to February – the lack of chats whilst waiting for the microwave or glances over the shoulder left her feeling “more like a freelancer with no connection,” than a part of a team.
“We had a Microsoft Teams and a Google Chat set up which was intended to be a social space, but it was hardly ever used,” she says. “The majority of the communication was done through email, which was all very work-focused. I actually think the person I spoke to the most was tech support and that was because we had an hour-long phone call trying to download a HTML coder.”
Working in a small company made it was difficult for Holly to get in touch with her busy colleagues and her age meant that she also struggled to relate to people that she worked with.
Holly is not alone in her feelings of isolation. As Stylist has previously reported, data suggests that nearly half of workers have experienced loneliness during the pandemic – an issue that disproportionately affects women.
As a result, Holly found herself depending on her housemates to create a replacement office atmosphere. “I would eat lunch with them, I would ask them for help regarding trivial things on Excel or Photoshop and we would plan coffee breaks for the same time. They became my colleagues,” she says.
Aside from being something to put on her CV, Holly doesn’t see her old job as anything more than that. “It feels like a nothingness in my head,” says Holly. “Normally, I’d have some Facebook friends from a job but this one I have no ties to. It’s actually quite weird when I think about it.”
Moving forward, though Holly admits that she probably won’t ever meet her former team, Emma and Georgia are both excited, and somewhat nervous, about the prospect of meeting their colleagues in real life.
“There’s the fear that things may feel awkward because technically I’d be meeting them for the first time even though I already know them. It might be difficult to find the balance between first meeting and being too over familiar,” says Emma. “I’m just hoping that it’ll feel like we’ve always worked together.”
With online working, in some capacity, looking like it’s here to stay, founder and director of DiVA, Arit Eminue, says that it’s important to remember that a loss of in-person connection is something that we’ve all had to endure. “We’ve experienced this season differently yet a lack of personal connection at work is something we’ve all experienced,” she tells Stylist.
To help establish relationships virtually, she encourages those beginning new jobs to not be afraid to be open with their colleagues and to remember that their colleagues all have identities outside of their profession. “Let your colleagues into your world by sharing aspects of your personal life, such as hobbies, let them meet your pets, or share what’s on your Netflix watch list,” she says. “This all helps deepen relationships and may unearth some common interests.”
But for anyone who is struggling with the adjustment, Arit says that it’s crucial that they are honest about their experiences. “Don’t be afraid to share how you feel with your line manager or a colleague you are more connected to. You may find when you open up that there are resources in place to support staff.”