Some reflections on starting a new job remotely. How does remote working affect our ability to build relationships? What might the current situation tell us about the future of work?

I first became aware of COVID-19 back in February. I’d been tasked with writing a speech to express the City of London’s support for its Chinese partners as they battled against an emerging virus.

At that point, I wasn’t even sure what to call the virus. It seemed a distant concern. Serious, certainly, and tragic – but also distant.

Six months later and everything has changed.

On a personal note, too, everything has changed. New city, new job, and new baby due any day now.

In this post, I reflect on what it’s been like to start a new job during lockdown. I’m very thankful that I’ve been able to work remotely. I’ve not been furloughed, nor have I been required to work on the frontline. Enormous credit not only to the healthcare professionals, but also to the shop workers, bus drivers, rubbish collectors, and all the other people whose jobs, we now realise, are very much essential.

It’s clear that many changes to our everyday lives will remain even when the coronavirus threat recedes. Our working lives, too, will be different. Many more of us will be working from home. How will this affect the nature of work and the ways we interact with colleagues and clients?

Social Capital

In a recent all-staff meeting, the CEO of the organisation I now work for used an interesting phrase. He said that new starters during lockdown hadn’t yet had the opportunity to build ‘social capital‘ with their new colleagues.

That description rang true for me. I’ve only met ‘in real life’ the two people who interviewed me, six months ago. I’ve got to know everyone else, and what is expected of me, virtually.

It’s hard to fully get the measure of someone you’ve only met online; it’s hard, too, to give a true account of your own self.

Hard, but not impossible. I’m reminded of a tactic I used when I gave lectures as a young academic. When I tried to ‘be myself’ in front of 100+ students, I was too nervous and self-conscious to be a good teacher. Instead, I developed a sort of persona. I was still myself, but I gave more space to certain sides of my character and less space to others.

I’ve been doing something similar on Skype and Microsoft Teams. By consciously being a bit more outgoing than I am in person, I’m trying to retrieve something of what is lost in remote working. I’m making a more conscious effort to build social capital than I would be doing otherwise.

Intimacy with strangers

One consequence of my effort to build social capital remotely is that I’m sharing updates on my personal life with people who are essentially strangers.

My new colleagues could tell you how my wife’s pregnancy is progressing, but they couldn’t tell you whether I’m tall or short. There are people I speak to nearly every day who wouldn’t know whether to say hello if we passed one another in the street.

This probably calls for a redefinition of whom we consider to be strangers. After all, more and more of our working lives might be conducted online. Virtual relationships might soon no longer need that ‘virtual’ qualifier.

Parkinson’s Law in the Outlook Age

One of my favourite bits of trivia is that time only became standardised with the development of a national railway network in the early nineteenth century. Before then, 4.45pm in London was not necessarily 4.45pm in Birmingham.

While remote working, it’s been Microsoft Outlook that’s been shaping my experience of time.

I’ve found that people are compelled to fill all of the time allocated to any given Skype or Teams meeting. In ‘real life’, this isn’t the case. If a meeting finishes early, great. If it overruns, and there’s no-one waiting to use the room, it goes on longer.

But with meetings so neatly parcelled into 30-, 60-, or even 90-minute slots, you can be sure that all of those precious minutes will be used. I’m not sure whether this is a version of presenteeism, a desire to maximise human contact during otherwise quite lonely remote working, or something else.

It’s like an evolution of Parkinson’s Law. It’s no longer, ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ Now it’s, ‘Work expands so as to fill the time given to it in our Outlook calendars.’