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Working from home: Colleagues? Never met them. Office? Never seen it

For workers who started a new job during lockdown, like Siún Lennon, the settling-in period has been challenging

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Siún Lennon has worked for INM for eight months, but has only met one colleague in person. Photo: Mark Condren

Siún Lennon has worked for INM for eight months, but has only met one colleague in person. Photo: Mark Condren

Siún Lennon has worked for INM for eight months, but has only met one colleague in person. Photo: Mark Condren

The good news is that you’ve started a job in a global pandemic where grasping new opportunities feels like gathering gold dust. The bad news is that you’ve started a new job in a global pandemic — and have to train, work and get to know your new colleagues from home.

The truth is, I have worked in a company for eight months, but I can’t tell you where the office bathroom is. No, I am not completely insane or oblivious to my surroundings. Like many people, working from home has become a new way of life for me. Like some of those people, I began my career working from home. I have worked for INM for eight months, but I have only met one of my colleagues in person.

Of course, virtual e-greetings were exchanged, but it feels like a dystopian version of You’ve Got Mail as I attempt to get to know my colleagues through the prism of a screen. I was five months working for INM before I realised that a colleague I ‘talk’ to every single day was in fact eight months’ pregnant with her second child. Usually there are some obvious clues to knowing when someone is in their third trimester when you see them face to face.

I imagined, like many people my age, that my first full-time job based in a city like Dublin would mean relocating there to live the high life, socialising after work and weekends of freedom in a new city. The reality this year was somewhat different.

Not that it is all bad. There are of course upsides to working from home (wearing a pair of tracksuit bottoms as you sit down to an eight-hour day being one of them). I have found that I am one of those strange people who likes Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings. It gives a semblance of getting to know your colleagues beyond their email addresses and a sense of interaction that we all crave as human beings.

Weekly team meetings and catch-ups with my supervisor have helped to bridge the gap between my makeshift work setup in our spare room and the office, and form a sense of true communication, even with dodgy WiFi.

Dr Yseult Freeney is a lecturer in Organisational Psychology in Dublin City University. She stresses the importance of building relationships with our new colleagues when beginning to work remotely. “We have to make a conscious effort to build relationships,” she says. “When someone joins an organisation, the manager might set up a team meeting and you do your introductions but make the decision to do more than that yourself. Try and contact each of your team members one-to-one. That can really help to build trust and that’s really important in workplace relationships.”

I am by no means alone in beginning a career from home during the pandemic. Sandra Nchama Mba Bilogo is a graduate engineer at consultancy engineering firm Fingleton White. Sandra began working for the company in November 2020. This saw her move from Dublin to Portlaoise to be closer to work, but she is still working remotely. “It’s an overwhelming feeling because it’s a new world to me,” she said. “Learning everything from home is difficult. Sometimes you don’t even know what the person you’re talking to looks like, and you have to learn the culture of the company from a distance.”

Dr Freeney says that learning about how people communicate within an organisation is one of the most challenging aspects of starting a new job, even when it’s not remote. “When you start a new job you do have to acclimatise yourself to the culture of the organisation, including unspoken goals and norms. It can even involve a unique language — people can speak in acronyms or have different labels for things, and you might not have any idea what is going on,” said Dr Freeney. “Keep a little diary of what happens at meetings and how people converse with each other. We eventually get to learn that by immersing ourselves within the organisation.”

Steps Sandra has found beneficial in helping her integrate into her new workplace include one-to-one meetings with her supervisor, and informal ‘virtual’ coffee breaks to get to know her colleagues.

Ramon Santos (25) is also a graduate engineer at Fingleton White. Ramon says a big obstacle in training from home is that ‘learning from watching others’ is not really an option. “There is a lot of learning involved when starting a new job. Rather than learning by looking at what your colleagues are doing, you have to be very proactive and ask more questions, which can be hard when you don’t really know anyone starting out. When you’re not in the office it can be more difficult to get involved, even though you need to involve yourself even more when you are just starting out.

There are also practical difficulties to face when beginning a job from home, namely setting up a workplace. Conor Phelan (23), who began working in advanced operations last August, said that this is one of the main issues he faces. “I’ve never been to the office; I’m living in Laois and working out of my bedroom at home. I’m in my room where my bed is literally five feet away from me. You sleep for eight hours a day, you wake up, you go to your desk and you work for eight hours a day. When you’re in your bedroom for 16 or 17 hours a day it can get to you.”

However, Conor says that he is “going against the grain” as he admits, “I love working from home. I have a lot of friends who do struggle with it, but I guess there are pros and cons to it. For me, the pros outweigh the cons. I play a lot of sport so living away from home would mean travelling up the road three days a week when sport starts back up.”

Many people feel under pressure to perform to high expectations, both real and imagined, when beginning a new job. This, on top of having 24-hour access to our phone and computer, can leave a lot of new employees feeling strained when trying to impress an employer.

“When I first started, I put pressure on myself to be online the whole time,” says Conor. “We would be working with teams in America so if an email came in at eight o’clock at night I’d feel I’d have to reply to it. Whereas I suppose now looking back, I realise that you’re not expected to do that.”

Dr Freeney suggests that the best way to avoid being pulled into a system of overworking yourself is to focus on what you have done, not on how many hours you’ve done.

“Think about what you’ve achieved every week, instead of, ‘Oh, how many hours did I work?’ The more we start focusing on what we’ve achieved rather than how long we’ve spent at it, then we will be doing a lot in terms of managing our wellbeing.”

Whether you’re starting in a new company of 10 or 100, it’s important to realise that you are not alone when it comes to working remotely. Our ‘new normal’ may require more patience, adaptability and graciousness — from both employers and employees, but after facing life in a global pandemic, it’s nothing we can’t deal with. For now, it’s time to sit back, take it in and put on your best Zoom face.

Five tips for starting a new job remotely during Covid-19

1. Be proactive
For a new employee joining an organisation, your number one rule has to be being proactive. If you’re not pro-active you won’t be visible within the organisation and visibility is really important in terms of career progression and your performance being recognised.

2. Put yourself out there to connect to colleagues

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You want to seem to be interested in your colleagues and willing to get involved. It’s not going to be the same as face-to-face interaction and there’s no point saying it will be, but you do have to push yourself outside of your comfort zone in order to get to know people.

3. Don’t assume everyone knows you are new to the role
Everyone else tends to just get on with their own work and you can’t assume that they remember that you’re new. When you’re introducing yourself, make sure to say, ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve just started’. Highlight the fact that you’re new to the organisation and interested to learn.

4. Be reflective
Be observant and reflective in the interactions you have. Don’t go to meetings passively and solely focus on the topic. What else can you pick up? How do people talk to each other? Is it formal or informal? Do people seem risk-avoidant or open to innovation? Take time out after meetings to write and reflect on what you see or hear. Over time you will pick these things up automatically.

5. Have a routine and take breaks
Have a routine and have rules about when you work and when you don’t work. Take breaks and switch off. Allow yourself to completely switch off when you’re not working. Too many of us fall into the trap of overworking because we’re too focused on the clock. You don’t have to fall into that trap.
Dr Yseult Freeney

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