Before the pandemic, I used to joke that my nightmare would be the day when videoconferences were the norm. I have worked at home for more than 15 years. The thought of having to be coiffed and ready for my closeup every day seemed to negate one of the main benefits of working from home—every day is extremely casual Friday.
Then, one in three office employees got sent home to work. Many of the others lost their jobs entirely. Videoconferencing became so common people started using “Zoom” as a verb.
At first it was awkward. I curated a neat-looking background amidst the chaos of my messy office. (I’ve not tried to use backgrounds, as I read a story about someone who inadvertently turned herself into a potato during a call and couldn’t figure out how to change back. That stuck with me.) I stowed a pullover and a black cardigan in my desk for impromptu videoconferences. (I call them “zweaters.”) I also have a hairbrush nearby.
Soon, my attitude about videoconferencing shifted.
All hands on call
I participate in regular team calls with one of my biggest clients. I used to call in by phone and could barely hear the conversation. If someone asked me a question, I usually had to ask them to repeat themselves.
But, on the videoconference, I am there with them. I can see their expressions. We can trade smart-ass remarks. They even met my daughter after she wandered into my office one day. The face time has strengthened my relationships with the individual team members, including those I didn’t know very well. I’m not alone in feeling a greater sense of belonging, even though I’m a contract worker. (We do get lonely.)
Recently, I was on a regular phone call with a source for one of my stories. She was late to the call and apologized profusely because she had a very vocal toddler on her end. I remember those days, when my daughter was younger and juggling motherhood and work seemed more chaotic. I told her we were in an era of no apologies. Everyone is doing the best they can.
Since the pandemic began, many of us have had common experiences. It’s not that we’re “all in the same boat.” We’re not. Some boats are much more well-equipped than others. But the shared experience of facing this enormous epidemiological event seems to have cultivated a new acceptance of blended work and life than we’ve experienced before. Where we used to get annoyed at a colleague’s barking dog on a conference call, we now shrug off that and more. If the BBC can do it, so can we all.
More space and more grace
Giving people more space and more grace to blend their work and professional lives is an essential next step in the evolution of work. Many of us are already expected to be more connected than ever. It’s easier to stomach taking a few after-hours calls or plowing through the weekend email onslaught on Sunday night if we have some slack to let our personal lives encroach on work when we need to. It’s ridiculous that we must pretend as if we don’t have children or that we’re totally over that death in the family in the prescribed three bereavement days.
How can we make work more human now?
Meet people where they are. I recently interviewed a manager from a company that uses Slack to keep remote workers communicating. The company instituted a no-explanations policy that allows employees to set their status to orange, which means “do not disturb.” If they need to take care of a personal matter or spend time with a child during the day, they can duck out without consequence. If you have team members who are “Zoomed out,” let them go dark during the videoconference without calling them out.
Boost benefits during the COVID-19 era to ensure that employees feel more supported. Employers should be repeatedly asking for feedback about what employees need. And employees need to put themselves out there and let their managers know if they need additional support.
Talk. I’m struck by how much more personal my relationships have gotten with even my most buttoned-up colleagues and clients. People seem to be craving personal interaction now. Of course, be appropriate, but this is a time to see the people with whom you work as whole humans.
The COVID-19 era has been one of devastation and loss. Through that collective grieving, we have the chance to emerge with workplaces that are kinder and more in tune with the needs of their workers. I truly hope that our warmer connections are something that we carry forward after this time has passed.