Virtual Colleagues, Real Life Strangers

Written by Caitlin Parr

Illustration by Shafia Motaleb

They say that first impressions count, but how are we meant to get a fair impression of our colleagues and classmates when all we know of them is an ever freezing Zoom or Teams video rectangle. Yes, the funny faces that their frames freeze on have provided great icebreakers and laughs in moments of the infamous Zoom awkward silence, but I wish we could all take to our desks and get to know how we all function in an office or classroom together.

Since the summer I have started a new office job and started a Masters degree, with every element of both of these new adventures being online and remote. Usually these two new milestones bring new friendships and opportunities, but what they have given me most to date is increasing anxiety about when we all eventually meet and an expensive electricity bill.

Some issues that professionals have identified with this new way of life are the lack of eye-contact; the difficulty in reading body language and others’ reception to your ideas; assessing tone; and, being undermined professionally due to your lockdown/work-from-home wardrobe of smart-casual-pyjama-chic. 

It goes without saying, that I would rather we were all safe and well in our own homes instead of mixing unnecessarily during the pandemic but are we getting the same experience that we’re paying for (in terms of studying) with these new online classes? Well with facilitation of education and employment being unrecognisable compared to how we functioned this time last year, our behaviours and expectations both online and offline have had to change drastically. 

These changes that Universities have had to make come after years of students being repeatedly told that their lecturers were refusing to record in-person lectures as the experience ‘’wouldn’t be the same” and would encourage laziness and un-productivity. Well now we’re paying the same fees for these substitutes that couldn’t possibly suffice in the previous academic year – even for some students who were struggling physically and mentally to attend classes that were discouraged from asking for online recordings too.

The quality of our academic endeavours are what we chose our Uni based on, but it arguably isn’t the most important element for students who are struggling to strive through these rolling restrictions and worries – social interaction is. 

Relying on platforms like Zoom for social interaction is the new normal, with quizzes and online fundraisers taking over from trips to the pub or in person get-togethers. On one hand, I’ve quite enjoyed having to socialise via video calls as it means that you are always comfortable and warm in the confines of your own home, the drink and snacks are cheaper, and you can log off and head to bed whenever you’re ready without feeling pressured to stay for ‘just one more drink’. 

But, I am rather nervous that anxious people like myself will become accustomed to this change and choose it over socialising in person when it is eventually completely safe to do so. It already takes enough courage to walk into a new environment as a new student or colleague for the first time – now we have to do this whilst also trying to live up to the expectations that our peers and team members have made whilst we’ve been getting to know each other over the internet.

Socials and office break chats are the perfect ways to get to know these groups of people who are supposed to define this part of your life and these huge milestones. By getting to know new people in person you also encounter new fashion senses, new quirky mannerisms, more jokes and funny shared experiences, and more of an idea of who these people truly are and how they are going to be an influence in your life going forward.

Have tensions been avoided because we’re not sharing the same space? Are we missing out on great friendships because we don’t get to share our lunchtimes or work dos together? These are just two of the many questions that I always wonder when logging on for our morning meetings in work and when sharing the silence in our lecturer’s breakout rooms.

I was very lucky to get a job in the pandemic, especially in my office which is composed of only 8 members of staff (including myself). We work with vulnerable children and young adults, so the pressures of the job and the responsibility has been something that has brought us all closer together as we have to rely on each other to look after each others wellbeing due to the nature of not being able to discuss the day-to-day of the job with anyone outside of our team.

I know more about my colleagues’ daily backgrounds than I do about their mannerisms or office quirks. Their fashion sense from the neck down or even the length of their hair past their shoulders.

Though I have come to trust these people with assisting in the maintenance of my mental health, wellbeing and resilience day in and day out, I’m not too confident that I would recognise them if they rushed past me in the street (especially if they had a mask on) and unfortunately that’s just part of the ‘new normal’ that we may have to embrace somehow if we care enough about these half virtual strangers/half new team family to protect them in these uncertain times.