No office politics: The pros and cons of starting a job in lockdown

Starting a job at a physical remove from colleagues is challenging – but it has upsides

Sorcha Judge at her home office: “It helps to reach out to your colleagues. Even before a meeting starts, make sure to have that social chat.” Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Sorcha Judge at her home office: “It helps to reach out to your colleagues. Even before a meeting starts, make sure to have that social chat.” Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

Kirsty Cawthron moved to Ireland this year as part of what she calls a “classic romance story”. She had decided to move from London to Dublin to live with her partner of three years, Patrick.

In February, she was interviewed from London for a role as head of fundraising for the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and, after accepting the job without hesitation, planned to move to Ireland and start in June. Little did she know that her first day in the “office” would mean working from her new home in Donnybrook.

“Starting up a brand new position was daunting anyway, and not being able to see your colleagues face to face slows down your ability to get to know the [office] culture,” Cawthron observes.

She met her team once, during the second interview, and has popped into the centre’s Dublin 2 base only sporadically: “It was a big help psychologically, to see them at least once, but 95 per cent of the time it’s been just me at home.”

Even in the usual run of things, the first day of any new job can be nerve-shredding. Apart from having to learn where the bathroom is and find out where the pens are kept, there’s the exhausting business of making a good first impression, often for a good eight hours.

But we are not, as you are no doubt painfully aware by now, in normal times. And starting a new job at a physical remove from your colleagues has its pros and cons.

Liam Marshall, based in Dún Laoghaire, started a new job as a health economist in the Dublin office of a global healthcare company in April. Making that all-important first impression happened over Zoom, and he observes that there’s only so much impression that a person can make in a small thumbnail on someone’s computer.

“I did try and keep it nice and tidy in the background,” he smiles. “You don’t want a stray clotheshorse in there.

“The first few weeks I was very aware of making that impression – personally, I prefer to get up and shower and wear something smart because then it feels like I’m at work.”

Kirsty Cawthron: “Not being able to see your colleagues face to face slows down your ability to get to know the [office] culture,” Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Kirsty Cawthron: “Not being able to see your colleagues face to face slows down your ability to get to know the [office] culture,” Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Cawthron is in agreement: “Being new, I was definitely dressing for the office, but by now I’m in my jeans a bit more. Being on Zoom was definitely about me making sure I seemed as friendly and approachable as possible.”

Arriving to the office on his first day in the new role, Marshall was handed a laptop and told to go home.

“No one knew how long it was going to be for,” he recalls. “We were lucky in that we had an extra bedroom, so we moved the bed out and I have a desk in there, and my girlfriend was working from the sitting room.”

Casual interactions

Despite the encouragement of his colleagues, easing into the team took longer than usual for Marshall.

“It was hard at the start – I think everything feels more formal when you’re starting off anyway. But it would have been quicker to strike up a rapport if we met face-to-face more often. You can get the social quirks that you’d get outside the official time of a meeting. The boss organised for people to have coffee every second week in the first couple of months, which really helped.”

There was another surprise side effect of starting work in a pandemic that Marshall hadn’t factored in: sidestepping office politics, something that’s at once a blessing and a burden: “I don’t know anything about the people in the organisation that would normally be just imparted causally to me. I’m not involved in anything like that – everyone has to behave themselves online. I definitely do miss those casual interactions, although I’d feel much worse if everyone else on the team was going to work and I wasn’t.”

After she had her goodbye drinks on Zoom in her old role, Dublin-based Sorcha Judge took on her new role in the publicity department of Penguin Random House six months ago. It was a dream role for her, but the first week left her “exhausted”.

“I remember I didn’t look at a screen for the whole weekend,” she recalls. “The first week in any job is tough going, but this was different. You check everything twice, because you’re so nervous about making a mistake. I was always ringing my manager to ask, ‘is this what you mean?’ Phonecalls in this situation make a big difference.”

Judge spent the first day of her new job on Zoom, “trying to figure out who everyone was”.

“Usually you learn so much about a workplace through osmosis,” she says. “This is very odd, in that you can’t listen in on people. When you’re in the office, there’s an easy way of saying, ‘what do you think of this?’ that takes two seconds, but when you do the job from home, you have to send a really formal email and watch how you word things. Luckily, my team were so nice and reassuring, and we spent hour-long calls getting to know each other.

“There are upsides to this arrangement – I live with my sister, and I love our apartment – but I think you can definitely be more creative when you’re surrounded by your colleagues,” Judge continues. “You can’t bounce ideas off each other – a lot can come from those water cooler conversations.”

Social chat

To others starting the first day of a new job in lockdown, Marshall advises: “If you can, get out before you start the day. By all means, replace your commuting time with more sleep, but I think it’s really helpful to shower and get ready for ‘work’; otherwise you get into a mindset that you’re just at home, especially with two people there.”

“I think for me, the big thing was to make sure to meet someone from every department for a proper chat, mainly so they find out about you,” Cawthron says. “With the teams you will work with more closely, having that social chat means you’ve got more currency with each other.

Liam Marshall at his home office. “I prefer to get up and shower and wear something smart because then it feels like I’m at work.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Liam Marshall at his home office. “I prefer to get up and shower and wear something smart because then it feels like I’m at work.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

“I know everyone is really busy and there are only so many hours a day that people can bear to look at Zoom, but you need to make sure that people know who you are. Even if it mans having a conversation about when you’ll eventually be able to go for a coffee and piece of cake.”

Judge notes that her team at Penguin Random House were acutely aware of, and empathetic towards, the particular challenges she faced as a new team member in the current climate.

“Keeping office hours keeps you feeling ‘normal’ about the job. I always say that it helps to reach out to your colleagues. Even before a meeting starts, make sure to have that social chat. And remember that it’s always okay to ask for these things as a new person on the team.”

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‘It is difficult to shake your outsider status’

Jessica Doyle recently joined The Irish Times digital team through the graduate programme. She started her new role via remote working.

“The funny thing about starting a new job remotely during the coronavirus pandemic is that all the usual social rigmarole of the occasion goes out the window. Everything you learn about making a good first impression – give a firm handshake, introduce yourself to everyone, make eye-contact – means nothing as you’re reduced to a disembodied head on a screen.

“As many people are uncertain of their job security at the moment, the fact that I have been hired recently is something I do not take for granted. On top of that, I have the luxury of working from home where it’s safe, unlike healthcare workers, retail and hospitality workers and teachers.

“That being said, starting a new job remotely is quite strange. Although many office workers were glad of a short hiatus from their colleagues’ idiosyncrasies at the beginning of the lockdown, starting on a new team from home makes it difficult to shake your outsider status.

“It’s a bit like going into work to find all of your co-workers reminiscing about a party at the weekend that you weren’t invited to. For example, when a colleague references another member of staff over video call, I find myself smiling vacantly and nodding, implying “Oh yes, that is classic Mary”, even though I have no idea who they’re talking about.

“On top of that, in a subconscious effort to convey my interest and listening skills, I clocked myself nodding like a bobblehead in the corner of my screen in response to a colleague’s instructions – I stopped abruptly, questioning, do I always nod this much?

“After two weeks of training for my new role remotely, I have come to accept that your personality cannot be conveyed in the same way over video as it can in person, and online communication is quite stilted and forced.

“Nevertheless, this is where we are today and I think perseverance and focusing on the job at hand will see me through until I enter the promised land of the office one day. At which point, I will undoubtedly lament the half-an-hour extra in bed and commute-less days of working from home.

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