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Working with strangers

By Anton Tablante, The Philippine Star Published Oct 16, 2020 5:00 am

Entering my first job out of college, I was dreading the worst. A new job, and especially your very first job as a fresh graduate, will always bring out some worry in people, but my anxiety had a factor of the great unknown attached to it. I was entering the workforce in a time of uncertainty and unrest and COVID-19; a time when the term “logistical nightmare” became part of the global lexicon.

Indeed, I was diving into a logistical nightmare of my own — a job in which I would work entirely from home. No in-person work planning, no going out for coffee, no Friday lakwatsa. From my start date of April 2020 to (a very generous estimate of) January 2021, I was not going to meet any of my co-workers in person.

A long period of time will inevitably pass in this WFH situation, and I’m innately worried that I haven’t made an impression on the various people I’ve met in my job.

A day usually starts with some casual conversation between myself and my only teammate within my age group:

Her: What’s on your agenda today?

Me: (I describe my schedule, my free time, etc.)

Her: Ah, I have....

Me: Nice, you’re pretty free today.

Her: Yup.

(Pause. During which I feel a bit awkward.)

Her: Are you watching the game?

Me: (after five minutes, as I was busy doing something) Yep!

(Pause. Does she have a meeting right now or is she busy?)

And the conversation usually follows from that, with constant pauses and breaks in between. We usually segue into conversations about our projects, our dogs, or perhaps the ongoing NBA playoffs. Last week our boss talked about a time in the past when the team went bowling, which really just made me sad about how that’s not possible any time soon. It isn’t just me that’s sad, though — most of my co-workers in the department are brand new to the company as well, so at least we can all commiserate together, instead of me just being sad in the corner while everyone else talks about their pre-quarantine activities. A small positive.

With all online chats, however, there’s a sense of temporality — pauses in online chats are extremely different from natural breaks in the conversation. Online chats fester with breaks, while conversation stoppers are just part of the normal cycle of chitchat in-person. Sometimes, it’s really tiring to keep an online chatbox alive when you feel so disconnected from the action. When I finish a hard task, I find myself walking away from my phone and computer and lying down for a bit, instead of briefly celebrating with co-workers, as I would if I were in the office.

Until when will my co-workers not just be names in my Gmail inbox, or faces on my Zoom calls? We recently just hit 200 days of being quarantined, with no end in sight. I like working with my co-workers, but working without them right in front of me makes everything feel more mechanical. In my opinion, modern workspaces are supposed to be fluid, easy-going and fun.

With no real physical barriers to impede communication, a workplace should alternate between “work-mode” and “small talk-mode” easily and seamlessly.

You need a five-minute break? Talk about the weather (Spoiler: Ang init noh?) with someone over a small cup of coffee.

You need a 30-minute break? Head down from the office and have some fast food or overpriced coffee with a teammate, or hell, maybe even with the boss you have a love-hate relationship with.

At home, when I get stressed over Excel crashing for the third time that day, all I can do is listen to music... alone. Or perhaps watch a funny YouTube video... alone. Talk about the NBA Finals... over chat. Everything feels so disconnected nowadays, even if the internet is supposed to connect me in these types of situations. Bonding has been reduced to one-minute “How’s-your-workload?” conversations before everyone gets into the Zoom call. Viber and Google Hangout chats are carefully segregated into “work” and “not-work” chats, making it hard to have candid moments, small breathers in between hard work. Jokes are responded to with the classic Filipino “haha” and straight face, instead of full-out guffawing as it would be in real life, if it were a real knee-slapper.

There’s no sense of finality either. The worst part of all this is that I’m slowly getting used to it. When exiting a 5 p.m. meeting, all I do is shrug my shoulders, turn my laptop off and then nap, whereas, usually, in an office setting, I’d be excitedly talking about the TV show I’m going to watch, or the video game I’m going to play when I get home. I’m even worried about the gym plans I made with the aforementioned co-worker of mine — when will those come to fruition?

With the lack of finality comes time, and lots of it. A long period of time will inevitably pass in this WFH situation, and I’m innately worried that I haven’t made an impression on the various people I’ve met in my job, especially those in a different section or department. These people will possibly remain a static image, or a static email address, in my head, and I’m sure the opposite is true as well. If a co-worker leaves, what do I have to remember them by? Will I literally never see them in my lifetime? Even if I used to spend most of my day working with them? It’s a sad, scary, existential thought I’ve always had within this quarantine period. It’s like meeting a stranger you know you’re never seeing again in your life, only magnified by 10 because you’ve actually “met” this person, but only through an online persona.

Through all of this inner-voice-talk, however, I still believe in the connections I’ve made in this new job. I still believe in the sincerity of friendships made online, and I still believe that my co-workers have my back as much as I have theirs. I’m wholly grateful for all the small moments I’m still able to have with them. Although they’re not as much as we can have in person, the fact that I haven’t broken down or cried from stress yet is a testament to how stable our virtual workplace is. It flat-out sucks that we can’t all be together, but the only thing we can do is manage.

I just hope that one day, I’ll be able to be in one of those cheesy company photos when it’s someone’s birthday, with the celebrant looking awkward as hell in the middle, accompanied by a terrible rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Romanticized a bit? Maybe. But allow me to dream; I’ve been stuck in my room for seven months.

Art by Anne de Guzman