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It’s been 13 months, and I still haven’t met most of my colleagues in real life

By Brooke Villanueva Published Oct 14, 2021 9:00 am

Growth potential, clear goals, and human connection—these, for me, are the three main factors of a good working environment.

Since I officially got on board with PhilSTAR L!fe in September last year, I haven’t met most of my colleagues in person. I’ve been short of the last-mentioned pillar due to the pandemic that has significantly changed the way we do things.

You see, I’m one of the lucky few. After my retrenchment from ABS-CBN following its failed bid for a new franchise in July 2020, I was able to get hired for a job that involved my writing passion not too long after.

I joined L!fe alongside three of my co-workers from my previous company at such a strange time—when we did our jobs and got through hectic workdays without meeting our teammates face-to-face.

To say that my experience as a STAR employee has been fruitful would be an understatement.

But somewhere in the back of my mind, I know it would be 10 times better if we could grow and celebrate the milestones of our lifestyle website— our “baby”—with the physical interaction that has proven to be unattainable ever since the work-from-home setup became “the new normal.”

On top of our in-betweens (from mentoring sessions and unanticipated topics, to typo errors and major slip-ups) via e-mail and chat, it has been our practice to gather via Zoom every afternoon since our official launch in October 2020.

In our first few meetings, we would turn on our cameras just to familiarize ourselves with each other’s names and faces. What an odd way to get acquainted, huh? Now, on-cam video chats are just for when we would welcome a new member to the team.

The PhilSTAR L!fe team—Sheila Paras, Tanya Lara, Bim Santos, Camille Santiago, Pinky Icamen, Brooke Villanueva, Ayie Licsi, Hannah Mallorca, Danicah Lagman, Red Dimaandal, Saab Lariosa

I acknowledge that it’s a pleasing move as we’ve developed a system that doesn’t tax the brain. Through daily audio conferences that don’t usually exceed 15 minutes, we’re able to briefly coordinate our schedules, lay out our story pitches, as well as come up with plans and strategies to keep our numbers up for the day. That way, we can work efficiently without posing high health risks of any kind as much as possible.

In a 2021 study conducted by Stanford researchers, lengthy video chats have been shown to cause fatigue. Meanwhile, another set of findings in the Journal of Experimental Psychology stated that humans “feel significantly more connected through voice-based media.”

The researchers additionally found that “the voice itself, even without visual cues, seemed to be integral to bonding.”

I’d be lying if I said we’re now the closest of friends at this point. It’s not right to say it has entirely been smooth sailing for us either. Like in any group, I have witnessed tense dialogues and creative differences in our discussions.

Our convos, however, have evolved incredibly over time. By now, awkward small talk is no more. It’s been replaced by straightforward messages, funny stories, and occasional jokes. We even have rant sessions from time to time about politics—and, every so often, the mundane things like slow internet connection and unpredictable weather.

Despite the work restrictions in the midst of a crisis, I could only find myself grateful for still being able to feel like I’m part of something bigger. I realized this during the onset of Typhoon Ulysses that hit different parts of the country. Power simultaneously went off in our homes, giving most of us poor to no internet access.

Only two members of the group were able to upload and publish articles via our database at the time—one was our news head and the other was our head of digital. It wasn’t the latter’s job, but neither of them hesitated to step up to continue generating page views and engagements no matter what.

They worked double time and wrote more articles than usual while waiting for the rest of the team to get back to the scene. While we haven’t met in real life, I have noticed how the trust, commitment and malasakit have become increasingly evident in us as the days go by.

During this time, keeping the line between work and rest in mind has not been an easy feat. There are moments when it’s clear as day, but I sometimes still let work take over. For that reason, I would find myself struggling to get by.

The workload would seem to double, even though I’ve been doing the same things I’ve been trained for, way before the pandemic. My pace, at times, would seem to slow down significantly. I would take a few days off, only to realize I needed a little more time for rest and recreation.

 Work from home presents opportunities to get creative in forging connections that we need now more than ever.

The COVID-19 situation in the Philippines shows no signs of letting up soon. Unfortunately, it looks like we’ll be stuck in our home offices for longer.

I remember what David Solomon—a Goldman Sachs executive—said about remote working: “It’s not a new normal. It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.” I beg to differ.

“Aberration” is such a strong word. I’m not here to romanticize what seemed to be the perfect scenario at first but later turned into an exhausting one, but let me point out that it also presents opportunities to get creative in safely forging connections that we need now more than ever.

While I haven’t been able to, at the very least, shake my co-workers’ hands in person, simply having these “strangers” ask me to get some rest when I seem like I’m out of my element or tell me how their day went at random has made all the difference.

I am assured of the “safe space” we’ve been putting up online since PhilSTAR L!fe was birthed—a place to talk when we’re feeling all sorts of emotions, a place that will continue to be there when we can finally go back to the “old normal” or even transition to a better workplace. To a great extent, it helps.