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I Started A New Job In The Pandemic. Will I Ever Get To Meet My Co-Workers?

Laura Yuen Star Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Laura Yuen takes a look at what work may look like in 2022. Yuen says, "All-remote or all in-person is not the question. The future that many of us are clinging to is a mix of both worlds."

Minneapolis

I'm one of the millions of Americans who quit their jobs last year.

It's not lost on me how fortunate I am to have landed a remote gig with the kind of flexibility I've craved ever since becoming a parent. Controlling where and when I work means I can write after putting the kids to bed or fire up the rice cooker at 4 p.m. These little liberties I've enjoyed as a columnist have helped my home life run more smoothly.

But after starting this unicorn of a journalism job in August, I've found myself wondering: When will I start to make friends in my new workplace?

This month was supposed to be when downtown workers headed back to the office. Omicron has made a mockery of those return dates. Nearly two years into COVID-19, sometimes it feels reasonable to ask if there will ever be a return.

My editor was determined to bring our whole team together last fall. It would have been my first-ever in-person meeting in the newsroom. The prospect of a change of scenery put some pep in my step. Would I take the bus downtown? Should I pack a lunch? Could I squeeze into pants that did not have an elastic waistband?

She scheduled the meeting for November. The virus said nope.

One complication was my older son was sent into quarantine because of a positive case at school, so I couldn't leave the house. My editor rescheduled the meeting for two weeks later, when, guess what — my younger son had to go into lockdown.

Plus news of omicron had arrived, as well as a boatload of delta cases, not to mention the regular onset of cold and flu season. She eventually sent an e-mail saying the meeting would be postponed indefinitely.

So we've gone back to Teams, and the familiar banter that comes when nudging a colleague to unmute themselves (sometimes that colleague is me). With all of us working from home, there are no impromptu decisions to abandon our desks and grab coffee in the skyway. Conversations require forethought, and maybe an Outlook invite.

In my old job, I had a coworker who was exceptional at making spot-on memes about our colleagues. The one he created for me took aim at how loudly I would sigh from my cubicle when editing his copy.

I miss those mischievous distractions. I miss the creativity inspired by spontaneous interaction. I even miss the constant interruptions on Slack. They come from the collective trust and social bonds that people form after years of working closely with one another. No matter how burned out you are, if you look forward to seeing the people you work with every morning, you aren't fighting the clock to get to the end of your day.

In non-work settings, it takes about 40 to 60 hours of time spent together to go from acquaintance to casual friend, according to a researcher from the University of Kansas. (Obviously, there's no guarantee that working with people over time will bring you closer, especially if you don't like your co-workers.)

I'm a middle-aged mom with friend circles and a raucous house to keep me busy. This is to say: I'll be fine. I worry more for the young person just out of college trying to navigate a large organization from their studio apartment. Or a transplant of color who has yet to find their way in a largely white Minnesota social culture that can be tough to crack into. Friendships through work can be a lifeline, helping us feel more rooted and invested in our communities. They can even make us more productive.

It's important to note that working from home is a privilege — one that health care workers, restaurant servers or bus drivers have not enjoyed during the pandemic.

But for office worker bees, we are not going back to work the way we used to, and thank goodness for that. I hope to never commute five days a week again or give up freedoms that allow me to care for family members when they need me. Zoom has opened our eyes to all that we're carrying, and healthy workplaces have adjusted to accommodate the whole person.

All-remote or all in-person is not the question. The future that many of us are clinging to is a mix of both worlds.

Last fall, I was able to make it to a newsroom gathering on the rooftop of our downtown Minneapolis office building. It was a chilly afternoon, and though my teeth were chattering, I was grateful for a break from isolation. For the first time I was face to face with people whose work I had admired for years, whom I had only met through itty-bitty squares on my computer screen.

These people will one day become my friends. It'll just take a little more time. ____ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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