Caroline Thompson landed a new job as a social media manager last June and has yet to leave her bedroom. She’s never made the commute to Waltham in the car she bought for that purpose. She’s never been to the office at all, in fact, and has met only one of her co-workers in person — after recognizing the building outside his window during a Zoom call and realizing he lived in her neighborhood.
Now they go on walks around the Fenway with her dog, Winston, a few times a week.
Still, Thompson, 26, said it’s been surprisingly easy to develop a rapport with her co-workers virtually, perhaps in part because so many employees at the fast-growing business-intelligence platform ZoomInfo started during the pandemic. But she’s looking forward to finally meeting her co-workers in the flesh when the office reopens in July.
“I’m excited to see how tall people are,” said Thompson, who’s 5 foot 1. “I’m sure people will be surprised how short I am.”
For many people hired remotely over the past year, the workplace has largely been restricted to the two-dimensional confines of their computer screens. They may be performing their jobs just fine, but they haven’t been able to benefit from the in-office osmosis that comes with being in a shared space. They haven’t observed their bosses’ body language or picked up tricks that aren’t in the handbook or learned the best lunch spots.
Jane Moyer, chief human resources officer at Commonwealth Financial Network, started shortly after the pandemic hit last spring, and she’s been telling her far-flung co-workers fibs about herself just for fun, like that she’s 6 foot 6. “You can be anybody you want to be on Zoom,” said Moyer, who came down with a serious case of COVID just a few weeks into her new job. Long recovered, she’s been working alone at the financial firm’s largely empty office in Waltham since last fall, and recently realized she didn’t even know how to use the phone on her desk. And she can’t relate when her co-workers talk wistfully on video calls about bagels on Fridays or parties in the parking lot.
“You’re kind of looking through the glass,” Moyer said. “You can see it and you want to be part of it and you feel like you’re experiencing it but . . . it’s not the same.”
Many companies have mastered the technical aspects of remote hiring, said Tracy Burns, chief executive of the Northeast HR Association, but making sure new employees feel connected to the company’s culture is more elusive. “How do you get people to feel like they’re part of something when they’re not physically with you?” she said. “It’s the emotional connection, that’s what we’re really missing.”
Much of the burden of bridging the divide falls to managers, said Prithwiraj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied remote work. New employees should be paired up with more senior “buddies” and have regular check-ins with senior leaders. “It’s a lot of hand-holding,” he said.
There are advantages to starting remotely, of course. The pressure of being the “new kid” is lessened somewhat, recent hires say, by not having to worry about what to wear to the office or arriving late if they get stuck in traffic.
But joining a company over the Internet isn’t for everyone. Without the ability to organically strike up a conversation while getting a cup of coffee, getting to know co-workers requires more of an effort, particularly for people who don’t feel comfortable putting themselves out there to attend online happy hours or make small talk after virtual meetings.
Marlo Richard, who started working remotely as a human resources director at the Lexington cybersecurity company Mimecast in November, makes an effort to get to know her co-workers on video calls, creating connections by comparing career paths and remarking on the pets she sees in the background. “I’ve never felt like I’m on an island,” she said.
But she misses having the opportunity to grab someone walking down the hall for an impromptu brainstorming session. And during the remote interview process, Richard didn’t have the opportunity to check out her future co-workers to see if they looked happy — for the record, they are — but she did make a point to drive by the building. “I just wanted to make sure there was one,” she joked.
John Kelly had been planning to take the summer off after quitting his job last April. But when his travel plans vanished, he decided to go back to work instead, and in May he became the chief technology officer at the Waltham health care technology company PatientKeeper. His boss, chief executive Philip Meer, had also just started, a week before shutting down the office in mid-March.
The two didn’t meet in person until nearly two months into Kelly’s tenure, and it was reassuring for both of them. “He is a person, he’s not this virtual being,” Kelly said of Meer.
“Meeting John for the first time . . . and knowing how tall he was,” Meer said, laughing, “the trust built quicker.”
Both Meer and Kelly have set aside time to check in one on one with employees, who can start voluntarily returning to the office two days a week in September.
“The first job of any leader, certainly in roles like CTO or CEO, is to establish trust. That’s been the biggest mountain to climb,” Meer said. “Trust is established partly through physical contact: You shake somebody’s hand, you look them in the eye, you get a feel for how they process information. Ideally you take them to lunch, you take them to dinner . . . I didn’t have that luxury.”
Moyer, at Commonwealth Financial Network, is concerned about what will happen when the 150 new hires over the past year, who have no hands-on knowledge of the way the company operates, finally meet their co-workers, some of whom will have been away from the office for 18 months by the time everyone returns in the fall. “It’s going to create a whole new culture,” she said.
ZoomInfo had its best year ever in 2020 — going public, acquiring two companies, and doubling the size of its workforce — but the staff has experienced it all from afar. Communications director Steve Vittorioso, who has been working in his basement since he was hired last April, said that when the local office reopens this summer and co-workers who have only seen one another on Zoom meet for the first time, it will likely be a surreal experience: “I feel like we’re all going to be starstruck on the first day we go back.”
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.