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When work becomes a virtual reality

A blog by Maartje Weijers, Head of Culture at Boomerang Agency

Four months ago I quit my job as Boomerang’s Brand Manager to become the company’s first ever Head of Culture. I knew it would be a challenging position since the company was growing fast and I had no predecessor to take notes from. Little did I know that we were headed for a completely new reality, affecting our way of life and work. Since we entered a period of physical distancing and started working from home, I find myself trying to make sense of this new reality and the implications for our organization. How do you maintain a healthy company culture when you’ve shifted to a virtual workspace in less than a day?

Presence: virtual versus physical


A couple of days ago, we celebrated our very first online farewell party. I felt apprehensive about whether this would be the kind of goodbye our cherished colleague deserved. Usually, farewell parties at Boomerang are something we approach with special attention and energy. Now all we had to work with was our laptop screens and our virtual presence.

Fast forward to 45 minutes into the online farewell. Two colleagues with tears in their eyes, their emotions witnessed by all of us up close on our screens. There’s no way to hide how you feel, unless you switch off your camera. It’s vulnerable and honest; it’s two friends saying goodbye. Somehow I feel even more connected to everyone than I felt in a long time. I was always reluctant to refer to any company as a family, because family can mean different things to everyone. But at Boomerang, we’re tight. That’s for sure.

Before WFH (Working From Home) became the status quo, I remember a lot of days spent with our faces glued to our screens and a set of noise-cancelling headphones covering our ears. Feeling like we were too busy to slow down and take time to truly connect. I remember countless conversations with colleagues where I found myself wondering afterwards: did I pay actual attention to what they were saying?


Rediscovering social dimensions


So is there a chance we feel more connected now, being physically distant? How well we communicate in a virtual world has surprised me on many levels. We’ve slowed down and created space for questions that have always been important, but were always at the bottom of the list. Perhaps it’s the fact that for the first time we feel we all have something in common: the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

However, this uncertainty can also divide us. It triggers different feelings in all of us. I’ve had conversations with colleagues who are enjoying the solitude and the way things have slowed down. While others are feeling anxious and out of touch. These are big emotions that could have unpredictable effects in the long run. They are emerging slowly and sometimes even unnoticed. So, our job now is to observe, take notes and make sure we apply what we have learned from this unique period to the way we want to work together in the future. Though stressful at times, this period could be an opportunity to uncover ways to improve our day-to-day interaction.

Here’s two mindsets I think we should really take with us into the ‘new normal’ that lies ahead:

1. Off time is essential (if not sacred)
Up until now, the necessity of the always-on mindset was one of the most persistent myths in our industry. Defending your need for private time proved itself to be challenging. In our current situation, the way our lives differ are harder to deny. Seeing your colleague comforting his newborn during a video call is a very vivid reminder of how time consuming parenting really is. Encounters like these create a window to upgrade our level of understanding on why a healthy work-life balance is vital and why the needs of every individual in the company differ. The need for standardized guidelines in companies of our size is clear. But shouldn’t the need for exceptions also be?

2. Connection is key
Imagine a future where we have managed to navigate our way through this crisis and things return to a new normal. How are we going to avoid the ‘physically here – mentally absent’ meetings? Creating real human connection and understanding that resonates with both parties involved, takes a lot more attention than just sitting in the same room together. For me personally, the current slowed down reality has resulted in fewer meetings. This allows for more individual attention and more space in between to process what’s been said. So, I’ve decided that my new normal will involve a maximum amount of meetings per day. Even when things get hectic again (which they probably will).


Looking forward


The long term effects of the corona pandemic are really hard to predict. On the one hand, it feels like the world is surfing this wave of empathy where we find new heroes in health workers and massively send postcards to the elderly. On the other hand, sceptics might argue that our new normal will be a bleak version of society as we knew it, with limited physical contact and a continued fear of the unknown. For me, it goes without saying that it is key to start thinking about ways to manage the effects this crisis will have on our work culture. If we focus on harnessing the positives we are witnessing, such as our genuine interest in each others’ wellbeing and our elevated understanding for personal circumstances, I am convinced we will create a work atmosphere that has higher levels of trust and openness.

So before you go back to your office and open the door, ask yourself: will it be business as usual?