I love working remotely, but I can’t imagine starting a job that way, let alone a career right out of college.
While COVID-19 has sent millions of people to home offices, real or make-shift, many others have not had that option. Those essential employees—medical personnel, store workers, garbage peeps, just to name a few—have kept right on working in this last year. The pandemic has proven some jobs require going to the work site no matter what.
My job as a writer, well, I can do it from just about anywhere. Internet, phone and electricity are the tools I need most.
Today, rarely do I want to interview someone in person, even though I have long said that method is best. I’m trying to avoid strangers if I can. Looking at what is on someone’s desk, or their walls, seeing how they handle interruptions, just watching body language in reaction to my questions—all that is gone with a phone interview. All of that often would lead to questions I would not otherwise have known to ask. (Zoom interviews don’t work for me because I can’t look at people and type notes on the computer. I’m sure others can do this without it being awkward.)
After doing this writing thing for decades I think I know what I’m doing. That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. I’d like to believe I’ll always be learning and evolving. But I don’t need to ask colleagues or editors constant questions. Editors can work with me via phone as we go through my copy. Their questions are answered, I might need to do a little more reporting, and back the story goes to their in box.
Recently, I’ve talked to friends about what it would be like to start a job out of college as a remote worker. Maybe it would be OK for this current generation which seems to prefer electronic contact than in person. They would not have to worry about socializing, getting dressed for the job or any other soft skills they might be lacking. Plus, some of them will have finished their college careers online, so the transition to working remotely should be smoother than it might be for others.
But it’s hard for me to imagine every first or even second job is ideal being remote no matter the work involved or comfort of being at home and not in an office.
I think back to what it was like for me at my first reporting job. This was when reporters didn’t take pictures, when they didn’t take video, when podcasts weren’t a thing. This is when there were copy editors, news editors, and production staff—even at small publications.
At every paper everyone I worked with on the editorial side and in production contributed to making me a better reporter. I would not have gotten that on the job education sitting alone at home. It’s also doubtful that I would have made lifelong friendships like I did.
I was able to hear others conducting interviews. By osmosis I was learning what good as well as bad questions were. I had no idea how much I was learning from the awesome photojournalists I was working with until I had to put a camera in my hand to document my stories. And until I had to shoot my own pictures, I didn’t have the respect for their skills and artistry that I should have.
Working on site I got to know my colleagues and those in other departments. Sure, I could get to know co-workers via Zoom or the like, but what about everyone else in the company? Not likely. Are people having “water cooler chats” remotely? Not that I’ve heard about, but maybe. There’s a lot to be learned from those conversations. It’s human interaction. It’s people caring about me, and me about them. It’s friendship building, even if it’s “just work” friends and not people I would socialize with otherwise. It’s getting to know someone and being able to read if they are having a bad day, to be able to reach out. It’s too easy to fake that everything is fine on a Zoom call; much harder to do for eight hours in person.
Some of the jobs I had in my twenties brought me some of my best friends. I would bet that would not be the case had we worked from home.
I would not be the reporter/writer I am today without having worked in several newsrooms. I know journalists are not the only professionals who have and will continue to benefit from working in a group environment as opposed to being isolated. I would not want to be in a newsroom today, but can’t imagine starting off at home.
As bosses contemplate what the office world looks like going forward, I hope they take into consideration all that new hires (of any age) can learn from veterans (also of any age)—and vice versa. At the same time, I hope they consider that not everyone thrives in a traditional work environment. Some will always do better working remotely—could be their personality, might be a better situation with family needs, commuting issues are eliminated, maybe the hours might be better, or other reasons.
What I hope the pandemic has taught those making decisions for workers is that there needs to be greater flexibility in what the job site looks like. Maybe the workweek doesn’t need to be Monday-Friday, or the hours from 8am-5pm. At some point it should just matter that the work gets done, whenever and wherever it gets done. Maybe instead of having to take a sick day to care for a family member, the boss will let the employee work from home that day if they want to.
Because I benefited early in my career by being in the office I would think I would welcome that scenario at the next full time job. I say this even though today as a freelance writer I like the freedom of being remote. I know there must be a happy middle ground out there if bosses look for it and listen to what their workers need and want. There has to be a way to find a winning formula for the company and workers.
Regarding what is learned from others especially outside a person’s assigned job, I just finished an interesting book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein, 2019. He makes a strong case that the ability to make connections outside of one’s “box” is more likely to lead to excellence, especially with regard to creativity. This would argue for at least some face to face time with others working for the same organization.