Alexandra was delighted when she landed a new job in the midst of the pandemic. The 55-year-old felt she had bonded with her new colleagues online and looked forward to meeting them face-to-face once the lockdown was over.
But when she finally went into the office, she had a nasty realisation. “I strongly suspect that they would not have hired me, had they met me in person during the interview process,” she said.
Alexandra now believes she was employed 15 months ago thanks to a misapprehension about her age: having experienced ageism in early job searches, she had scraped her CV clean of any clues to her age.
“Now I understand the chemistry of the office, I am certain that I only got the job because the process was virtual and I look younger than I am,” she said. “My much younger colleagues treat me completely differently now they’ve met me in person: they sideline me, I have to listen to them slagging off anyone over the age of 40 and joking about the menopause.”
Alexandra isn’t sure how much more she can take. “I do wonder whether I will be able to stay for the long haul, given more personal and out-of-hours interaction is necessary than when we were working remotely,” she said.
Lockdown policies introduced to mitigate the pandemic had profound effects on the labour market. When the UK fell into recession in August 2020, employment fell by the largest amount since the 2009 financial crisis.
But for those determined to find new jobs, opportunities existed: in the first three months of 2021, the British Chambers of Commerce found that 40% of businesses were looking to recruit, compared with the pre-pandemic 2019 average of 55%.
But what is the return to office life like for those hired remotely during lockdown, who have never visited their new workplace, seen their colleagues face-to-face or met the boss who hired them?
Helen, a 29-year-old software developer in London, also wonders if she would have been hired last September if the process hadn’t been conducted remotely.
She started going into the office a couple of months ago. “I’m a woman in a male-dominated industry – and the only woman on my team,” she said. “When we were working remotely, I think the fact that I didn’t fit in was masked by the sort of formality that was imposed by virtual meetings.
“Or perhaps all the lads have been having lots of fun in direct messages on Slack all this time and I wasn’t aware of the party I wasn’t invited to,” she added. “Who knows?”
For Jackie, who managed her new team remotely for a year after joining a new company, trying to transition to face-to-face management has been a struggle.
“I’ve spent a year building relationships with my team over Zoom but now we’ve met, we don’t really know how to act around each other. It’s like visiting a new country and trying to learn about the culture, while being trapped in a hotel room and only seeing people out of the window,” she added.
Justine Bibby, a director and consultant at UBS, feels the same. “Despite being an employee for over a year, I feel like the new girl all over again,” she said. “It was great – but weird – to finally meet in person some of the people I’d been talking to over Skype. And I didn’t realise how much I missed those spontaneous, casual office chats.”
But Ellie, a 30-year-old who works in marketing, discovered that in her case, working relationships formed online proved flimsy when transferred into the real world.
“I genuinely believed I had developed good relationships through video calls and chat platforms but when I saw how people interacted with each other when they had known each other pre-pandemic, I suddenly realised how much I was missing out on.
“I don’t feel comfortable around my colleagues,” she admitted. “It’s awkward: we’ve realised that we don’t have anything in common. ”
Starting a new job remotely has convinced Kate Tinker, who got her new job nine months ago, that it’s impossible to successfully integrate into a new workplace without physically being in that workplace.
“My first few months in the office felt quite discombobulating,” she said. “I felt some major detail of meeting people had been missed and, although I had worked within the company for four months, I was stuck in this in-between of knowing my co-workers without actually having met them.
“I now choose to be in the office almost every day,” “But the other new recruit who started with me promptly left after six months for an entirely remote role.”
Anwen, however, feels that if that bonding doesn’t happen at the start of a job, it’s almost impossible to establish later.
“I started my new job during the first lockdown, so I’ve been working remotely for 1.5 years,” she said. “But as I gradually begin to spend time in the office, it was stark how few friendships I had at work.
“Being ‘new’ but ‘not new’ is an uncomfortable and isolating feeling,” she said. “I have found it difficult to build bonds or relationships with my colleagues and am currently looking for a new role: I’d like the opportunity to start afresh.”
For others, however, working from home gave them a confidence boost – and returning to work gave them another step up.
Elliot felt he was thriving when working remotely. “That’s basically what gave me the confidence to apply for a much more senior role at a much bigger institution, on a way higher pay band, in a different field. And I got it!” he said.
But starting a new job remotely felt very different. “I felt isolated, ineffective and incompetent,” he said.
When he returned to the office, “it was amazing. I got loads of work done. It felt great to be able to see and speak to people I’ve never met in person before, and explore a workplace I’ve never previously seen.
“I’m going back in full-time now, even though I don’t really need to.”
Some names have been changed