Atomic’s Head of Client Service & Planning Sarah O’Leary started her job in Melbourne in April 2020. She didn’t meet her team until Christmas. We’ve all had to learn how to be fully remote, but now hybrid is the new norm, we need to use the days in office to relearn ‘old’ face-to-face skills and rebuild relationships. Not default to sitting at a desk on Zoom – save that for home.

People don’t get me over video.

I’m hands-on, I tend to gesture a lot, and I love to talk through things with people, not just get to the point of the conversation and then press a red button to definitively end the chat.

So while I’m well aware I’ve been so fortunate the last two years compared to most, the Covid-enforced move to a far more Zoom-centric environment has been a real challenge.

In April 2020 I started a new role at Atomic 212 as Head of Client Service – a newly created role, so there was no predecessor to handover to me – at which point Melbourne was in lockdown, so I was unable to meet my new team in person.

We had to do everything on video. It was tough because, as I said, people just don’t get me over a screen.

Nonetheless, that’s how things went for the next eight or so months. It ended up being a neat little bookend that I started the role at Easter but didn’t actually meet any of my team in-person until the Christmas party!

However, I learnt pretty early on that if I was going to make things work, I couldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good. If video was what I had, then video was what I was going to make work.

‘That’s weird’

I’d actually done my best to bring a bit of what was to become the new normal at my previous job.

In February 2020, I took a trip to Thailand for a bit of R&R and upon my return, my employers asked that I work from home for a fortnight – which was totally understandable, given the rapidly increasing number of Covid-19 cases around the world.

However, when I asked if someone could get my team to FaceTime me into the daily stand-up, the response was, “Nup, that’s weird.”

To be fair, it kind of was. It’s just not how we went about a daily catch-up only two years ago.

That changed very, very quickly!

And I had to change with it. Initially I was waiting for things to go back to normal, with the idea being that I’d implement changes and the way I wanted to update and improve my team when we were back to the way things were.

But as May 2020 rolled around and the city was still effectively closed for business, it became clear I had to overcome my concerns about people not getting me, and just adapt my style.

There was no going back. This is normal.

I had to make video work and just take the moments to develop interpersonal relationships when I could get them.

Embracing the move – and making my own

Life in the world’s most locked-down city – a collective 263 days in under two years – was less than ideal.

But the silver lining of the enforced stay-home was that workplaces became far more flexible in terms of what a ‘normal’ week looked like. It became clear that working from home was effective and while there was a period where we thought we could get everyone into the office five days a week, we soon realised that our clients weren’t doing it – just about no one else was going to do it – so why force it? If we were just going to be on video calls all day anyway, why not allow our people to do it from home?

And therefore, why not let where I call home stop being dictated by proximity to the office and commute times?

All of which made the pipedream of moving to the coast far more tenable.

In January 2022 we made the move to Wollongong, where my husband had previously lived and always wanted to return, where we are near the beach, near friends but I can commute to the office in Sydney quite easily a couple of days a week.

Making time in person count

That said, ‘quite easily’ is still a big time-commitment, with the door-to-door trip coming in at around an hour and a half on a good day.

While I’ve learnt to embrace the time on the train and use it to either get some work done or just relax and read a book or listen to a podcast, I don’t want to burn through three hours of my day just to sit at a desk and have video calls – I can do that at home.

So now I’m far more conscious of structuring my week so that the days in the office are days when I can utilise those ‘old skills’ – where I can meet people face-to-face, use my hands as I talk and more quickly and easily create real, lasting connections with both my colleagues and our clients.

Video calls are a great innovation and have made working from home viable, but they’ve also taught me that there’s nothing as effective and meaningful as being able to shake someone’s hand, look them in the eye and have a conversation without any fear of latency.

There are obviously still going to be catch-ups that happen via Zoom – we’ve even had to rejig the office to instal booths for people to have their meetings in, simply because we didn’t have enough meeting rooms. But I try to minimise that as much as possible, because there’s nothing more draining than having 20 people in the office and everyone is on video calls.

I want to make my days in the office count.

Article originally published on Mi3.