Kathryn Gregorio joined a charitable trust in Arlington, Virginia last April, shortly after the pandemic forced many people to work from home. A year and a zillion Zoom calls later, she had never met any coworker other than her boss – which made it easier to quit when a new job came up.
Chloe Newsom, a marketing director in Long Beach, Calif., Went through three new jobs during the pandemic and struggled to make personal connections with colleagues she hadn’t met. Last month she joined a start-up with former colleagues with whom she already had personal relationships.
And Eric Sun, who started working for a consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio last August, didn’t meet any of his colleagues in real life before moving to a larger firm less than a year later. “I never shook hands with them,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic, now more than 17 months ago, created a new quirk in the workforce: a growing number of people who have taken up and left a job without even meeting their colleagues in person. For many of these mostly salaried office workers, face-to-face interactions were limited to video calls throughout their employment.
Never having to be in the same conference room or booth with a colleague may sound like a dream to some people. But the phenomenon of job hoppers who have not met their colleagues personally shows how emotional and personal ties to jobs can fray. This has contributed to carefree attitudes towards jobs and created uncertainty among employers about how to retain people they barely know.
In a few months of the pandemic, more workers have left their jobs than since the persecution began in December 2000, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. In April, a record 3.9 million people, or 2.8 percent of the labor force, said they were employers would throw in the towel. 3.8 million people quit in June. Many of them were blue-collar workers who mostly worked in person, but economists said that office workers stuck at home most likely also felt freer to part with jobs they didn’t like.
“When you’re in a job or a job that doesn’t focus on attachment, it’s emotionally easier to change jobs,” said Bob Sutton, organizational psychologist and professor at Stanford University.
While this remote working phenomenon is not exactly new, the extent of the trend is different now. Changes in the labor market usually develop slowly, but office work has developed extremely quickly in the pandemic, so working with colleagues who have never met before has become almost routine, said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. a not-for-profit think tank.
“It says the most about how long it dragged on,” she said. “Suddenly, huge swaths of employees have completely changed the way they work.”
The trend of people working without physical interaction with coworkers during their working hours is so new that there isn’t even a label for it, workplace experts said.
Many of the workers who had never had the opportunity to meet their colleagues in person before moving said they felt aloof and questioned the purpose of their job.
Ms. Gregorio, 53, who worked for the Virginia nonprofit, said she had often struggled to gauge the tone of emails from people she had never met and was constantly discussing whether the problems were big enough to earn zoom calls. She said she wouldn’t miss most of her colleagues because she didn’t know about them.
“I know their names and that’s it,” she said.
Other job hoppers echoed the feeling of isolation but said the breakup helped them reshape their relationship with work and separate their identity, social life and self-esteem from their work.
Business & Economy
9/7/2021, 5:26 PM ET
Joanna Wu, who started at accounting firm PwC last September, said her only interactions with coworkers were through video calls that felt like they had a “strict agenda” that excluded socializing.
“They know that people are not motivated when their cameras are all turned off,” said Ms. Wu, 23. “There was a clear lack of interest on the part of everyone to see each other’s faces.”
Instead, she said, she found solace in new hobbies like cooking various Chinese dishes and inviting friends to dinner parties. She called it “a double life”. She resigned in August. “I feel so free,” she said.
Martin Anquetil, 22, who started at Google in August last year, never met his colleagues personally either. Google didn’t go out of their way to make him feel socially connected, he said, and there hasn’t been any loot or other office perks – like free food – that the internet company is famous for.
The landscape of the post-pandemic return to office
Mr. Anquetil said his attention was diverted. His lunchtime video game sessions trickled into work hours, and he started buying basketball highlights on NBA Top Shot, a cryptocurrency marketplace, while he was on the clock. In March, he left Google to work at Dapper Labs, the start-up that partnered with the National Basketball Association to create Top Shot.
If you work at Google and want to “put in 20 hours a week and pretend you’re putting in 40 hours doing other things, that’s fine, but I wanted more connection,” he said.
Google declined to comment.
To prevent more people from quitting their jobs because they haven’t entered into personal ties, some employers are reconfiguring their corporate culture and creating new positions such as “Head of Remote” so that employees can work well together and feel motivated. In November, Facebook hired a remote work director who is responsible for helping the company adapt to a predominantly remote workforce.
Other companies that have moved quickly to remote working have not been able to promote the community through video calling, said Jen Rhymer, a Stanford postdoctoral fellow who studies jobs.
“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, be social, go to virtual happy hours,'” said Dr. Rhymer. “That alone won’t create a friendship-building culture.”
She said companies could help isolated workers feel motivated by embracing socialization rather than getting employees to take the initiative. This includes planning small-group activities, conducting personal retreats, and making time for daily conversation, she said.
Employers who never meet their employees in person also contribute to job hopping by being more willing to let employees go. Sean Pressler, who came to Potsandpans.com, a San Francisco e-commerce website, last year to make marketing videos, said he was fired without warning in November.
Mr Pressler, 35, said it made it unnecessary not to meet and get to know his bosses and colleagues in person. If he’d built personal relationships, he would have gotten feedback on his pan videos and ideas with coworkers, and maybe even sensed cuts coming long before he was fired.
Instead, he said, “I felt like a name in a table. Just someone you could click delete on. “
And his colleagues? “I don’t even know if they know who I was,” he said.