Curated by: Sergio A. Martínez
There is such a thing as a colleague in the age of remote work? As we begin to get accustomed to working far away from the office, even for a couple of days a week, some of the things we took for granted in the past have begun to be re-examined and appraised after the pandemic started, especially around the social side of things.
On one hand, remote work started to be normalized, bringing a lot of perks with it: the ability to set your own hours, avoid commute times, and save money on office expenses, as well as a greater sense of control and flexibility over your work life became invaluable for many people, and the ability to design their workspace and create a flexible schedule seemed to outweigh the drawbacks of this model.
But on the other, there’s a challenge in adjusting to working in isolation; in the modern reality of work, more and more people are finding themselves trying to create meaningful professional relationships with colleagues through a screen, and this complete absence of human interaction can have some effects not only on the mental well-being of a person but also how their professional career changes and develops.
But what is a colleague? Just someone you work with? Or does it encompass a lot more? A colleague, to put it simply, is someone you can rely on, whether you need help with a project or just a sounding board for your ideas; it’s someone who will challenge you and push you to be your best, and who will support you, both professionally and personally. Having a strong network of colleagues has been thought essential for any successful career, but now, forming these kinds of bonds seems to be getting more difficult by the day.
A workplace of ghosts
Working in software development can be a great career; you get to use your creativity and technical skills to solve complex puzzles and build products that people use and enjoy. However, it’s also a very collaborative effort that often needs a well-synchronized team looking in the same direction to succeed. So, what has been the effect of remote work when forming bonds with a colleague to create a successful product?
“I think the biggest challenge when working remotely is that you don’t know your coworkers very well, which can make communication difficult”, says Julián Verján, a developer at Scio. “Establishing bonds beyond the job, like friendships, is difficult. I feel like, once we stop being coworkers, that connection can get lost easily, something I feel doesn’t happen as much with more face-to-face interactions.”
Beyond productivity, which has increased noticeably during the pandemic, the challenge faced by most modern software development organizations is more cultural in nature; missing out on the daily interactions that help to build relationships, or the opportunities to collaborate and learn from each other can have consequences on the overall cohesion of a team.
“Contact is important. You are more excited about your work and meeting new people. Personally, in the Marketing department of Scio, I feel I have to be updated by my colleagues, and which new projects they are working on, etc.”, comments Ari Hernández, a Digital Media Designer also at our company. “I think immediate communication is the biggest challenge. I’m now used to scheduling video calls to discuss the smallest things when I could just walk up to the person in the office and ask. And there are things that you cannot communicate as easily through chat or video calls.”
This has given rise to the term “ghost colleagues”, the people on your team who you never actually meet in person since you’re both working from different locations. Even though you may never meet face-to-face, you still have to collaborate with them on projects and stay in communication via email, platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams, or video chat. And it can be tricky to build a rapport with someone when you’re not actually in the same room, especially without any downtime at all between interactions, which tend to always be work-related. Additionally, if you have questions or need assistance with something, it can be harder to get help from a ghost colleague than it would be from someone right there in the office with you.
“I would define the relationship with my coworkers as purely professional. Everybody is very nice to each other, but I feel it could be different with more face-to-face interactions. The good thing is that many here have the same sense of humor as me”, says Ari again, about her feelings towards remote work.
And this approach to colleagues has noticeable effects on the work itself, and how a worker approaches their job; a study cited by the BBC says that “part of the reason is that these social ties people have in the workplace feed into their sense of attachment and belonging at work. […] 65% of workers who had switched to teleworking all or most of the time felt less connected to their colleagues than they did before. A second study showed almost a quarter of workers felt disconnected from goings on in their company overall.”
Bringing the team together (at distance)
Of course, a lot of the responsibility of bringing everyone together, even remotely, rests upon the culture built inside an organization; is not enough to just connect developers and tell them what a client needs (the “how” of remote teamwork), but to ensure the collaborators are looking in the same direction, sharing the same values, and moving to the same rhythm (the “why” of remote teamwork”).
“Speaking strictly about the job, I’ve always felt very comfortable thanks to the Scrums we do every day. We all know what everybody else is doing during that day, making it easier to move as a unit”, says Julián again. “I think the biggest challenge is not knowing your coworkers very well, but Scio solves this pretty well. They do like to organize calls and activities to just kick back and relax, get to know each other, and even practice our English. It’s pretty neat.”
Anyone who has ever worked in an office knows that a positive relationship with your colleagues is key, which is why Scio likes to promote good chemistry among every collaborator. For one thing, a good working environment is more enjoyable and motivating, and when you get along with the people you work with, you are more likely to feel like part of a team and be invested in your job. Moreover, a good working relationship with your colleagues can lead to better collaboration; if everyone is on the same page, it can make it easier to get work done.
“I think a hybrid approach is the best. It lets you build a connection with your partners, and personally, I like to dress up and get out of the house”, says Ari. “I’m glad there’s the option to work from home, even if I found it difficult to adapt at the very beginning. I feel productive now that my routine is pretty well established, but I’d still like to visit the office sometimes.”
The workplace can be a lonely place if you’re the only person in your office, after all. You might feel like you’re on your own while keeping up with the workload, and when you take a break, there’s no one to chat with about the latest office gossip. But it’s important to remember that you’re not alone, especially if your workplace offers ways to connect with your colleagues, so here are a few tips for overcoming this kind of isolation:
- Try to socialize. Even if you’re not naturally outgoing, force yourself to chat with your co-workers or strike up a conversation with someone new. You never know when you might make a new friend.
- Get involved in company activities. If your company offers any type of social event or team-building activities, make an effort to participate. It’s a great way to meet new people and build relationships.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, reach out to your supervisor or a coworker for guidance. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness, and you might even strike a deeper connection with someone that way.
Just because they’re not physically present doesn’t mean they’re not interested in getting to know you. By trying to connect with others, you can overcome the challenge of working remotely and avoid feeling isolated, and have a better sense of community to make development as enjoyable as it can be.
The Key Takeaways
- The term “ghost colleagues” has become famous thanks to the fact that most remote collaborators do not have the opportunity to work face to face with their peers.
- Although remote work has many perks, this isolation can give some side effects that a company with good culture has to minimize.
- A hybrid approach seems to be the most popular option; by giving a chance to meet in person, while not taking away the benefits of a remote office, most developers can find their own balance and feel more connected to their colleagues.
Scio is a Nearshore software development company based in Mexico where we believe that everyone deserves everyone should have the opportunity to work in an environment where they feel like a part of something. A place to excel and unlock their full potential which is the best approach to creating a better world. We have been collaborating with US-based clients since 2003, solving challenging programming puzzles, and in the process showcasing the skills of Latin American Engineers. Want to be part of Scio? Get in contact today!