As a self-employed journalist, I’ve piloted through the bulk of the pandemic with government financial support and scraps of freelance work. But in the middle of Melbourne’s stage four lockdown, just a couple of months after 250 journalists were made redundant at the ABC, BuzzFeed News pulled out of Australia, and News Corp announced the closure of 112 regional print papers, I impossibly scored a full-time, permanent, dream job – via Zoom.
I probably wasn’t someone to get to know, or even the shiny new thing; I was my title and my email address
The interview was weird – I was ruffled by the chunk of hair that kept falling over my face as I peered down at my laptop (at least no one could see me wiping the sweat from my palms on the edge of my seat) – but that was nothing compared with my first day. No meeting room tours or coffee machine demonstrations, no chitchat or team lunch. I grinned at my screen during awkward virtual inductions, signed a few forms and clocked off. There were no hellos at 9, no goodbyes at 5. To most, I probably wasn’t someone to get to know, or even the shiny new thing; I was my title and my email address.
“Normally we’d all get in a room with a whiteboard for a few days straight,” my two-dimensional manager said of our new project. Instead, brainstorming was internalised over weeks. In meetings, quips about the weather or monotonous Melbourne weekends often crashed. Someone’s microphone would inevitably be busted, we’d cut each other off, and the lag nixed any banter attempts. Like millions around the world, it wasn’t long before I felt dejected by these synthetic interactions and showed signs of “Zoom fatigue”.
It’s not only the glaring screen and the artificial audio that wear our senses, the lack of “meta-communication” – like body language, gestures, and yeahs and uh-huhs that express agreement or understanding – on video chats sends our brains into overdrive. Without familiar social cues, we unconsciously work harder to identify or connect with something or someone. It is draining to stare unwaveringly into lifeless eye pixels. Heaven forbid we look out the window or glance at our phones.
My work relationships became friendly and comfortable, but there was little below the surface. I knew nothing about these people – they could have been highly intelligent avatars for all I knew. Some days I just wanted to know what they had for lunch, but that would’ve been a creepy subject line. We tried to break the ice with monthly Zoom games nights. The one I attended, in which randomly assigned teams clumsily played online Pictionary for an hour, was pretty cringey.
But then, in week seven and coincidentally on my birthday, I was made redundant. We all were. A Zoom was scheduled for 4pm, which I was late joining because I was on the phone to my grandma telling her about my new job. A man I’d never met stood in front of a plain backdrop and spoke to a camera. He couldn’t see my face, nor hear my gasp. When it came to question time, he implored us to speak up. I think two did, and then he was gone forever.
Under normal circumstances everyone would immediately head to the pub to grieve and commiserate, but in Melbourne that wasn’t an option. In the Sydney office, people knocked back whiskey shots together. In my dim home office, my partner delivered me a meagre pour of tequila in a ceramic cup with a skull on it. I didn’t even drink it. Instead, I wished my colleagues well over Zoom. Most of us had never met, and now we probably never will.
Businesses everywhere are adapting to a new world, allowing more flexibility for remote working and fully integrating with technology. Some are offering more mental health services and regular one-on-one catchups, meditation, yoga and book clubs. A Google search will generate dozens of virtual team-building ideas, such as pretend coffee breaks, pub trivia (no doubt a cacophonic nightmare) and tours of each other’s homes. And when redundancies loom, employers can practise on “Barry”, a grey-haired virtual reality character with a kind smile, created by a Californian tech company to be fired over and over again.
I’ve been made redundant before but losing my job in my bedroom made me feel more isolated than ever.
As Melbourne ends its almost-four-month-long lockdown, I will finally have the opportunity to relearn face-to-face socialisation. And though it may be a while before I’m in an office, I cannot wait to smile at the stranger who pours me that much-needed redundancy pint.
• Aleksandra Bliszczyk is a Melbourne-based lifestyle and culture writer