Remote Work and Community

In a post on her Substack the process early this year, Irina Dumitrescu wrote:

Whatever we have done so far is not enough, it disappears into the past, the reckoning that matters is still to come, and it is ruthless. It’s double entry bookkeeping with infinity in the credit column, so that we are always, always, in debt.

“Who told you to be a machine?” Jan. 3, 2023

Dumitrescu was reflecting on the process of writing her annual report, the accounting that academic scholars submit to the hierarchy above them listing conference presentations, articles, books, public talks, invited lectures, committee service, undergraduate advising, graduate mentoring, courses designed and taught. When I sat down to start writing my own annual report, I had the same experience–feeling like I’d done nothing when in reality the numbers told a different story.

For me, this experience of disconnect grows out of the remote work phenomenon of the last three years. I started a new job at a new college in September 2020, and worked remotely for the entire first year. I was able to move to the new job’s city in September 2021, but the campus moved in and out of the remote modality because of Covid numbers that semester, and I left that city in early March 2022, since which time I have continued to work remotely while also making a transition from a fully faculty role to a fac-min role.

In the remote modality, creating relationships with coworkers has been incredibly difficult. I followed everyone I could find on Twitter and connected with some people on Facebook, but my colleagues are not very active on these platforms. I attend faculty meetings and seminars even though most topics are not relevant to me. I’m learning a lot about the rockstar research of the field my university specializes in, but not very much about my colleagues as people.

Even when we were all theoretically working on campus, we were not spending time there or socializing. Everyone–me included–came just to teach. The campus was like fancy glass ghost town full of eerie offices with transparent walls. From one day to the next, objects behind the glass would have moved even though I hadn’t ever seen people in those spaces. Plants grew even though I never saw anyone tend them.

Not until I started this job remotely in the fall of 2020 did I realize how much, in my previous jobs, I had been relying on watching colleagues interact with one another in order to understand the structures of power and the relationships among individuals and departments at those colleges and universities. 

Having spent so much time working remotely for an organization that prior to the pandemic had been primarily an on-campus operation also complicated the process of acculturation and onboarding. Early on, I would get emails from random-to-me names, and they wouldn’t introduce themselves, just tell me to do something or ask me to for some information. They knew who I was, so did not realize that I did not know them because they were accustomed to a small campus where everyone can’t help but know everyone else. Even once I used the online directory to match these names with positions in the college, I still had no understanding of the kind of interpersonal and interdepartmental hierarchies of power that are not–cannot ever be–represented by the org chart.

Even now that I have gotten to know more of my colleagues, the vast majority of emails I get from them are when things go wrong–when a peer needs my help, when a superior is telling me I’ve made an error, when a member of my staff needs me to fix a malfunction in our systems. As a (still relatively) new employee, this stream of negative interaction creates a sense of inadequacy, a conviction that the job I am doing is not enough. But there is little clarity about what to do differently. The situation feels unstable, like a structure built on sand.

This lack of positive or even neutral interaction has created, for me, an urge to fill the relationships with more productivity. I have a sense that if only I keep trying to do things, more things, different things, some–or at least one–of them will finally be right! I will be enough.

Reflecting on this existential drive to produce, Dumitrescu writes:

I think all the activity, the productivity, the self-improvement, are attempts to prove that we deserve to exist. Maybe even to prove to ourselves that we do exist.

“Who told you to be a machine?” Jan. 3, 2023

I resist this urge. That way lies madness. And I am already enough.

Instead, I am making more of an effort to 1) communicate what I am doing to my direct supervisor, and 2) to initiate more positive interactions with my peers and my staff. At both of these efforts I am succeeding inconsistently. I have hope that this, like any habit, is a practice that will grow over time until it becomes a regular routine.

My colleagues and I are engaged in the process of reinventing our formerly on campus, in person college to be a hybrid operation with a diffused workforce and a diffused student body. This reinvention would be challenging in the best of circumstances, and these are not that.

I have criticized my current employer here, but I want to be clear that I don’t fault them. The kinds of issues I raise here are common across enterprises. The increase in remote work since the beginning of the pandemic and continuing with the current geopolitical situation have changed a lot about the way we (individuals) work and the way organizations operate. My colleagues and I have not, I think, done a good job of finding new ways to build and maintain collegial community among a diffused workforce.

We’re certainly not alone in this, of course. Early in the pandemic no-one had spare brain cells or sufficient energy to think think creatively about collegiality. And I don’t have any good suggestions about how to fix it now, but it’s something we should acknowledge, at least. As remote work continues to be part of our lives, we need to do something differently than we have been.

Remote work has a lot of value. For many workers, the ongoing pandemic has resulted in a greater degree of choice about whether and when to work in person or remotely and greater tools to make remote work successful, and these are by and large good things! I suspect, though, that other people may have experienced a similar dynamic in remote work, and I think this aspect of the modality needs more attention.

What has your experience with remote work been?