ST - Pandemic made me a loner - now it's time to recover my social self

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Pandemic made me a loner - now it's time to recover my social self

As convenient as virtual interactions are, the building of in-person rapport can’t be replaced.

Shermaine Ang

OCT 2, 2022

When I first stepped into The Straits Times newsroom in July 2021, the office was

nearly empty, with most of the lights turned off.

It was during the two-person social gathering period, with work from home the default. After that first day when I went in to pick up my laptop and attend a brief orientation, I hardly had a chance to meet my colleagues.

I was thus relieved to be added to group chats with my peers and seniors, but slightly alarmed to find myself surrounded by people who had interned here before and knew one another, or knew people in common.

Some had journalism degrees. I had studied English literature, and knew next to nothing about the industry or the work, though I was raring to start my dream job.

On my first day, a co-worker asked me why I chose to join the newsroom, and I replied that I liked to write. I was told with a laugh that the bulk of journalism was not writing, but reporting.

Although many were operating remotely, the newsroom's pace of work remained hectic. I got plunged into work, starting with filing press releases, and being sent on my first legwork assignment - going around asking condominium residents about a suspected gas leak.

In a matter of months, I went from critiquing Shakespeare to cold-calling people on Facebook about defective water filters.

Fast forward a year, and I've now joined the social beat. A new batch of rookies has arrived.

After months of battening down to fight Covid-19, Singapore has reopened. In my office, we're encouraged to be there thrice a week, and we don't have to wear masks any more.

Despite this, I am told the newsroom has never been the same as in the pre-pandemic days - and may never go back to that same bustle. It doesn't help that I've been working from home for a month now, recovering from a sprained knee.

The feeling of isolation working from home as a newbie, the difficulty of reaching out for help through text messages, kept me from settling into the job as well as or as quickly as I would have liked.

I had doubts about whether the job was the right fit, and whether I had what it took to be a "real" journalist.

For me, the challenge is in the open-endedness of the work, having to hunt for and dig out stories. There are times when I rack my brains for story ideas but nothing comes.

A supervisor remarked to me recently that I'm too quiet, and working silently on my stories does not do me any favour.

It was a wake-up call for me, that I've neglected the "peopling" aspect of work.

But it suddenly occurred to me that I wasn't always like this.

In my summer internship in an advertising firm, before the pandemic, I seemed like a different person - more sociable and outspoken.

Thinking further, I realised that must have something to do with how I went to the office every day back in 2019, saw my colleagues and ate with them every day, nine to six.

I saw them at lunchtime, in the pantry, the balcony where people went for smoke breaks, at work cohesion outings.

Seeing all our colleagues at the office every day is almost unthinkable now, after the pandemic hit in 2020. Within months, the world of work changed completely and irrevocably.

But this memory reminded me of how there are few things I enjoy more than forming genuine connections with people - talking to them and hearing their stories.

Ms Low Peck Kem, president of the Singapore Human Resources Institute, noted that joining the workforce during the pandemic can make fresh graduates feel lonely and lost as they navigate a new environment, which is more hierarchical compared with a school campus.

NeXT Career Consulting Group managing director Paul Heng said: "Working virtually denies a new hire from engaging with colleagues, building relationships, on and off work, and seeking help and support from stakeholders and colleagues.

"This makes it challenging for new hires to settle down quickly, and sometimes successfully."

He suggested going to the office more often and making the most of face-to-face interactions with colleagues. He added that it is a mistake to focus solely on work and said new hires have to pay attention to three areas.

The first is to understand the company culture, and the way things are done. This includes everything from taboo topics and lunch partners, to ways of communicating, be it walking over to the work station, e-mailing or texting.

Second, get to know colleagues, especially key stakeholders, and even the tea auntie. Introduce yourself, instead of waiting for colleagues to come to you.

Third, understand your job, what is required and what to focus on. Come up with the first three to six months' KPIs (key performance indicators) and have a discussion to make sure these are aligned with what your boss expects of you. Review this regularly.

The issue of transitioning from school to work may soon get more attention, as a nationwide study by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) will examine the mental health of young people aged 15 to 35 in Singapore. The study will look at social media use, burnout and self-esteem, among other issues.

Dr Swapna Verma, chairman of the medical board at IMH and co-principal investigator of the study, said young people may be succumbing to more stress than older people as they have to go through several major life changes in a short period.

For example, they may go from being a student in secondary school to tertiary institutions or national service, and their first job, in a few years. "These changes are also now taking place against a more challenging backdrop of global upheavals like the Covid-19 pandemic, wars and climate change," she said.

Starting out in uncertain times, we newbies in the newsroom were assigned to team leaders and copyeditors to guide us. A copyeditor would take the time to go through my copy with me on video calls, which I greatly appreciated and learnt a lot from.

That's when I realised the importance of knowing where to go for help, especially in a hectic work environment where people are, more often than not, busy chasing deadlines. I think the way forward is what my supervisors, veteran journalists themselves, have been nudging us to do: Meet people in real life.

As my knee heals, I've resolved to return to the office more often, and take the initiative to speak to colleagues more, though it might be daunting at times.

I find that whenever I've done so, most are friendly and more than happy to talk and grab coffee with me if they have the time.

Similarly, with newsmakers. As convenient as virtual interactions are, the building of in-person rapport can't be replaced.

Just as I want to meet my friends in person rather than settle for video calls, perhaps it takes real-life interactions with newsmakers over lunch or a coffee for us to feel like real people to each other.

Making the effort to meet them will surely start the ball rolling for more conversations that may yield good news leads, better working relationships and growing confidence in the job.

As a pandemic rookie, my quiet side took over and I relaxed into solitary working. But now that things are getting back to normal, it's time to bring out my social self again and meet people.

I can't wait.


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