Starting your new job at home
The new kid on Zoom
Getting to know your new colleagues over Zoom ‘is impossible’, says Valentina Gallo. Like every other new employee at the UG, she started her job as associate professor at Campus Fryslân in the middle of the corona crisis.
‘Getting settled in was extremely challenging’, says Gallo. ‘Getting to know each other and communicating on a personal level is more difficult if we’re just as efficient in that as we are in our academic work.’
We’re all just spectators on Zoom
During meetings, there’s no time to chat amongst yourselves. Anyone who tries to do so immediately has everyone’s focus. You also can’t stay behind afterwards to talk to someone, since everyone is actually miles away. This is especially true for Gallo, who is located in Rome.
Sure, she’s had online dinners and other social Zoom meetings, but it’s not the same. You simply can’t chat to people one on one; everyone else can hear what you’re talking about. She thinks that’s why people don’t really go into detail and it’s hard to get to know one another. ‘We’re all just spectators.’
Han Houdijk is a brand new professor of clinical movement sciences at the UG. He made a little introduction video for his colleagues. It starts with him in his backyard in Uithoorn, where he’s trying to make himself heard over the noise of loudly chattering birds. Once the dog starts barking, the scene switches to Houdijk sitting behind his desk in his home office. There, he talks about the clap skate, which he used to study, and the mark he wants to leave on the field of movement sciences.
People responded well to his video: they emailed him to congratulate him and brought it up in conversation. It was exactly the effect he had been going for. He would have preferred to introduce himself in person, though. ‘It’s just nicer to see people respond to you in real time.’ He also would have treated everyone to sausage rolls. Alas. ‘They’re still in the freezer.’
He also won’t be giving his inaugural lecture any time soon. Although he does think it could work online. ‘After all, it would still just be me talking to people.’ But normally, those people are right in front of you, wearing their robes. ‘That’s just a whole different ballgame than talking to a screen while on the other side someone is hanging their laundry.’
Wian Stienstra did have the opportunity to introduce himself to a live audience. He started his job in March, which meant he could shake hands when he came to the University Library to lead an innovation project. But after two weeks, he had to go home.
Something as simple as familiarising himself with a new computer system became much more complicated. ‘Under normal circumstances, you’d just quickly ask someone how it works. Now you have to explicitly call someone.’
He’s having an even harder time navigating the academic world online. ‘I have to get to know all these people and their individual traits. I haven’t quite been able to make that work.’
Alex Blokhuis started his new job in the middle of corona. He was only just able to leave Paris on March 14, the days that France went into lockdown, to move to Groningen. Here, as a new postdoctoral researcher of chemistry and biology, he’s looking for the origins of life.
‘We’re doing exciting experiments’, he says. Or at least, they were supposed to. Anything he does right now is on a small scale. He’s decided to focus on theory for now: how can we learn from what someone else figured out by thinking about it even more? He’s also been doing some simple at-home experiments, using whatever he has in his kitchen cabinets.
You have to explicitly call someone to figure things out
Blokhuis says his work hasn’t been suffering from the lockdown. He would prefer to see people in person, though, and see what they’re working on. ‘Right now, I only know what they’re doing because I happen to read about it or if someone mentions it. I’d be much more informed if it were happening in the office next to me.’
He stays informed through coffee meetings and WhatsApp group chats. He now knows that people tend to play boardgames during lunch break, for instance. And he’d been getting acquainted with his colleagues by through personal phone and video calls.
Stienstra also gets to know people by video calling them. The conversations last fifteen minutes to an hour. He says they are ‘tiring’. ‘Although that’s got nothing to do with the person I’m talking to’, he emphasises.
Houdijk knows what he’s talking about. The movement scientist thinks it has to do with his posture. ‘I tend to sort of lean into my computer. But during normal meetings, I always sit back in my chair.’
Stienstra says the conversations aren’t just tiring, they’re also restrictive. He wants to figure out what motivates people, but that’s more difficult under these circumstances. ‘I just miss seeing that look in their eyes when they’re enthusiastic about something and the gestures that help you figure what they mean exactly.’ He feels this limits how well he gets to know people. ‘You get kind of stuck.’
It was really nice to see someone in person
‘It changes the dynamics of interactions’, says Blokhuis. ‘I think that once we’re able to all get together again we’ll end up introducing ourselves all over. For real this time.’ He and a colleague recently got together for a bike tour. ‘It was really nice to see someone in person.’
‘It’s okay’, says Stienstra about keeping in touch online, ‘but some things clearly don’t work. All these little informal things you’d normally talk to people about in passing.’ Those aren’t things you specifically plan a conversation for. We need that personal interaction, says Stienstra.
Why is that? We are so technologically advanced. We can meet with people online in a myriad of ways. Besides, academics are based on reason, on arguments. Is human contact really that important?
It is when you don’t know people yet, says Gallo. ‘I have another research group in London. I know those people personally, which means I know how they respond to things and whether someone’s silence means something is wrong.’ She doesn’t know any of those things about her new colleagues. ‘I don’t know how to interpret someone’s silence or body language. What if they’re silent because they’re really bored?’
She and her colleagues have decided to simply postpone things. ‘We keep saying we’ll talk about it later, over coffee.’ After all, she’ll also have to deal with familiarising herself with a new culture, with its own social cues and academic mores. ‘We’ve decided to wait until we can just drop by to say hi or have lunch together.’