I was unemployed when the pandemic first started: my social-life really came down to the connections I already had, and even that was switched to playing video games online instead of exploring a new local bar. When I was hired at Ditto.com as the sole User Experience Designer and Researcher, I realized right away how different it was. Casual conversations were limited by my tile on the screen and there was a lot more eye strain as I stared at the screen for hours navigating remote-onboarding. In short, I felt like I lost all my social skills when I had to rely on remote means to build work connections.

I started having anxiety about socializing online. I wanted to reach out to coworkers, but never wanted to bug them, because even Slack seemed like too much if I just wanted to say hi and have watercooler talk and I wouldn’t have dared set-up a meeting just to socialize since there’s a sense of formality in that where, perhaps, I’m interviewing their own social situation navigating the workplace. Mind you, I’m an extrovert: a Campaigner–if you will–if you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality types. My social style is person-to-person and I like creating a natural engagement based on the mood, context, and other implications based on the environment we’re in.

I eventually assimilated to being one of the many tiles on a screen; joined remote Happy Hours where everyone already seems off in their own worlds; and adapted the etiquette of muting myself when I’m not actively talking.

This reinforces certain norms, expectations: whoever talks first, and talks to the loudest, has the floor, like that Product Manager you’re often politely disagreeing with. Video Conferencing makes it harder to interject, and it’s easier for the PM to continue on his tangent since he probably can’t hear you speaking over his own voice. More importantly, if it’s a group call and they can’t see or hear you, then it makes it damn near impossible for them to call out. It really goes back to who talks the loudest and the VC algorithms managing different audio inputs from different sources at once.

You fall into formal etiquette, almost obsolete in modern times. You hope people get the hint you’re about to say something if you lean forward and start speaking. Yet, you’re simply a tile on the screen. Your personality and your presence is lost in translation, which is bad for you.. And also your organization. If you feel like you’re unable to bring your best self to work, this can affect their values and desired employee behaviors: many of these were established when we were able to meet in person, but mechanisms aren’t yet in place to accommodate for how dynamics shift when working virtually.

Companies must encourage techniques to ensure everybody in the room is being heard. What else did they hire you for?

Own your space, and make it known. There’s joy in setting up your background to show off snippets of your identity. I’ve succumbed to plant parenthood during the pandemic and I let it be known with the sprawl across my backdrop, plus a hint of a Herman Miller chair my fiancée gifted me to celebrate our successes in life. A Design Manager at my current company has huge wall bookshelves, and a lot of natural lighting, which makes it hard for me not to question how much money he makes a year to own a place like that in the Bay Area. Presenting parts of your personality via appearance does make a difference: my coworkers recognize me as the person with strong plant game.

If you see other’s trying to jump into a conversation, call it out. This is no different than meetings in-person, and no less important. Going back to the scenario earlier with the PM: a fellow Designer notices you’re trying to jump in and they can interject in the conversation. This happens at my workplace fairly often when we have an open brainstorming discussion and everyone has ideas. Some people jump in, while others use the “Raise Hand” tool. Predictably, the ones properly using the queue are overshadowed by the speakers, and once others engage on that tangent, the queue becomes irrelevant.

Find your community: it may be your immediate team or it might be an ERG. Even though it takes more work to build community and trust is harder to gain when we’re Slacking or emailing, it’s important to feel like you belong. Expectations that warm welcomes are had when a tenth person joins a Slack community are unreasonable: speak up! Share your knowledge and your story with others: it may resonate with just one or two people. It doesn’t matter in the moment because you’ve just made a connection.

Show off your leadership chops in ways besides verbally speaking up about it. It’s hard in remote meetings, I know it from personal experience sitting in rooms with eighteen other people trying to be acknowledged by a VP. Documentation speaks volumes: the more engaging, the more likely you’ll get the recognition you’re looking for. Designs, of course, must be introduced with context: either in a meeting where you have the spotlight or have a text write-up explaining what you want people to focus on.

This may be taken with a grain of salt because with the trajectory of our online identities, we as a society may prefer our digital representations more than our physical beings. In the meantime, while we still enjoy hiking outdoors and hanging out with people in-person, please, be your true, authentic selves.