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In one of our recent blog posts, I confessed that I don’t love a 100% remote work setup and am looking forward to going back to the office when it’s safe.

But when I finally got the opportunity, the experience was much different than I expected.

Am I the only one who forgot how to be social during the past 18 months of isolation?

On-site work? Sign me up!

I’ve worked with Cloud City for about four years. I have a sneaking suspicion that our CEO Kenzi brought me on for two reasons. One, it was the only way the team could get me to run a Dungeons and Dragons game for them. And two, because I’m based in the San Francisco area, like many of our clients, and love working on-site.

(Okay, maybe that’s three reasons.)

Many of the companies we work with want someone from our team in their office, even if it’s just for the initial few months of the engagement.

I’m always the first to volunteer.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly comfortable working remotely. But working on-site helps me quickly get to know the client’s team (without having to schedule a dozen virtual coffee dates), build rapport and understand how the company works at a level you can’t discern from an organizational chart.

It also appeases the extrovert in me.

To put it simply, I love collaborating with my clients, teammates and other developers. I’ve had jobs where I pair-programmed for six to eight hours a day. I’ve also brought on apprentices to help me with projects. They wanted the experience. I wanted the camaraderie. It was a perfect situation.

Adjusting to the realities of pandemic life

Observation is a big part of my job as a consultant. During every meeting, I need to listen as deeply as possible. But I also need to read the room. Who’s speaking? Who’s not? Are people listening attentively? Or are they just zoning out?

It’s so easy to miss those important signals when you’re only communicating via audio calls and Slack.

To try to stay ahead of this during the pandemic (while also appeasing my extrovert tendencies), I asked clients if we could keep the video on during calls. Because, hey, some visual cues are better than none.

On video, I can at least gauge whether my ideas are landing as I intended. I can tell by the other person’s expressions if I’m getting too much into the weeds and need to use a different language. I can also detect if I’ve made a mistake but they’re too polite to correct me.

Also, when you see someone — like literally see them — it’s so much easier to interact on a deeper, more personal level. They’re not just a Slack handle or an email address. They’re a human being.

As much as I prefer working on-site, I’m grateful we had tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to keep us semi-connected during the pandemic. They not only helped us be more productive, they also helped us be more compassionate and gentle with each other during the collective trauma of the past two years.

Learning how to be social again

Healing from that trauma will take time. Even as a card-carrying extrovert, learning how to be social again hasn’t been easy.

A few weeks ago, I finally got the opportunity to go back on-site for the first time in 18 months. I was so excited. Everyone on the client’s team had been vaccinated. They were operating at a reduced capacity so there was plenty of space to spread out. All of the elements were in place for a safe return to the office.

Yay! Right?

But as I was setting up my desk and getting to know the team, I felt oddly uncomfortable.

We’ve spent the past 18+ months in a general state of hypervigilance. Since March 2020, we’ve been programmed to be alert to the sound of coughing and sneezing. To stay at least 6 feet away from strangers and loved ones. To wash our hands and drown ourselves in hand sanitizer after every human interaction.

After months of all that, you can’t just let your guard down overnight.

In those first few days back on-site, I could tell I wasn’t the only one who felt rusty in social interactions. There were times when I was chatting with my new teammates and the conversation suddenly petered out. I could feel both of us trying to remember how to be social.

Please, be kind

Yes, I’m a proponent of going back to the office when it’s safe. But I also think we need to be gentle with each other as we make the transition. Just as we had to adjust to working remotely, we’ll have to give ourselves time and space to adjust to going back on-site.

At Cloud City, part of “whole-hearted software development” means having compassion for ourselves — and each other — as we navigate yet another unprecedented evolution in how we work and interact.

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