On The Workplace

I wrote this about a year ago. It’s still true today. I miss my colleagues and I am looking forward to being with them as soon as possible. Stay safe, everyone.

I’m excited to get to Florida today, for a lot of reasons, but the biggest is I’ll be in the lab with my coworkers. For most of my professional career, I’ve worked part time, mostly from home, because of my children. That means conference calls, emails, and paperwork, on my own in my “home office,” which is usually a laptop on my lap sitting on a couch. After all the years of schooling and post doctoral training, I won’t lie and say it wasn’t difficult to go from being surrounded by coworkers, many who are still friends, with “adult” conversation spanning intellectually stimulating topics (biofilms, anyone?) to mundane (what are you planting in your garden this fall?), to being a pseudo stay-at home-mom listening to a baby crying (unlike what they tell you, it takes time to figure out what your screaming baby wants to soothe them), where your big activity of the day is getting Starbucks/Tim Hortons at the drive thru while said baby sleeps in the car seat in the back, since driving your child around for some reason DOES make them fall asleep. For me, it was in some ways the most rewarding time in my life, coupled with the most challenging and isolating period I’d ever experienced. Being naturally shy and introverted, it was easy to sink into a world that was just me and my kids.

During those days, which I don’t remember well due to lack of sleep, I discovered social media. I didn’t leverage it a lot at first. I mean, what the hell is a “news feed?” Why do I want to see pictures and daily updates of people’s lives? Who the heck would do this? I barely had time to shower, never mind “scroll” through random content people posted. It seemed pretty silly and a waste of time better spent napping to catch up on the weeks of sleep I never seemed to get.

Then, one of my part time jobs led to a consulting position for a company in Cambridge, MA. Being in upstate NY, it was another mostly remote gig. I started just 1-2 days per month, but it soon ballooned into a “full time job, part time pay,” with 4+ days in Cambridge onsite, with 5 direct reports. Part of my skill set is in microbiology, and it’s tough to do that job without being at the bench, hands on, running experiments. I was lucky enough to have a talented group of people (those feeder schools in Boston are pretty good), and they could act as my “hands” when I couldn’t be physically present. All my direct reports were young, freshly graduated twenty somethings, and in order to be an effective manager, I realized I needed to learn their language. That included emails, pop up chats in gmail, and social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram (I’m still not a Twitter fan; it’s too much disconnected information for me to rapidly assimilate). They were used to instant contact when a question or problem arose. I soon realized the enormous value in being able to utilize these tools beyond posting pictures of my kids and food. Besides being useful as a technical resource, I used these platforms to establish a rapport with my coworkers and learn about their personal and professional goals, motivations, cares, and needs.

Today, I’m proud and happy to see these younglings evolved into happy and successful people, with families of their own, that I “catch up” with via social media platforms as we have all diversified professionally and geographically. Technology as a whole being more evolved as well, most of my work tools are now limited to my laptop, cell, and Skype. However, I still find social media extremely useful, such as being able to tell my coworker to go home because his wife is posting that she threw up 3 times this morning and she’s having a tough time watching their daughter, to “seeing” major events in their lives like birthdays, anniversaries, vacations. I use it to stay in close contact with my boots on the ground in Michigan, my kids when I’m traveling, as a virtual photo album of people, places and personal experiences, and to socialize with many friends and family, old and new, near and far, since we are all so busy with the day to day minutiae of living, it’s tough to meet in person to catch up. Having children also means I need to stay savvy about social media, so what better way than to use it to stay current.

But, as I began, all these technology tools do not take the place of being face to face. Nothing can replace spontaneous laughter, smiles, hugs, touch, and shared experiences. There’s a famous experiment, in which infants were withheld physical contact, and they literally died. So while I tend to go overboard at times on social media, balancing these modes of interaction with physical presence is absolutely critical. I’m excited to see my work family this week in person, enjoy Bodega for lunch that C knows I crave when I’m out of town, and get my drink on with B, with whom I share a brain and love of gin and black coffee. And nothing can replace actual hands on with a pipette, generating data, knowing the satisfaction of making things work, and creating with my hands part of the next generation of medical devices. Plus, you know, sunset.

Always beautiful