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Politics, pools, and masks: We learned way too much about our coworkers during COVID

September 7, 2021, 12:00 AM UTC

Stephanie, an employee at a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., used to talk to her colleagues only about work. But, when the pandemic forced them all to work from home, she often found herself making small talk with coworkers on Zoom while they waited for others to join the call. Stephanie, who’s from South America (and did not want her full name used for fear of alienating her peers), learned that many of them are critical of capitalism, something she doesn’t agree with. “I used to think only uneducated people would criticise capitalism,” she says. “When you live in the U.S. and you criticize capitalism, you are not being fair with people who come from countries where liberty is limited. It changed a little bit the way I see them. I wish I could tell them, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

She’s hardly the only one who has learned more than they ever hoped to about their coworkers’ habits, bedrooms, beliefs and other odd aspects of life that have come to light during a year and half spent mostly apart. Before COVID, most of us had no idea what our coworkers’ kids voices sounded like, or what their opinions on local school board politics were, or whether they have a backyard pool.

“From barking dogs and unfettered toddlers to questionable home décor choices and personal photographs and artifacts, we had people in our space, seeing our most authentic selves who would not have otherwise been invited in,” says Rebecca L. Ray, executive vice president for human capital at the Conference Board, a business-research nonprofit based in New York.

Some of what we saw may have changed our working relationships for the better. In Stephanie’s case, she used to be annoyed when her coworkers had to leave work to tend to their kids. “I can’t tell you how much it pissed me off when one of my colleagues said, ‘I have to go prep dinner for my kids.’ I was like, ‘How convenient. I wish I had that excuse.’” But after watching them balance work and childcare on Zoom—her boss was stressed when he had to reschedule meetings, another colleague was interrupted three times during a call by her daughter knocking on the door—“it made me see them differently,” she says. “Like I know there are bigger things in their life and having to leave early isn’t a convenient excuse. There’s a little human crying waiting for them.” 

But while some workers saw empathy shoot up, others couldn’t help but judge the life choices the person who used to sit a desk away was now making. That’s particularly true when it comes to COVID safety. At Rebellion Research, a think tank and investment management firm in New York, employees took to a rather heated email chain to air their feelings about COVID precautions (or lack thereof) during off-hours. “I would say not wearing masks in pictures on social media in public. That was the lightning rod issue above all else this summer,” says Alexander Fleiss, the founder and CEO of Rebellion.

And it doesn’t end with masking. “All of these binary political views have created factions unfortunately,” Fleiss continues. “You’ve got people on one side and people on the other. There’s nothing positive about it.” He now tries to avoid these kinds of disagreements by putting like-minded people on teams together. For example, he’s separated employees who are pro vaccine and anti vaccine, often proactively. “Go on Facebook for thirty seconds, and you’ll figure out their views,” he says. “It’s just easier to separate them. I want people to do their jobs and be happy.” (Anyone coming into the office, however, has to be vaccinated.)

Marilyn Puder-York, a psychologist and executive coach says that as long as the person you have opposing views with isn’t lecturing about those beliefs in the office, “you have to compartmentalize and work collaboratively with that person and keep your mouth shut. I don’t think you can say, ‘I don’t like the guy’s politics and I don’t want to work with him.’ That’s immature.” With masks and vaccines, though, she believes that there should be a company-wide policy and if you disagree with it, you should reconsider whether you should keep working for that business. 

Sierra, a transgender woman in the Army in Washington State, recently joined a WhatsApp group chat with some of her colleagues and hates the conservative memes they post, like ones complaining about critical race theory. But, even though she disagrees with them, she’s always cordial when she sees them in person, and they are respectful to her, as well. “I’ve learned to live with the predominant culture I’m around being conservative,” she says. “I don’t let it bother me. I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve had discussions and disagreements with my coworkers but it never gets to yelling. We’re all professionals.” 

Some employees, however, may not want to tamp down their personal opinions simply because they’re in a professional space. Tina Opie, the founder of Opie Consulting Group, which advises companies on how to create inclusive workplaces, says that people no longer want to act differently depending on whether they’re at work or at home. “The distance of quarantine caused people to assess their lives in deep ways,” she says. “They’re tired of having to present in one way and be another. People might intentionally be putting things out there, saying, This is me. The distance and time has made it so the hot breath of office politics is no longer on my neck, and if you dare say something, then I’m out.” 

Opie herself prefers to ask questions of others’ points of view when she doesn’t agree with them. “When I’m trying to connect with someone, I want to figure out what makes me uncomfortable about my own vantage point and what’s attractive about their vantage point,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to be curious. If you’re being judgemental then I think you’re taking it in the wrong direction.” As a Black woman, there’s a limit to how open-minded she’s willing to be. “There’s some information that you might learn about people, like if someone’s a member of the Proud Boys, that’s an actual threat to my existence,” she says. “I’m not going to feel comfortable being on a team with this person.”

But, in the best cases, some workers found that when they let their personal opinions be known, they connected with a coworker in a new way, like what happened to David Stoesz, who works in marketing in Seattle. Last summer during the Black Lives Matter protests, he was asked to write about his company’s inclusion and diversity programs for its blog and began talking to a colleague in Chicago about this. They were on Microsoft Teams, and Stoesz was propped up on the bed in his spare bedroom with his cat next to him, and his coworker started telling him about why the company’s diversity efforts were lackluster. The two vibed immediately. “He started swearing, and there was something about the way that he was expressing himself that was so earnest and funny,” he says. They liked working together so much that they started writing a newsletter on diversity together as a side project, The Diversity Grinch, and today have become such good friends that Stoesz has invited his coworker to his wedding in September, which “God willing and the creek don’t rise will still happen.” 

However there’s one area where bosses and employees may have differing takes on information gleaned through pandemic Zoom marathons. Rebellion’s Fleiss says that Zoom calls exposed that some employees lived in nicer spaces than others, and some came to Fleiss to request raises. They’d say, “I need to be making more money. Look how he’s living, and I’m in a walk-up apartment.” 

“You kind of have to pay them more,” Fleiss says.

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