Since May 2020, I’ve been part of a large team working on California’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over countless virtual meetings, chats, and emails, we’ve spent long days and occasional weekends “together” sharing many experiences and successes over the past years.
Earlier this month, after 2½ years of working virtually, the team participated in an all-day, in-person workshop in Sacramento. Roughly sixty team members from up and down California, and some who flew in from states like Texas, Kansas, and Massachusetts, gathered and met as a team in person for the first time.
The beginning of the day felt almost surreal as folks showed up and faces familiar from screens materialized in three dimensions (a running question was “is so-and-so taller or shorter than you pictured?”). And while the sheer amount of “getting to know you” could have been overwhelming, it never felt awkward. We were familiar despite never having met in person. Presciently, we had crafted a flexible agenda as it turned out we needed a lot of time for just catching up.
Looking around the room that day I realized something that was lost on me the past couple of years: our colleagues are more than two-dimensional faces on a screen, they have backstories, senses of humor, and other traits you don’t grasp in a virtual setting. Small things like standing together in line for coffee or chatting in the elevator go a long way in team building and have no substitute in a virtual setting.
Truth be told, a part of me had been anxious about the day, unsure how it would go, and dreading having to squeeze into work clothes and deal with a commute. But walking to my car afterward I realized how happy and heartened I felt about the day – and how I look forward to more in-person team gatherings in the future.