Finding My Seat at the Table

Liz Headshot

By Liz Lawson, Creative Associate

When COVID-19 hit and enforced a work-from-home structure, for many companies it was like cutting off the head of a squid, with singular tentacles flailing and drifting further apart from each other in the great wide open. This disruption changed not only day-to-day working habits and routines, but company culture as well. As one of many that started a job during the pandemic, I was disoriented at first, wanting to acclimate myself but not fully able to. It often felt like I was in a game of musical chairs, never getting too comfortable in my seat before moving to the next Zoom room with more virtual strangers.

So, after a year and a half of minimal in-person interactions, the time finally came to begin planning our AJ Homecoming extravaganza. This event was my first real introduction to the atmosphere of AJ. Culture integration was the challenge as well as the opportunity that Homecoming posed, and I realized the last time I flexed the muscle of sociable banter among acquaintances was when Meghan and Harry were still in the royal family—and I knew I wasn’t alone. Below are my tips and takeaways from Homecoming as The Rookie.

Dialogue Deja-Vu

As someone who loves social events, I never thought this would pose a problem for me. Despite being excited to see and engrain myself with my cohort, suddenly acting natural didn’t feel natural. How could 26 years of face-to-face conversations be so offset by 1 year in the cave of my apartment? The brain works in mysterious ways, and each Black Mirror episode hits closer and closer to home.

What I can tell you is, expect to not fully recognize someone at first whom you’ve had about 50+ Zoom calls with. Their face will seem familiar, but you’ll have to remove some sort of lens that your mind is used to before it clicks. Not only that, but don’t get distracted in conversation trying to check what you look like in your front-facing camera. Be in the moment, not wondering what your hair looks like.

Get Real

While I was lucky enough to have extremely supportive coworkers who often went out of their way to make me feel welcome when I was first hired, I constantly felt as though there was something more I should be doing. As a result, I responded to every question (via Zoom, e-mail, or Slack) in my perky customer service voice, overusing exclamations and overcompensating for the fact that I was new and didn’t have a clue.  

Well, it was time to drop the act. In an effort to open up and forge new connections, I had to let my guard, as well as the octave of my voice, down.

No Pain, No Gain

 My anxious tendencies prior to the event led me to believe that awkward adjustments to IRL would dominate the experience. However, I was pleasantly surprised at many of the forgotten, but welcome, aspects of an in-person event. For one, witnessing the reunions of many of my colleagues who had worked together longer was simply delightful, making the room feel fuller and warmer; not to mention spectating while our CEO dominated the ping pong table was something you couldn’t pull out of a hat at a magic show. All this to say, while you may be nervous, you’ll also be surprised at how much fun you’re having.

Working Together, Apart

Despite initial reservations, and after re-orienting myself to real eye contact, I realized that more people were in my uneasy new-hire shoes than I’d thought. After all, we had all been through this isolating experience together. It gave us common ground, and was conducive to us trickling beyond cliques, joking around with virtual strangers about our most unnecessary quarantine purchases, and holistically working towards rebuilding—bridging the gaps in our company ethos. Connecting in person and collectively embracing the importance of camaraderie outside of the shared objectives of client work served as a personal reset, reminding us that our capacity for teamwork may be the most important goal.

Putting Purpose into Practice

Our Homecoming wasn’t all mixers and ping pong tournaments. We also found opportunities to break bread over AJ’s core principles—our equivalent of a treasure map. Our company founded these principles with the goal of grounding and guiding us when engaging in a project, guaranteeing us to find solid gold. They uphold our values as an agency, and it was time we underwent crash course.

At first, when crafting their role in our activities, I assumed it would be a flash card, memorization-cramming approach… luckily, this was not the case. Well, we did have flash cards, but we used them in practice alongside carefully planned exercises, and learning them was by no means short-term. Engrossing ourselves in a communications workshop and repeatedly acknowledging that words and intent matter built our groundwork to step up from. Then, in a bout of reverse psychology, we followed this up with a series of riddles tying together our principles and Chicago monuments in a city-wide team-building scavenger hunt. All jokes aside, we treated our principles as the pedestal holding us up, as well as our higher purpose—and when we collectively strive towards this higher purpose, it tightens our little community through speaking the same language, having the same goals, and inviting others like me to the table.