After the COVID-19 pandemic began in the spring last year, lockdowns, travel bans, social distancing and masks became the norm. Needless to say, it’s been a trying time for all of us. We miss seeing our families, friends and colleagues—especially the extroverts among us, for whom being social is a basic need like food and sleep.
Why do we crave this interaction? Health is more than disease prevention. Humans are genetically evolved to need connections. Human connection is essential for good health, especially when life presents situations causing increased anxiety—a pandemic, for example. Social connections are the threads that bind us together.
Recognizing this, many legislative offices and individual staffers found ways to remain social during these unsociable times. Below are a few examples.
The Washington Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee’s Social Events Team plans and coordinates fun events for JLARC staff to foster strong working connections among colleagues.
“Maintaining the relationships that we have among our colleagues has been important during COVID,” JLARC analyst Melanie Stidham says. “Our social events team planned and coordinated a number of online events outside of normal office hours, such as happy hours, monthly cooking classes, weekly coffee breaks, and holiday scavenger hunts or trivia games, to maintain these connections when we’re all working remotely.”
As the principal deputy counsel for California’s Office of Legislative Counsel, Fred Messerer manages a team of 20—16 legislative drafters, two supervisors and two managers. He submitted the photo below to show how he went low tech for a recent staff meeting, placing socially distanced lawn chairs in his front yard.
And the event at his house was just the first. Sharon Everett, one of the legislative drafters, picked up the mantel and subsequently held two events in the backyard of her house.
Messerer and Everett share a common viewpoint. “I am quoting Sharon,” Messerer says, “because she states it best: ‘The camaraderie we have with each other is the glue that keeps us together. It was so meaningful and important just to see everyone again and say hello in person. It allowed all of us to reconnect during the pandemic and remind us of how vital each of us is to our colleagues’ successes.’”
Finding Common Ground
Ashley Beason-Manes and Mohri Exline joined the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit, known as LPA, in 2020, just as the pandemic hit. They quickly developed a bond as the new staff.
“Mohri and I came to LPA around the same time, both entering entirely new careers,” Beason-Manes says. “That commonality was the foundation of forming a friendship, and thankfully technology allowed us to connect even during a pandemic and work-from-home situation.”
Thankfully, technology allowed us to connect even during a pandemic and work-from-home situation. —Ashley Beason-Manes, Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit
The two relied on each another for professional support as they navigated new and unfamiliar work, and along the way, they got to know each other as friends, too.
“Soon we were grabbing lunch to-go or chatting over coffee when we needed a break—socially distanced, of course,” Beason-Manes says. “It has made this past year of unknowns a lot more enjoyable.”
The two continue to find ways of connecting and being social at work, she says. “Today, you’ll find us in our offices hollering across the hall to one another—I’m sure our colleagues love it—sharing funny memes via Zoom, heading to a lunchtime yoga class together and even reading each other’s work papers every now and then.”
Exline, who describes herself as an extrovert, says that transitioning into a workplace that, even before the pandemic, had offered remote work for years and operated almost exclusively through Zoom felt isolating at times.
“Ashley and I became friends shortly after starting here at LPA,” she says. “We would send each other our work to have an extra set of eyes on it before handing it in, and we would diligently track the feedback we received so we were learning this job together. It didn’t take long for us to become friends beyond just Zoom chats 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, and soon I’ll be moving in just a couple blocks away from her so we can carpool to yoga (she doesn’t know about the carpooling, but I think she will agree).”
By finding meaningful ways to connect during this time of physical distancing and social isolation, we can support each other and our own health and well-being. But don’t forget to take time away from technology to avoid “computer fatigue,” and find time for yourself, especially if you are an introvert who recharges more in solitude.
Ideally, whatever social interactions you create during these trying times will be so rewarding you’ll want them to continue even when life returns to normal.
Brenda Erickson is a program principal in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program.