Kathryn Gregorio joined a nonprofit foundation in Arlington, Va., in April last year, shortly after the pandemic forced many people to work from home. One year and a zillion Zoom calls later, she had still never met any of her colleagues, aside from her boss — which made it easier to quit when a new job came along.
Chloe Newsom, a marketing executive in Long Beach, Calif., cycled through three new jobs in the pandemic and struggled to make personal connections with co-workers, none of whom she met. Last month, she joined a start-up with former colleagues with whom she already had in-person relationships.
And Eric Sun, who began working for a consulting firm last August while living in Columbus, Ohio, did not meet any of his co-workers in real life before leaving less than a year later for a larger firm. “I never shook their hands,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic, now more than 17 months in, has created a new quirk in the work force: a growing number of people who have started jobs and left them without having once met their colleagues in person. For many of these largely white-collar office workers, personal interactions were limited to video calls for the entirety of their employment.
Never having to be in the same conference room or cubicle as a co-worker may sound like a dream to some people. But the phenomenon of job hoppers who have not physically met their colleagues illustrates how emotional and personal attachments to jobs may be fraying. That has contributed to an easy-come, easy-go attitude toward workplaces and created uncertainty among employers over how to retain people they barely know.
Already, more workers have left their jobs during some pandemic months than in any other time since tracking began in December 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In April, a record 3.9 million people, or 2.8 percent of the work force, told their employers they were throwing in the towel. In June, 3.8 million people quit. Many of those were blue-collar workers who were mostly working in person, but economists said office workers who were stuck at home were also most likely feeling freer to bid adieu to jobs they disliked.
“If you’re in a workplace or a job where there is not the emphasis on attachment, it’s easier to change jobs, emotionally,” said Bob Sutton, an organizational psychologist and a professor at Stanford University.
While this remote work phenomenon is not exactly new, what’s different now is the scale of the trend. Shifts in the labor market usually develop slowly, but white-collar work has evolved extremely quickly in the pandemic to the point where working with colleagues one has never met has become almost routine, said Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank.
“What it says the most about is just how long this has dragged on,” she said. “All of a sudden, huge swaths of white-collar workers have completely changed how they do their work.”
The trend of people who go the duration of their jobs without physically interacting with colleagues is so new that there is not even a label for it, workplace experts said.
Many of those workers who never got the chance to meet colleagues face to face before moving on said they had felt detached and questioned the purpose of their jobs.
Ms. Gregorio, 53, who worked for the nonprofit in Virginia, said she had often struggled to gauge the tone of emails from people she had never met and constantly debated whether issues were big enough to merit Zoom calls. She said she would not miss most of her colleagues because she knew nothing about them...