Aishwarya Ramesh
Viral Diaries

"I miss laughter, working from home is very quiet": Virginia Sharma

In the latest edition of Viral Diaries, afaqs! catches up with Virginia Sharma, (outgoing) director of marketing solutions at LinkedIn India.

Virginia Sharma has over 17 years of experience as a marketer and, yet, working from home (WFM) during the Coronavirus outbreak has taught her to stay more grounded and connected with her family. After spending six years as director of marketing solutions at LinkedIn India, she announced, last week, that she was moving on from the organisation. A conversation with the marketer on WFM during a global pandemic.

What’s your tip for media/marketing professionals dealing with anxiety during these times? How can one focus better while working from home?

Forgive yourself if you're having a slow day. Many of us are used to being around people, and being productive and efficient with our time – since our industry itself is pretty fast-paced. Because of the circumstances, everything is slowing down, so this is the opposite of the natural pace that we’re used to. The worst thing you can do is to put pressure on yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to read without getting distracted, or don’t feel guilty for not getting enough done. We have never had the time and space to allow ourselves to feel things – we’ve always been so busy. Take the burden of expectations (away) – otherwise you’re going to feel really bad.

As far as staying productive is concerned, for me, being routine-oriented has been very important. If you were to wake up, workout and shower at a particular time – try to make sure that you continue following that system. If you socialise with people at work or after work, schedule that in, too. For me, I know that around 12 p.m. daily, I like to take a break and chat with someone in the office. Now I have a standing 12 o'clock mentoring session, in its place daily, which remotely replaces what I used to do, physically walking around the office. So, routine is very important, you have to try and make an effort to know yourself and how you spend your time – and plan for it.

Which app/tool are you using to video conference with your team/clients?

With global MNCs, not much has changed with how the team works because we were always on video calls and using virtual team meetings, and we always had systems for information exchange. If you think about it, most of us are used to working with other markets and we’ve learned to understand how to schedule particular meetings and structure calls, according to time zones. People tend to have different energy levels when we’re doing morning and night calls, and we need to account for that. Sometimes, what can be done is to use an agenda to make sure we don’t waste time on calls. Our communication across the globe has been consistent, as always. The main thing that’s changed is, how do you communicate with the person sitting next to you?

Which is your go-to newspaper/website to stay updated?

I don’t watch the news on TV or read newspapers. LinkedIn has a section dedicated to updates about the Coronavirus, so we’re following that. I also follow the CDC and the WHO for official data and numbers. I don’t read news forwarded to me on WhatsApp. I automatically assume it's unverified. Most of the WhatsApp groups I’m a part of, are for work, or to organise volunteer work. We set rules on these groups, requesting members not to forward any kind of unverified news about the Coronavirus, and to only focus on work.

It's important to keep your workplace clean – in the same way you’d keep your desk clean. It's important to ensure that your social channels don’t bleed into each other, otherwise you lose focus very quickly. I used to read the New York Times, but not that often because that information isn’t that relevant…

How do you draw a line between using social media for information and cyber slacking?

In all honesty, I have not dealt with this all along, because I was never big on social media. But the amount of consumption I’ve done in the last week is more than I’ve done in three months. I used to only come to social media for work-related content. On LinkedIn, most of it is related to connecting with my network and I’m highly productive at that. Now, I come to social media to watch puppy and dance videos. I’m using social media to procrastinate... I’m not a good example at all because I’m loving using social media this way right now. Talk to me in a week and I may have a different answer…

What do you miss most – and least – about office?

I miss laughter, honestly. It’s very quiet when you’re working from home… I don’t think I’m used to this much quiet! When working in an open workspace, we used to complain about needing a quiet corner or conference room to get work done. But now, I miss the noisy people, the loud laughers…

There’s nothing as such that I don’t miss. I really loved my workplace. But I will tell you the benefit of being home is that I’m checking in on my family regularly and more people benefit from my time. I feel like when I was at work, I was 150 per cent at work, and now I wonder, what it would’ve cost me to just take a break and call my mom… I don’t miss the complete focus, at the expense of everything else.

Can you tell us how WFH has changed the dynamics with your coworkers?

Women have been more natural at working from home than men are, because we’ve always had the pressure cooker going off or the kid crying or someone at the doorbell to attend to. More women colleagues of mine have worked from home more often and are more comfortable with that identity and understanding that things can fall apart any minute.

The men initially were kind of embarrassed by things like their children showing up on video calls, but I think, eventually, they understood, over time, that it's okay if their kid interrupts, or if they need to step away to take care of something. I think it's going to be great for building a lot of empathy towards those who work from home on a regular basis – such as mothers, who are returning to the workforce. It’s a great equaliser in that sense.

One of my colleagues had his wife and two sons join the video call, and he introduced me to them. They were so happy to meet me because, apparently, they’d heard a lot about me at work. They had the chance to meet me, see who I was, and they were really happy about it.

What’s the one thing you see yourself doing differently once the WFM phase ends?

I want to continue to make time to mentor people who are not from my ecosystem. Normally, you'd give 150 per cent of yourself to the organisation, but there are many people in our industry, and outside of it (such as entrepreneurs and students), who would benefit from having me around.

How frequently do you check in on your team while working from home?

I’ve deliberately tapered off in terms of being on call because this is my last week – I’d announced that on my LinkedIn blog post. Normally, I’d check in with a once a week 'virtual happy hour.'

We realised that the minute you have more than four people on a call, you’re not going to have a conversation – you’re going to be having fun. So, we do things like wear hats and sunglasses based on a theme. We have different themes every week – and last week’s theme was ‘crazy hats.’

You need to keep your meetings frequent and small. People assume that in times of crisis – what is needed is inspirational leadership (one single leader inspiring an entire group), but what's really needed is a balance between that and shared leadership. It's better to have eight leaders for eight smaller groups, rather than a single leader, who tries to connect with the whole group. Inspiration doesn’t translate very well through video calls and calls, you can’t really form a connection. Whereas in smaller groups, more people assume the role of team leaders and mentors.

What are some of the ways you’re attempting to give back to the society, during these trying times?

We have four different streams of self-organised volunteers. I am the tower lead for my individual building and we check in with senior citizens daily. The second is that we did a bulk medicine collection drive to ensure that the people in the building have adequate medicines.

The third thing is that we have two in-house stores which are overwhelmed with lack of assistance so we take one hour shifts to help the store organise aspects related to payments, delivery, pick ups, stock of items, and so on. This is to ensure that the residents of the building don’t run out of food and essential commodities, and to support the employees who get very tired by the demand.

The fourth is that we have around 20 guards and workers in the building, so we organised for their food and stay. We’ve organised for a mess for them with bedding, etc. If they’re there for us 24 hours, we need to make sure they’re fed and taken care of. All in all, we have about 70 people in different work streams. We also have families in quarantine, and we walk their dogs (for them) and get supplies delivered to their doorstep. We’ve also started a meal collection drive for daily wage labourers in the neighbourhood who were unable to leave the city.