"We're in the middle of a pandemic, we're in the middle of a racial justice movement, it's a period of turmoil — I wasn't necessarily thinking, 'Oh, now's a good time to start a new job remotely.'"
That was Nikki Ogunnaike's mindset when she began talking to Hearst about taking on the digital director role at Harper's Bazaar under newly-instated Editor-in-Chief Samira Nasr. Ogunnaike officially joined the fashion title in November of 2020, leaving behind GQ, where she had most recently been deputy fashion director.
Layoffs, hiring freezes and salary reductions were a big part of the pandemic story early on, but that doesn't mean people didn't also get hired. It did, however, mean that the process of getting and starting a new job might have felt a little strange for those involved: You may not meet the person hiring you — or your coworkers — IRL; you may not get a sense of a company's office culture because there's no office to go into. The opportunities to get a 'fit off are few and far between.
Fortunately for Ogunnaike, there was already some familiarity. Before GQ, she worked at Elle, another Hearst property, alongside Leah Chernikoff (disclosure: my former boss at this website), who had joined Harper's Bazaar in June as executive editor. (Nasr previously worked at Elle as well, but on the print side, whereas Chernikoff and Ogunnaike were on the digital team.)
"It was at a place I knew very well," Chernikoff, who joined the magazine from Glossier, tells me. "The people I was talking to were people that I knew already, which made it a lot easier."
For both Ogunnaike and Chernikoff, it was an opportunity they couldn't pass up.
"I was thinking: If I'm going to do this, this is the role that I want to do this for," says Ogunnaike. "To be able to work with Samira to reshape an amazing brand that's been around for 100-plus years at this point, to be able to work with Leah on redefining what harpersbazaar.com is and really step into this leadership role as a Black woman in media — all those things combined really made me want to leap into this position."
How Leah Chernikoff Went From Studying for the LSAT to Running Elle.com
How Nikki Ogunnaike Went From the Fashion Closet to Shaping Culture at Top Fashion Titles
Aurora James Is Changing — and Challenging — How We Think About Fashion
Chernikoff, who came on at the same time as Nasr, was also excited to return to journalism and create something new — "the world is going to hell and we might as well try to make something we're really proud of" — even if the pandemic made that look a little different. She admits the onboarding process felt a bit "stilted" in the beginning, but she and Nasr found a way to make the most of their lack of an office. Last summer, when cases were down in New York City, they would get tested and meet weekly at Nasr's apartment to lay out their big-picture mission and plans for the new Bazaar: "There are a lot of young women who grow up making magazines with their friends in their rooms — we were just doing that, but for real."
While they may have been able to bond IRL, most people starting new jobs remotely have had to find ways to get to know their coworkers virtually. Given the new regime at Bazaar, there were a number of new team members who had to meet online.
"My first three weeks here, I did sort of a Zoom listening tour. I had meetings upon meetings with people all via Zoom trying to get to know them in terms of what they did and their goals for their time at Bazaar," explains Ogunnaike. "That sort of stuff, it's fine to do over Zoom, but I think it's even better to do it with a cup of coffee or sitting near each other."
The Bazaar team also do biweekly virtual happy hours and daily "stand ups": "[During Covid,] I think the building of camaraderie has to be more deliberate," adds Ogunnaike.
Renee Jacques, who moved from New York to Los Angeles to take on a new role as senior manager of content and editorial at Josie Maran last fall, still finds it strange that she has yet to meet any of her coworkers in person. "It was kind of weird obviously," she says of her first days in her new job. "It was my first time joining a company and never setting foot in the office and meeting everyone over Zoom... Zoom is just so soul-draining to me."
For Jacques and many of the folks I spoke to for this story, those early days were filled with Zoom meetings and questions.
"There's no way to troubleshoot all of the tech loopholes one has to jump through when onboarding remotely and trying to set up every system without running to a help desk and handing off your laptop," Maya Allen, who left Marie Claire last year to become InStyle's beauty director, explains. "I'm very proud of myself for putting my tech hat on and figuring it all out."
As "soul-draining" as she might find Zoom, Jacques admits that things like virtual breakfasts and happy hours can help create an opportunity for her and her coworkers to discuss things other than work. Also, as with the Bazaar team, Jacques was one of several new remote hires, which helped them all relate to each other. "It's this weird dichotomy where you're like, 'I feel like I'm friends with you but I've never spoken to you about anything other than work,'" she notes, recalling one moment when, during a team meeting, everyone started trying to guess each other's height. (There were "a lot of surprises," per Jacques.)
Allen observed that, in some ways, getting to know people virtually can be even more personal than doing so in an office environment: "I've noticed all of the professional walls we subconsciously put up at the office are gone. Working from home breaks the ice fast, and as someone who doesn't favor small talk, I'm here for it. I get to meet my team members' babies, pets and partners. This experience feels more personal and intentional since there's a deeper sense of connection we're all craving."
Still, not having face time — as in the actual thing, not the app — can be challenging.
Jacques has had to relinquish some control when it comes to Josie Maran product shoots that she can't physically be a part of. "I would say it's a little bit more like nerve-wracking because you're not there to actually make sure everything is being shot or done the way you're envisioning," she says.
After being laid off, publicist Jill Meisner reconnected with Brother Vellies's Aurora James, with whom she'd work in a previous role at PR firm Karla Otto, and organically ended up in a full-time communications and marketing role in June. Because they knew each other, and because rapidly growing projects like Something Special and the 15 Percent Pledge were born around the time she started, there was not much of an onboarding process at all. Plus, Brother Vellies is still a small, nimble company without the HR department of a Hearst or Meredith Corp.
"Aurora is very autonomous in that way — you come in and there's not a lot of hand holding," says Meisner. "You really come in and get jumping in on what you want to work on."
With a spread-out team (James splits her time between New York and L.A.), getting quick answers can be tricky. "I think the main con [of working remotely] is being spread out; sometimes it's so much easier just to walk over to somebody and sit by their door to make sure you get that answer," Meisner explains. "I think we're going to work on figuring out the best ways to do that remotely; we're a brand that's probably gonna be mostly remote for quite some time."
For everyone I spoke to, there were both upsides and downsides to working remotely. While Chernikoff says she does miss getting dressed up for the office, and having a physical separation between home and work life, she doesn't miss her hourlong commute from Brooklyn. That was a common sentiment.
"I love that I don't have to commute — like, it's really added a lot of joy to my life," says Jacques. "It allows me to focus on myself more, which is I think what everyone who works in a high-pressure job is lacking." In general, she identifies as someone who "thrives" working from home, versus in an office: "Some people need silence to work, and I'm that kind of person, where I need to not have a lot of distractions around me to get stuff done."
Allen is on the same page. "The stillness this time has brought allows me to achieve deep focus and produce my best work without all the hustle and bustle that comes with editor culture," she says.
We all know that this past year has contributed to a collective realization that many jobs don't require an office to get done. And while a total end to office culture seems unlikely for those in fashion and beauty, most of the people I spoke with have a hard time seeing themselves going back to that setting full-time.
"It goes without saying that this time has revealed we're able to adequately do our jobs from home, but there's a balance that the office brings," Allen notes.
Ogunnaike could see herself going a few times a week: "All of those things that just happen because you happen to be in an office just don't occur anymore, but it's in those sort of mundane downtimes that really amazing story ideas or just bonding can occur, so I actually really do miss that part of office life."
But by far, the most common and emphatic feeling shared by those who started new jobs amid the pandemic: gratefulness.
"I just have to say how lucky I've felt," says Meisner. "I know a lot of other people that lost their jobs during this time and weren't as lucky as I am. I was super thankful for that."
"During a time of so much loss and uncertainty, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Allen adds. "I don't take landing my dream job in the midst of the most universally challenging years of all-time lightly."