Lockdown is serious, Covid-19 is serious, and working from home can be challenging, but sometimes there’s a funny side. Helena Cain takes a look at what is going on behind those blurred screen backdrops in our online meetings.
This is a real message, from a real person, with a real job:
“I’d just like to share something… so I was emailing at the kitchen bench on the laptop and then I thought, what a perfect opportunity to put some dye in to cover my greys – which have been appearing faster than usual during lockdown. It’s just a ten-minute rinse, no biggie. I had timed this perfectly – phone calls made, emails answered, kids on task, next zoom at 1pm.
“So I slipped off to the bathroom, stripped off, splashed the dye in and all good. I was excited to see the result.
“My phone rang at 10:20am on the dot… it was <the boss> so I answered of course. He very quickly asked me to stand in for him on a zoom with one of the department heads (!!!) at 10:30am. I was butt naked, with dye in my hair and no make up.
“I jumped into the shower, scrubbed my scalp, jumped out, managed a towel dry, applied a bit of make up so I didn’t look dead, threw on a dress and connected at 9.29am. I was on that zoom for 1.5 hours, trying not to check for greys.
“Nine minutes, this has to be a new record.”
This made me smile, because at about the same time as my friend’s drama, I led an online workshop with close to 20 people. I was ‘office-ready’ from the waist up, hair, make-up, the works. However, with nothing from the ‘office wardrobe’ fitting very well below the waist, it was fairly casual out of screen shot.
That afternoon I was on a call with a Band 2 from a commonwealth agency who was using his noise-cancelling headphones to discuss a restructure with us. One of the features of that technology, however, is that it only cancels the noise for the user, and he must have forgotten this.
During our hour-long call we learned a lot about the relationship between his primary-school-aged daughters, and their movie preferences. We didn’t know him well enough to tell him his kids were going wild in the background, and he didn’t guess from the way we were getting as close to our screens as we could to hear what he was saying. I like him more because of this experience. My guess is that he thinks we’re quite odd. (‘Close-talkers’ for any Seinfeld fans out there.)
There are multiple examples of these funny moments, and I’m sure that if I’d done a quick survey of my workshop group, over half would have been better presented ‘above the desk’. It reminds me of the mullet – business up front, party out the back.
I think that working from home is gently stripping away some of our formality, maybe some of the formality that got in the way of real conversations, deeper explorations, genuine exchanges.
With our work and our home lives blending, with family dynamics in a pressure cooker, we have no choice but to show up as our real selves, juggling and often struggling with multiple equally-important priorities, and feeling a little guilty or under-cooked on several fronts.
When we show up as these real people, things feel more real. Time matters so focus is sharpened, there’s emphasis on our ideas and contributions, rather than our curated physical impressions, and maybe we are starting to achieve that text–book ‘authenticity’ we’ve been reading about for a while.
I’m sitting here now wondering when I last saw a man wear a tie in one of my meetings. A tie makes no sense when you’re sitting in your home office, or at your kitchen benchtop. I hope for men’s sake that this marks the end of the tie-wearing era, relegated to history with the male knickerbocker!
I’m writing this largely as an observer of the pressure-cooker environment, and maybe that’s why it’s easy for me to see the funny side.
I love the expression in a Teams meeting that says ‘if I don’t answer that doorbell, they may take my parcel to a distant depot, and I really need that comfort buy right now’, so they duck away from the screen for a minute, rejoin and there’s a calm shared understanding of that need.
Or when younger children sit on parents’ knees hitting the keyboard and pulling at their faces, while parents act as if nothing is going on. Or when slightly older children, now fully conversant in all things Teams due to remote learning, stay hidden while changing the background on the screen, sometimes despite the parent’s raised eyebrow that they think we can’t see.
One of my favourites is when one of the coolest, calmest and most collected people you know interrupts an intelligent stream of thought to scream at their dog to stop barking. It makes me happy, we really are human, all of us.
Lock down won’t be forever, well I’ve booked an overseas flight for the end of the year so I’m clearly optimistic. When it does end though, and we all dust off our cars and get back into our work pants, I really hope we take some of this vulnerability and humanity back to the office.