I was somewhat surprised this week by the realization - along with the fact that overall there are less work friendships and my computer is a lot less friendly to use - that on the whole coworkers are simply much less willing to talk about themselves at all, or even make small talk.
I suppose I noticed it about two weeks ago or so, when in the course of a "waiting for someone to show up to the conference call", we were making small talk about the weather. There was a sort of silence in terms of the discussion when the third person joined, as we chatted and and tried involved them, to little avail. We continued the conversation for a minute or so, but the conversation had clearly run its course. We moved on.
Even within my smaller department, I find people are less willing to speak about themselves outside of the job or have small conversations. I have tried a couple of times over the last week and the response is more a sort of awkward comment, then silence. Trying to carry to conversation forward does nothing. It is directly to the question or task at hand.
It is odd to me - of the people I work most closely with most of the time, I know virtually nothing about them or their lives. I possibly know about their marital status. I may have heard them mention if they have children, or even less possibly, their ages. But in terms of their interests - something not at all remotely charged like personal beliefs or practices - I know virtually nothing. This group of people on whom I depend and depend on me to accomplish goals are all cyphers, disembodied voices and signatures on e-mails.
I would guess one could chalk it up to a number of factors, all outside of everyone's control: The enforced separation of The Plague. The very real fact that thanks to that IT policy, we are all now effectively monitored via our internal work chats and quiet likely on our conference calls. And a work environment which, simply put, does not really reward any sort of transparency lest someone find something to hold against one.
Conceptually I can understand it. But it saddens me.
Yes, I know: me, sad. The person that abjures such things in practice, who makes a point of being as gray and bland as possible at work. How could I possibly be sad about this?
Mostly (I think) I am sad because at one time, I knew better. I knew involvement of coworkers at work - not necessarily friends, but awareness of individuals and their lives, common touchpoints that could be spoken of when waiting or just checking in. The closest thing that seems to exist in that realm now are somewhat forced company on-line events to remotely foster engagement in a group online environment, which seems neither engaging nor personal to me but only a sort of soft compliance to an "engaged" workforce which is felt to be needed in theory but not enabled in practice.
I have one remaining person whom I would term a "friend", someone - the last of my existing direct hires - that I can have actual conversations with, about work and other matters. The comment was made that they felt I was the same for them in terms of the last person standing with whom they could freely converse. We both sighed and virtually nodded. When and if one of us leaves, I cannot truly imagine the other one will be far behind.
In the end, it may not be surprising that automation takes over. We are already effectively creating such relationships in our current work practices.