Wednesday, June 16, 2021

When The Personal Goes Dead At Work

 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.

16 comments:

  1. Back when I was a working stiff nine years ago, I had no problems with work conversations with most people anyway. There are always a few whom conversing with is near impossible. I'm assuming you are mostly referring modern virtual conversations? I haven't had the pleasure but from what zooming I've done, it does have a different feel to it that just doesn't feel the same as in person.

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    1. Pretty much yes Ed, as that is what I doing as I am still remote at this point.

      Zooming (or really any platform - most companies are using WebEx, Zoom, Join Me, or Teams) is a lot like a conference call on the old phone line. Companies have varying rules about the "use" of the camera - for the most part our company does not use it (except perhaps the host) as it eats up bandwidth (and for me, I find a lot of floating heads very distracting).

      But the tone and tenor of conversations has changed. Two to three years ago when I was having the same kind of conferences on the phone, it was not the same. In person would possibly help - but I think the work environment in general has created a situation where it discourages "sharing".

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  2. Anonymous4:28 AM

    Does this also contribute to the lack of devotion to a company and the ever changing jobs many do? Without connection, employment is a job, not the once known "work family."

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    1. Anonymous - Perhaps. It certainly does not encourage one to invest a great deal of emotional time or energy beyond what is needed for the job. After all, it makes it very stark that if one leaves, one's departure will scarcely be noticed.

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  3. I work for a separate org under the corp umbrella, for who I service. I spend a lot of time visiting with them as I service their equipment (no K Harris jokes). I really enjoy most of our interactions. There is one mask nazi.... but if I can get him to talk about his artistic daughter, he is tolerable.

    I thrive on personal interaction, but I also am a solitary line rider. Like the old cowboys that rode fence, my job takes me far and wide, and I spend a lot of my time alone. It's an odd balance. But I'm attuned to it. It fits my head.

    This pox has dried up a lot of my conversations, too. It's like some of your previous ideas about work friendships being fragile. They don't survive the retirement or transfer. This is very much like that.

    One thing that concerns me greatly is the amount of forced retirements I'm seeing. Two of my friends that were long time employees, snapped at work, and were forced out. Both were single, my age or older women that had been stressed out. One wrong reaction to a stressor at work, and they are done.

    We are living in a fire that tests the mettle. It consumes what it finds wanting.

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  4. The way things go now, you don't know who you will offend, or who might decide you are harassing them.
    Is it just me or do more people seem crazy now?

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  5. Is your company dying, TB?

    It sounds to me like nobody trusts anybody and they are afraid to open up and say the wrong thing. We live in such contentious and divisive times, where if you have the wrong opinion on something you can actually get fired or punished.

    Corporate America is embracing the low trust/snitch culture in many cases now and I just flat out refuse to work in such organizations. It kills the soul.

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    1. Glen, I do not think it is dying. It is changing, become much more "corporate". This would be a normal occurrence. What is a conflating the issue is just the post 2020 environment at large. In a real way, it incentivizes individuals to cleanly and clearly separate their work and personal lives in a way that I have not seen - at least in my industry - in 20 + years.

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    2. You hit one of many nails on the head, Glen; "nobody TRUSTS anybody." And as trust dies, so does the society...

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    3. Pete, it undermines Rousseau's Social Contract: without trust that I as an individual will reap the agreed upon rewards of surrendering my rights, why would I do so?

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  6. For every continuing education seminar, webinar, compliance course, and other indoctrination activity at work there is a mandatory course survey that must be completed to add to the event to ones "official transcript". I simply comment "agree" in every category. In essence, that is what we are all doing, agreeing to comply. I could probably write expletives in the comments and nobody would ever know, because nobody ever reads them, they just get memory holed for future condemnations.

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    1. Just so, the same here. Again, I make it a practice to be as non-visible as possible.

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  7. It's hard to read the room on a Zoom call, TB, and yes, things have changed quite a bit over the last year; not because of The Plague, but because it's been determined that some lives matter more than others. People are not talking because if you don't talk, you can't cross that ever-shifting and invisible line. In a sense WE are becoming automated... ...The folks pushing and adhering to this agenda are NOT going to like where it eventually goes...

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    1. Pete, it is much harder to read the room - in fact, other than tone of voice, you cannot. I would argue The Plague has contributed in meaningful ways. But you make an excellent point: the ever shifting agreed upon niceties make if difficult if not impossible to engage in any meaningful way. People resort to a bland sort of interaction for defense, if nothing else.

      The simple reality is that some time, some day, those that have pushed this will suddenly look for unwavering support from the masses and not find it, because the masses have been carefully trained to control their output and not engage.

      One imagines an actual attack on portions of the continental US where the bulk of the population shrugs and begins preparing for the next step instead of seeking to defend the current one.

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  8. Another aspect is BECAUSE of the prolific amount of monitoring, depending on the situation, all one has to do is go over every. single. word. uttered in a chat room, or even in person to find the means in which to terminate one's employment. Trust me. One of my coworkers, an eager backstabber I found out later, was hot for rapid promotion, and utilized the chat rooms and 'creative interpretation' to run to HR to tell the HR Harridans 'where the bad man had hurt him'. I was out on my 4th point of contact in less time than I care to think about. At best, the joke was off color (stated that some of the bosses needed a beating with a mallet a'la Bugs Bunny cartoons) for being dense... that's almost a word-for-word translation, but was enough to get me termed for, get this: workplace violence.

    Any wonder why the universe is insane?

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    1. Big Country - Sad but true. And given the current environment, who knows whom will be offended by what?

      As a general practice, I no longer discuss a great many things - or even the fact that I blog - to any coworkers. It is simply not worth the risk, especially in an age where effectively you can be terminated for anything you express, at any time. It is a very real reason I have dialed back my social media presence to almost nothing.

      As to HR? It is, sadly, probably as much a liability issue as anything else. No HR group in this current age wants to take the hit for being "warned" of violence and not acting. It is a suit waiting to happen.

      Thank you for stopping by!

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