Does your workplace use Google Hangouts for meetings? Or something similar?
For the uninitiated, Hangouts lets you have video conferences with colleagues all over the place – it’s a virtual boardroom, where everyone’s disembodied head gets its own square on the screen.
There are people I’ve worked closely with for years who I chat and laugh with, know their faces and their voices and bits about their lives, but I’ve never met in real life (that’s IRL if you’re down with the yoof).
All I really know of them physically is their faces and shoulders.
Sometimes I imagine meeting them IRL and discovering they’re a foot taller than I expected. Or they’re missing a leg. Or they favour business shorts or stripper heels or some other unexpected apparel that never finds its way onto the screen.
I met someone IRL recently who I’d only previously known on Hangouts.
We got chatting about where I’d found a parking spot, which were thin on the ground in his town, and he admitted he never had to think about it because he rode a motorcycle.
He pointed to the helmet tucked inconspicuously beside his monitor (well out of sight of the camera). It’s something I would never have known about him if I hadn’t met him in the flesh, I’m sure.
That’s an innocuous example, but how many more of them are there? And how much more significant would they be?
People’s private lives and health issues, their opinions on world politics and their taste in reality television – they’re all things that emerge organically out of daily contact in the workplace.
But not in the brave new world of virtual conferencing. There’s something inhibiting about the screen connection that discourages the kind of shooting the breeze that would happen in a bricks and mortar office.
Given that I’m not zipping off to far-flung parts of the country to knock on their real office doors, I’m going to make an effort to incorporate water-cooler chat into Hangouts where I can. And if I take my laptop to the pub, I’ll call it office drinks.