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In Praise of the Social Conference Call

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

While Sarah discusses the latest web traffic data, she’s glancing over the top of her laptop trying to keep an eye on her toddler daughter who’s perching precariously on the edge of the coffee table. Her baby’s just woken from his lunchtime nap and her husband’s own conference call won’t be over for another 25 minutes. 

On the other side of the city, also quarantined on account of Covid-19, Steve from digital marketing is trying to follow what exactly Sarah’s saying, but in addition to contesting with slightly patchy WiFi, he’s distracted by the fact that his food delivery - due to arrive that morning - never showed up. He’s running low on milk, dog food and toilet paper. Going to the supermarket two days ago spiked his anxiety levels. He’d really rather avoid having to repeat that experience again unless absolutely necessary. 

Most of his employees agree that James, meanwhile, is a compassionate and understanding boss, but he’s losing his temper more frequently these days and that’s putting an immense strain on morale. Budgets are drying up. People are off sick. Every day he’s being torn in a million different directions, putting out big and small fires and trying to swerve all kinds of metaphorical potholes while still being as reasonable and as cheery as possible. And then there’s his pregnant wife. She’s not due for another two months but could feasibly go into labour any second moment, particularly considering her own frayed nerves. 

Humans are inherently social creatures and many - though not all - thrive off companionship and conversation. I’ll be the first to dismiss “a problem shared is a problem halved” as a cutesy cliche, but there’s truth to it. We particularly connect with others when we feel brave enough to share problems, insecurities and concerns - both the life-altering but also the deeply mundane.

Grimy communal kitchens with passive aggressive post-it notes on the fridge might not bear a natural resemblance to therapy rooms, but arguably they have something in common.

Seemingly inane desk-side conversations with colleagues that are not strictly about work can be more important than we realise. They might see us through to the end of the day without sending our girlfriend or boyfriend a toxic text we later regret. They can provide hope and inspiration, reassurance that we’re not alone and that - yes - someone has experienced this exact same thing before and what’s more, they’ve lived to tell the tale. 

We enjoy complaining about our office, our peers and our managers, but many of us have a tendency to underestimate the social benefits of being around these familiar faces. We gain something from the routine of drinking mediocre coffee and snacking from an overpriced vending machine at 4pm every Tuesday after that meeting we all agree is pointless. 

We like to complain about that bloke in IT who never knows when enough is enough, but the entertainment value we get from his poorly told anecdotes is not negligible. And if his ramblings hadn’t trigged that girl in HR to roll her eyes behind his back with such beautiful comic timing, then she may never have struck up that glorious friendship with Emma from accounts.

Many of us spend more time with our colleagues than our own families and loved ones, and yet it’s easy to take the relationships we forge in the workplace for granted. At times like this, it’s therefore important to remember that there’s more to work than - well - work. 

With every member of her team across Europe confined to their homes because of Coronavirus, one senior manager at a global tech firm told me recently that she had decided that once a week their daily conference calls would not feature any work-related conversations at all. Each member of the team would have a chance to talk about personal challenges, small wins, fears, anxieties and hopes during this unprecedented time. The first of these calls featured laughter, tears and heartfelt bonding over the mess we’re all enduring

The de-stigmatisation of terms like wellbeing and mental health in the workplace have led us all to be encouraged to bring our whole selves to work. That’s brilliant and will no doubt have a great impact on satisfaction and therefore productivity, but we should also be encouraged to bring our whole selves to work if we’re not physically walking through the doors of an office. 

Conference calls at the moment are meant to emulate the in-person meetings and interactions we have when we’re not all being forced to self-isolate. But we risk forgetting that not all those interactions are - or should be - about revenue generation strategies for next quarter’s project. 

In order to be truly fulfilled employees we might also need to speak to Barry from the graphics team about what he thinks we should buy for our partner’s next big birthday. It’s easy to underestimate the value of human connection on a personal level when we’re all just voices on headphones and faces on screens, but consider this your call to action.

Of course it would be ideal to pop by Barry’s desk with a cup of tea and a biscuit so that you two can debate the comparative merits of a gift card and theatre tickets, but at the moment a conference call is a perfectly legitimate alternative. We should all give it a go. 

Josie Cox For Workculturati

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