Conference calls in casual mode

You know conference calls, I trust?

(If not, teach me your secrets!)

In case you’re new to them, how shall I describe them? Perhaps I’ll say they’re a technology for many humans to try to talk at once, and somehow simultaneously also for no one to talk for quite a long and awkward time, from different locations. They’re also quite possibly the greatest-ever advance in human boredom-creation technology. 

If you’re a conference call veteran, then you’ll know the feeling of awkwardly announcing your presence, then waiting for fifty-five minutes absently refreshing your email while someone explains something in great detail that one other person on the twenty-person call needed to know, and then pretending to have enjoyed the experience when you, with a vast sigh of relief, say “Thanks, everyone!” and press the big red button just in time for lunch.

Now, introducing: conference calls in the time of COVID! 

First, the good: at least at my job, to my immense shock, a lot of standing meetings seem to have suddenly been deemed unimportant. (Meanwhile, real-life extracurricular friendship has converted into a standing conference call, which is bizarre and confusing, but at least the cosmic balance is stable).

Lest I be entirely negative: conference calls have also turned into nice chances to actually see people. Remember people? That’s nice, for the forty-five minutes my brain allows before going into NEED TO SCREAM MODE.

(NEED TO SCREAM MODE gives me a lot of sympathy for babies. Babies: I get it.)

Second, the amusing: conference calls are now an irresistible opportunity to look into coworkers’ homes. (My workplace doesn’t allow Zoom, so like cavemen we are forced to see the actual literal background of the room we’re in). What better cure for a bit of mid-call lull than to examine the decor? Does that sailboat-themed living room match so-and-so’s personality? I really had her pegged as more of a cowboy-theme type. And who knew that Whatshisname was such an adept painter of penguin portraits? There they are lined up behind him. I wonder what the backstory is there. 

And there are the visitors: the dogs rushing onscreen to applause from all participants; the cats trying to shove the laptop off the desk or type obscene messages in the chat; the children demanding orange juice and insisting that indeed it must be daddy who gets the orange juice, so daddy must stop leading the call until this is resolved. All of these visitors couldn’t care less about a call. They are a pure joy. 

Third, the ambiguous: all of our “standards” are falling, and I for one welcome this. God knows even before the pandemic, my will to wear non-spandex work clothing to the actual office was plummeting. The weekly telework day was a break from even this stricture, a day when I could sit and work on top of the laundry pile wearing other parts of the laundry pile.

These days, in week seven or ten or fifteen of telework, if I manage a bra and a tee shirt, I feel positively posh. 

So when it comes time for a call, there’s me, unshowered, no makeup, hair in a weird bun, wearing what the hell ever, on the bed, sitting super casually, maybe even taking the call outside for a little dose of vitamin D if I can find a solitary place to do so, flinging my leg up on a bench to stretch my hip, getting frequently distracted watching pigeons and wondering what’s happening behind all those glass windows. What’s everyone doing on this fine Thursday at 10 am, I wonder, forgetting that my coworkers may well be watching me do a little outdoor yoga while visibly zoning out. Oops.

Meanwhile, this casual atmosphere predictably filters into my persona. The gap between work-me and home-me is collapsing, and that’s partly for the good and partly very dangerous. On the one hand, I find myself a little more willing to say what I think right away, because the longer I’m diplomatic the longer this call will go on into the dangerous NEED TO SCREAM zone. But on the other hand, this leads me to almost forget not to say things like “I’m just talking out of my ass here.” I don’t think talking out of my ass is in my job description, at least not officially, although I maintain that it’s an important skill when deployed responsibly.

I know I’m not alone in this, because I’m seeing everyone else also letting loose a bit, wearing comfortable clothes, figuring out how to style their overlong hair or not, moving the laptop to a cozy seat, making coffee, bickering with family members while forgetting to mute, eating a snack in their surprisingly retro kitchen.

It’s going to be weird if we have to go back to dressing like and acting like upright stock-photo-type people between 8 and 5 again.

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