It is the end of the workplace as we know it. In-person meetings have been replaced by Zoom (and Teams, and Hangouts and [insert platform here]).
For many of us, this has increased our productivity and helped us maintain continuity in our workplaces. These platforms have helped us stay in sync with our colleagues and continue to seamlessly move along whatever work we have.
As a result, however, our already fragile work-life balance is jeopardized. We sit down at the kitchen table and hold a staff meeting. We transition to a sales pitch, then give the kids lunch. We prepare an account review, and then we prepare dinner and bedtime. And then we go back to work, at the kitchen table.
The walls between work and home vanish.
After the pandemic is behind us, we hope this will slowly, but surely, blur back into a subtle firewall between home life and work life. And yet, these ubiquitous platform meetings come with a much graver hazard and will have changed us.
At the core of these platforms is a different experience than meeting in person. First, our core interaction is different. We invite people into our homes — a level of intimacy we do not often share with the majority of our co-workers. And that intimacy intensifies the exchange.
What’s more, we spend our days staring directly — up close — into the faces of everyone with whom we meet, and sometimes many at once. We invest energy in being “TV-ready” (even if that means pajama pants with a blouse or dress-shirt and tie).
These high-definition, close-up meetings lead us to notice many of our own and others’ “imperfections.” Crooked teeth, blemishes, cracked lips, ruffled hair, rough stubble — general “dishevelry.”
Before this pandemic, we may not have noticed these things, or even cared. But now they are right in our face — and we slowly begin to judge. We judge ourselves and we judge others.
We’re familiar with the English idiom: Don’t judge a book by its cover. But there is a more nuanced teaching from centuries earlier.
Nearly 1,800 years ago, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi offered an aphorism contained in Pirkei Avot — a rabbinical tractate often referred to as Ethics of the Fathers.
There he taught: Don’t look at the container, rather look at that which is in it. You might find a new container full of old wine and an old container in which there isn’t even new wine.
Perhaps more comfortably stated: Don’t worry about outward appearances. Don’t focus on or get distracted by any of that. Focus on the words coming out of your colleagues’ mouths and the ideas in their heads. Focus on their commitment and their energy, and how they are doing the best they can to balance life and work, too.
People are not objects, but when we stare at the “Brady Bunch” version of our team, we each become an object. We are “talking to” and “looking at,” instead of meeting with.
How do I quickly attempt to fix that? The moment I catch myself judging, I turn off my camera, walk away from the screen and switch to audio only — at least to attempt a mindful reset of my frame of reference.
All this said, there is good that comes from these kinds of meetings. Unscripted interruptions by children, pets or others add levity and humanity to a sometimes rigid atmosphere. We increase efficiency, communication and collaboration. We are more fully integrated and “in the know” in so many areas of our business than we otherwise might be. We are learning that many do not necessarily need to be “on the road” to do much of their work.
Maybe this has changed us after all — and maybe weighted toward the better. People may want to return to normal, but if we can beware of the pitfalls of these meetings openly and knowingly, our new normal may be one in which we will be kinder, more intimate and less judgmental.
Avi S. Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park.