Face to Face by Subhadra Jayaraman

There were many perks for someone like me when the unforeseen shelter-in-place happened, which eventually led to working remotely full time for a while, and part time for a longer period. Yes, it was gross, and it was hard, and confusing, and unnerving, and disorienting. But one year later, as I write this article, in March 2021, I am now comfortably settled into a hybrid life. I have to go in to work almost everyday as I am a bench scientist, meaning I need a physical lab to do my work. But I can also take meetings from home and don’t have to be at work for 8 hours a day if I don’t need to.

What started as a scheduling nightmare has now become routine, and as I ease into a partially remote work schedule, I can’t help but think about a few everyday things that have undergone an enormous shift, and the winner there is meetings. I don’t just think the physical act of meetings has changed; I think the very meaning of the word has changed. Meetings used to mean conference rooms, smiles and hellos, a lot of eye contact, body language (nodding and making vague hand gestures for me), and worrying if your neighbor at the table can hear you chewing the chips. Meetings now mean setting up your computer audio, making sure your files are open to share seamlessly, fixing your eye on the spot on your wall right behind your laptop, yawning freely and openly, and chewing as loudly as you want as long as you’re on mute.

Just a year ago, I would leave my house 45 minutes before my first meeting. To give myself enough time to get there, settle in, get a coffee and my notebook, and get mentally oriented to the task ahead. Now I stumble out of bed straight into my chair and marvel at the speed with which my brain can switch from an internal groan to an affable ‘good morning’! There are video meetings, of course, but those are rare for a reason – everyone in the call probably has the morning bed head, still in their pajamas, even possibly with a toothbrush still in their mouths! I think I can safely say that we have all lost our razors and shaving creams and foundations and lipsticks – it’s either virtual meetings or masked faces.

Talking to someone face to face, in person, was actually in part a joyful experience in its own. Not just because you can read each other’s expressions and movements, but also because you were not grainy and blotchy with a camera emphasizing your double chin. We didn’t have to use fake backgrounds of the galaxies or the beach, we didn’t have to awkwardly stare ahead all the time, we could cradle coffee cups in our hands instead of gearing up for carpal tunnel, and we could have actual silences that didn’t seem like the screen froze or the internet cut off. Whenever our lives go back to the way it was in terms of having non-virtual conversations, it will be like watching ourselves learn how to be human and interact again. We will have to watch ourselves, lest we roll our eyes or scoff or pick our noses during a meeting because we assume we are on mute with no video. 

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