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Has Your Workplace Turned into Brains with Faces? Here's a Fix

Philosophers interested in the intricacies of how we know what we know often refer to a problem called “Other Minds”. How do we really know what another person is thinking and feeling? It’s not like we have direct access to their mind. We might rely on common words, signs, or experiences, but there is no guarantee that we understand those things in the same way.

While the philosopher’s worry may strike some as merely “academic”, remote working has manifested this intellectual problem to some degree. We often find, for instance, that when video chatting, or “Zooming”, we can’t quite figure out what another person might be thinking or feeling despite the fact they are directly present to us.

Or are they?

After attempting to better describe some of the complications about video chatting, in this blog I suggest a possible remedy in term of personality attunement.

Presence or Brains with Faces?

I want to begin by associating the phenomenon of in-person conversation with the idea of presence. Presence means that two workers are not only in close physical proximity to one another, but also that the space in which they face each other presents each speaker within a specific temporal and placial context.

This context (e.g. office, cafe, bar, or street corner) acts as a kind of home in which the event of conversation can take shape. In other words, it actually provides a form in which the conversation can occur.

Think of the way in which conversation might happen in a cafe, while waiting for your coffee drinks to arrive. Are one’s actions, gestures, and body language shaped to some degree by the surroundings and atmosphere, by the anticipation of sipping a hot, bitter liquid?

Another way of putting this is to say that specific places help mediate and disclose discussions by providing cues, signs, and props to help make points. Think about how offering a cigarette to someone used to be a common way to introduce oneself (or at least so I have seen in old films).

Yet, video chatting, while presenting the face of the person, is absent this placial and temporal context. Nominally, the event may be called a meeting, but the context involved is actually virtual. In fact, one can say that the actual contexts for each speaker are multiple and unshared; they are their respective locations (their office, house, etc.) that only remotely appear as an inconspicuous background.

So instead of a specific location and context, one has a kind of empty, contextless space in which brains with faces appear.

“The weather . . . My God! It’s everywhere!”

In a contextless space, discussion occurs in a vacuum that has little on which to gain traction. The experience can be much like a first date gone terribly wrong; when two people have nothing in common except the uneasy feeling of not fitting.

Video chats are not inevitably like this (though they can reduce to this). Nonetheless, they certainly start out in a space of awkward emptiness where you might find yourself saying something obvious just to fill the space:

“The weather . . . My God! It’s everywhere!”

(Mr Mehta, Kim’s Convenience)

In a physical locale, there are things one can draw on or do in the build-up to the official start of a meeting—like sipping tea or quietly reviewing one’s notes. But in a video chat situation, this is not really the case. The camera creates a spotlight in which any habits or actions are showcased to others. What would normally be an action in the background is now foregrounded for all the viewers to see. Isn’t this the reason why so many turn off the camera and microphone until there is enough visual critical mass where no one and everyone is on display?

Attunement of Personalities: A Remedy?

A virtual meeting or event that works is one where personalities are able to be on display in order that the others can attune to them in some way. Facial gestures, turns of phrase, intonations, etc. can be received and read. I have even been in virtual meetings where the majority of participants have had their cameras off and yet are able to achieve a sense of familiar synergy, inevitably (I’d like to say) because each participant is able to tune in or become attuned to the other participants.

But this is not because of the video chat medium; rather despite it.

If the challenge of video chatting rings true, then what seems to follow from the foregoing account is that discussants can avoid the awkwardness of empty space by becoming more familiar with their counterparts’ personality and mannerisms.

An obvious answer is to provide a regular dose of physical presence between co-workers and or clients to nurture this kind of familiarity. This is possible for some businesses when lockdown restrictions permit.

When restrictions don’t permit such gatherings, what can help is “more of the same”. That is to say, more video chatting . . . but according to specific aims and parameters that allow personalities to flow.

I am currently trialing this with a group of analysts and consultants from Quorsus as a part of a series of Meaningful Work sessions. Formats and agendas can vary, and what seems to be working for us (touch wood!) is a method of talking generally about work-related matters as they bear on and relate to personal lives (not too personal, of course!).

Talking about what is personal, or outside of the work environment, is a way for the analysts to disclose who they are. And by this disclosure, the other analysts can get a better sense of how they are when they speak . . . even with the cameras turned off.

I want to say this is more than “water cooler” talk, which I by no means dismiss or underestimate. Attunement is a way of bringing life to remote working because it brings who one is to populate the empty space of virtual reality.

Otherwise, we might as well just be brains with faces.

(My thanks to Jade Ashcroft for inspiring the title!)

About Me

I am a public philosopher and business consultant who specializes in the areas of meaningful work, the philosophy of work, virtue ethics, and hermeneutics. I was formerly Assistant and Associate Professor at the University of Dundee and the University of Kent, respectively. In addition to being an academic writer, I am also the author of a short sci-fi novella called Pig Terrorism. When not immersed in reading and writing, I can be found rock climbing or windsurfing.

This blog and its content are protected under the Creative Commons license and may be used, adapted, or copied without permission of its creator so long as appropriate credit to the creator is given and an indication of any changes made is stated. The blog and its content cannot be used for commercial purposes.


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