There is a very special place that we have all known so well, but rarely visit any more.
A place we may not have valued quite as much as we should have valued it before.
A place we may be missing without even realising it has gone, or that it was a place at all.
It is a place where our guard is a little lower, and where we see people in a little more colour.
It is a liminal space that has a cast of players all following their own unscripted roles. It is the scene we play when a meeting ends; the performance of how we leave the meeting room.
There are the lingerers and the note-takers. There are the reflective-pausers, the dasher-offers, the tidier-uppers, and the straight-back-to-their-phoners checking what they have missed.
This play unfolds over a couple of minutes. It always ends with an empty room, but what takes place between the end of the meeting and the empty room helps to set our mood for what is to come. It can energise, deflate, frustrate, sadden or inspire, but it is always an important moment of unscripted disconnecting. We know how we feel, and we can sense how others may feel too. We have a map of emotional contours to help guide us through what comes next.
Now it is gone. Instead we meet from our Zoom laden aeries, and we disconnect from meetings in a completely different way.
We are shut out and shut down in an instant from the virtual reality. There is no going back to pick up a forgotten pen, no quick words in a doorway, no knowing looks. No liminal pause. No time for care, clarification, reassurance and encouragement, or for our “I’m absolutely fine” smile to be understood to mean “You know I’m not really fine at all”.
Meetings have lost a bit of soul and no amount of digital jazz-hands as the meeting link casts us out, feels like an adequate replacement for the sound of chairs being pushed back and the moments of human improv that always follow.
It has made me wonder what other liminal pauses we have lost.
Those moments of unplanned casual connection that link the planned and anticipated structure of our working day. Liminal pauses like the silent lift shuffle; or the morning arrival conversation, or are-you-doing-anything-nice-this-evening conversation. Or the do-you-have-a-minute conversation and the fancy-seeing-you-here conversation. Or the nearly always unnerving, chief executive-catches-your-eye-and-remembers-she-asked-you-to-do-something-for-her conversation.
The liminal pause will never be an objective, or a target or a metric or a process. The liminal pause will not be the first thing you think of as crucial to your day. Liminal pauses however are the breaths we take to oxygenate our working life. They are casual but crucial to our understanding of how we think about our work, our colleagues, our sense of place, our worth and our need to belong.
Remote working has largely stripped them from our day. We now live in mocked-up miniature television studios of flattened reality. Some of us are happy to allow the world behind us to be glimpsed. Others have framed a view that offers no clues. Some of us have chosen a virtual background or for the camera to be turned off. We are hidden in plain sight.
Whatever happened to the lingerers, the reflective pausers and all our other liminal heroes. No more liminal anymore.
The side-bar chat function, the separate subversive Snapchat group, or the swapping of emojis, are the nearest things we have found; but they are still only a synthetic pause. Meta maybe, not liminal.
To be honest I am not sure we have realised how important these pauses are for us. I think we need to find the times and the places for liminal pauses with each other again. The place to improv without agendas, papers, or actions; a place that is not defined, but just to be.
The next time someone asks you if you need something, ask them to be with you for a liminal pause.
Even just to talk about one may turn out to be one.