Over-The-Wall Contact When No One’s There

Many more people today work alone or in “branch offices”. These can be small rental offices, one of the new shared office spaces (see CubeSpace or Souk in Portland, Oregon, or check the co-working wiki for similar arrangements around the U.S. and the world), or even from home.

Do you feel disconnected from the rest of the world while you work solo? Do you squint at the clock, anticipating the moment when the mail arrives so you can glimpse another human? A complaint I hear on a regular basis is that people miss the camaraderie of the office family, this even gets reported somewhat regularly in the news media on slow news days.

I tend to work somewhat silently, I rarely even play music because it interrupts my writing focus, but I do remain connected with people around the world using a number of different methods. I spent ten solid years living in a cubicle farm–it actually was named “Jones Farm”–where we regularly “prairie-dogged”* over the cubicle walls to call out for help, someone with whom to grab fresh coffee, or make a snide comment about the intelligence of the person on the other end of the just completed phone call. This is generally a great source of organic office knowledge, but it disappears when no one occupies a nearby cubicle or when one is working in a solo situation.

Assuming everyone reading this has access to and uses email on a regular basis, this is pretty much the low end of staying connected, much like writing a letter. But the drawback is that email takes a formal commitment to sitting and writing a coherent message, very unlike the quick conversation at the watercooler.

By now, almost everyone over the age of 30 has discovered IM, people under the age of 30 don’t remember a time when IM did not exist. IM, or “instant messaging”, in case you are as far over 30 as I am at this time, is a great way to maintain a connection with one person, but it does have a drawback of operating mainly point-to-point and lacking the social aspect of a shared conversation similar to the prairie-dog activity. (My favorite IM app is Pidgin, you can reach me at mmathews on AIM, both open source and multi-protocol.)

Twitter has taken over IM for me (follow me on Twitter). It’s quick and easy. I stay updated through my browser online or through SMS by cell phone, regular cell phone, not one of those fancy “smart phones” or iPhones with their million-dollar service plans. I can decide whose tweets to read and whose to avoid.

Today I may have found another–and possibly better, though denser–method for keeping up with people and having a quick over-the-wall encounter: FriendFeed. Feel free to add me, I am mmathews and I promise I won’t clutter up the feed too much, but you will be able to see new blog postings and tweets and a few of the other things I work on regularly.

Let me know what you use to gain that sense of office family and how well you think it works.

* To “Prairie-dog” is to raise one’s head above the level of shared workspace cubicle walls to see what is happening around the area of the cubicle, including to make a comment to someone in a neighbor cubicle.

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