In the virtual company, air managers and video pinheads rule

In a certain sense, our company started as a virtual -- meaning "less than real" -- company. It was only a handful of people working out of a converted apartment. Decisions? They were made by consensus because everyone talked to everyone else every day about what he or she was doing.

How we yearned to become a real company -- with receptionists and stationery and a corporate logo and a decision-making structure.

And in accordance with the old Chinese curse, we got our wish. We grew -- there were more than 100 of us -- and soon we needed receptionists and a human-resources department and endless meetings to settle what once was decided around the water cooler.

Then we were acquired, and we got a new boss to match our new corporate trappings. He immediately sensed that we were getting fragmented and decided that we needed to move to a place where we could all be on one floor again.

We ended up in four locations in two states. He ended up out the door.

The new new boss took note of our geographical dispersion and announced that we were going to become a virtual company. Because "virtual" is now the opposite of "real world," we figured that our soon-to-be virtual company would institute digital and electronic versions of our tangible activities.

We would have E-mail instead of postal mail. We would have digitized logos on computer screens instead of stationery. We would telecommute instead of drive our 3-D cars up and down the old noninformation (read "asphalt") superhighway.

Then we began to think about actual work or, more precisely, meetings. What was the virtual company going to do about meetings?

First we turned to the telephone.

Now, most of you have been at a meeting in which at least one person is virtual. That's the person who's participating by telephone. (Notice the speakerphone on the conference table.) And you've seen how the speakerphone virtual executive (SVE) becomes the most important person present (virtually speaking) because he or she has to be linked in before the meeting can start.

Everything has to be explained to the SVE. That makes the SVE much more important than if he or she had flown in for the meeting like a real person and knew what was going on.

If you've ever been the SVE, you've likely realized how anonymous you truly are in your iconic representation, a wired box on a tabletop. Perhaps you realized that just after the meeting, when no one remembered to turn you off and the real people nearest you began talking about their love affairs.

Technology, of course, is the great equalizer. Our telecommunications companies have developed virtual technologies that have turned all of us into ignorant boxes on tabletops.

Our virtual company has replaced a big conference table made of tropical hardwood with four conference tables (one for each location) and four sets of two-way videoconferencing software. The cameras that link us visually have fish-eye lenses. That means that all the people in the virtual conference rooms -- hundreds of real-world miles apart -- look like actors in an aspirin commercial. Until they speak. Then the ones sitting close to the camera look like Godzilla, and the ones sitting far away look like pinheads.

The sheer ugliness of teleconferencing has reduced the number of meetings in our virtual company, making us far more efficient and competitive than we've been in years. Of course, there is the danger that someone may improve the technology to the point where virtual meetings become easier on the eyes.

The other great leveler to come to us from the virtual world is a kind of monster conference call in which hundreds of people can be united while sitting at their individual telephones.

For some nominal fee -- maybe $6,000 a person -- the telephone company gives your conference a special password and an 800 number, and you can have up to 26,471 people -- each at his or her own desk, home office, electronic cottage, or cellular location -- all hooked into one teleconference.

Of course, it's not really a conference. Usually, only the boss speaks. She's on her phone, in one of her four offices. She needs four offices because she is a virtual executive. (When we get frustrated, we change "virtual executive" to "air boss," like "air guitar.")

What's curious about the latest step into the electronic future is how bad it feels. As I sit at my lonely desk, listening to the boss make sweeping predictions about our future success, I have never felt further from real power, more alienated from my company.

The human spirit, however, is unquenchable. Throughout the company, people make a party of these captive-audience teleconferences. They crowd into someone's cubicle and share a speakerphone. I can tell by the feedback that whole floors are doing it.

And when they aren't asking a question -- when their mute is on -- they're making fun of whoever is. They're playing Mystery Science Theater 3000 with each pronouncement, like a bunch of college kids watching a bad movie together.

I only hope the phone company isn't selling our boss the entire tape.

Moe Meyerson is a manager at a rapidly growing company.