I work remotely, and I have met few of my coworkers in person. During a recent meeting, one of them referenced an upcoming surgery. She brought this up while a lot of people were logged in and said it as if we should all be aware of her health condition. Given the lack of relationship between us, I wasn’t sure whether or how to respond. We have another meeting together tomorrow, and I’m still not sure whether to engage in further conversation on the topic of her health.
Not So Curious Coworker
Sometimes, when an important topic is at the forefront of a person’s mind, it’s hard for that person to remember that not everyone is on the same page. She may have mentioned the surgery to some colleagues, or she may have marked her calendar with “Out for surgery” and assumed that word would get around. She may also be in the mindset of a non-remote workplace where discussions of someone’s health may indeed be water cooler conversation.
It’s possible that some people on the call were well aware of the particulars, but since you weren’t, you can absolutely treat this as if it’s the first you’ve heard. That could mean asking her follow-up questions, and it could also mean treating this like the mostly private information it is and not bringing it up at all. Both are consistent with appropriate (virtual) workplace behavior, and you can relax your own concerns around being sure you do the right thing.
If you wanted to, before the anticipated date, you could send her an email that says, “Wishing you well on your upcoming surgery.” There’s no need to ask questions or get into other specifics. Non-intrusive well wishes among colleagues are rarely out of line. You could also potentially inquire to other coworkers as to whether there’s a fund to send flowers or a meal train you could join.
The above suggestions assume that when you say you don’t know what to say, that you want to say something. However, as I also mentioned above, doing nothing is just fine. When you log on for tomorrow’s call, you can greet her warmly and professionally and go about the meeting. If she seems to want to bring up information about her surgery again, you can let the other people on the call follow up, or you can let her comments fizzle out.
To the extent that her surgery impacts your work, you may end up wanting some details, even if only regarding length of recovery time and number of days off. That information may be best gathered from other coworkers, though, while you continue to politely disengage from anything that feels more personal than you prefer for your work environment.