After a Year of Zoom Meetings, What Have We Learned About the Way We Work?
When the lockdowns began in the first few months of 2020, many of us were shocked but not especially concerned. Thanks to the steady development of video conferencing technology, along with a lot of cloud-based working solutions, switching from an office environment to working from home was not a particularly big problem, at least in the short term.
After a year of only seeing your colleagues through their webcams, attitudes certainly shifted and the term “Zoom fatigue” was coined to explain the burnout that many were experiencing from daily video conferences. However, a general sense of emotional, cognitive and even physical exhaustion is far from the only lesson to take away from this experience.
It’s a lot more than just a video call
In all honesty, how many of us had even heard of Zoom before 2020? Sure, we’ve all heard of Skype and FaceTime, but Zoom, for many people, was just an ice lolly from the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, it and other video conferencing solutions saw a very sudden spike in users as lockdowns hit and they shot from obscure business things that only the big multinational companies bothered with to household names.
What followed soon after was the discovery that Zoom had been busy building a lot of very helpful features into their system all this time. With nothing more than a simple plugin or two (and often not even that), you could set virtual backgrounds to hide your home life, record the call with everything said and shown, automatically transcribe the conversations being held for later reference, organise recurring meetings and integrate the system with Slack, Outlook and other common office software. In many ways, it is easier to hold a meeting on Zoom than it is to do it in a conference room.
Of course, that’s not always the case. If you’re discussing a spreadsheet, how do you specify a specific cell you want to discuss? Just use the reference letters and numbers, you say? That’s not always so easy, particularly if the person sharing their screen is having internet troubles and the resolution isn’t that great. Suffice it to say, there are still functions that would be helpful to add to Zoom, including functions like the ability for call participants to draw on the shared screen, as they can with Slack. However, in terms of functionality and security, Zoom remains the market leader.
Everyone needs to be a tech nerd
What kind of nerd has a high-quality headset, cabled internet, photographic lighting and a chroma screen? Ordinarily, that would sound like a shopping list for an aspiring Twitch streamer, but a year of Zoom calls has shown just how important they are for everyday use.
Even world-class business schools have published articles about how to improve your audio quality in Zoom calls, with ‘buy a good headset’ ranking high on the list of suggestions. Some of us have endured a year of barely hearing every third word a colleague says among echos, background noise, misdirected microphones, pops, hisses, wind noise and, perhaps most heinous of all, holding the in-line microphone from a pair of cheap earphones right up to their mouth so that they are both deafeningly loud and completely incomprehensible.
Fortunately, few have had to resort to extreme measures like buying good headsets for their entire office as, in many cases, the office has bought them instead. In fact, the home office generally has evolved very far from the rickety desk in the corner of one room that it once was. As the lockdowns persisted with no clear sign of ending, more people realised that they were going to have to make themselves comfortable and that putting money into good equipment was a necessary quality-of-life investment.
Of course, as that now-famous BBC pundit discovered, a simple door lock is just as important.
Work-life balance is important
Earlier, we mentioned virtual backgrounds, and I’ll bet at least one person reading this rolled their eyes. All the really helpful features of Zoom and the first one we pick out is that gimmicky thing that the easily-amused play around with? Well, snootiness aside, a year of Zoom calls has shown us just how essential such features are for the sake of our mental wellbeing.
Put it this way: would you invite your boss (and their boss, and their boss’s boss) around to your house if you weren’t close friends with them? Probably not, if only because most of us like to maintain a barrier between work and life. Working from home blurred the line between the two, making maintaining a proper balance a lot harder. One way to maintain that barrier is by keeping your private space private.
Also, as a second defence of this point, did you know that you can set a presentation as a background? It makes a great alternative to sharing your screen and you can even point to specific parts of the presentation with more than just your mouse.
Gimmicks are not just gimmicks
Other gimmicks have served their own purposes. Beauty filters help us to maintain a professional appearance when we haven’t been able to get to the hairdressers or beauty salon for months on end. It also helps deal with the self-esteem issues some reported from seeing themselves constantly on camera, often in unflattering conditions, leading to a sudden spike in demand for plastic surgery.
Similarly, responding with an emoji means that a meeting organiser can quickly work out the consensus in a large group. Why not just ask for verbal replies? That’s a quick way to waste about 10 minutes while a dozen people fail to avoid talking over each other because of lag. Why not a show of hands? If the group is big enough - an all-hands, for example - most participants will be so small on a screen that it becomes impossible to judge their mood. And that’s assuming that everyone has their camera on, which is a great way to reduce your framerate to single digits.
We have too many pointless meetings
A long meeting in a specifically designed conference room is generally exhausting. You’re sitting still for a long time - hours on end, potentially - and trying to absorb a lot of information in one go. Since sunlight plays merry hell with the visibility of whiteboards and video monitors, conference rooms are also often only lit with artificial light, which also contributes to the exhaustion, partially through a general sense of timelessness. So, is Zoom any less tiring?
In a word, no. In two, it’s worse.
We mentioned Zoom fatigue right at the start of this, and it is thought to have been a fairly significant contributor to the sudden rise in mental health issues experienced during the COVID lockdowns. The exact reasons why Zoom calls are so exhausting is worth an article in itself, but the fact remains that a lot of companies responded by trying to reduce the number of meetings being held.
These measures have taken various forms. For those that spend their entire day in meetings, cutting hour-long meetings down to 50 minutes so that participants can step away from their computer for 10 minutes has proved effective. Some went further and had entire days every week or two when the use of Zoom would be prohibited. If nothing else, this year has taught us that there is a lot of wasted time in meetings that can be cut down to a minimum for the sake of everyone’s sanity.
We’ve discussed exactly what the workplace will look like post-COVID in a previous post, but it’s safe to say that the lessons learnt through a year of only meeting via Zoom will doubtless have significant impacts on the world of work in future. Even if it just means shorter and fewer meetings, that’s a good start.