When I was about 7 years old, there was a popular kid’s show on PBS called Zoom. The theme song went something like this: Come on and zoom zoom zooma zoom, Everybody’s doin’ it, Everybody’s movin’ it, everyone’s having a ball YEAH.
Who knew that nearly 50 years later, everyone really WOULD be Zooming it. Or Skyping it, Microsoft Teaming it, WebExing it, you name it. Yet I’m pretty sure no one is having a ball.
It was bad enough that pre-pandemic many of us in the business world had grown pretty accustomed to the challenges of group conference calls. But now due to the necessity of virtual connections, we’ve taken a step further and have all hopped on the video conferencing bus. In many ways this technology has been a blessing. It has been the only way family, friends and various loved ones have been able to see each other in months. The learning curve has been a steep one for those who are not technology savvy, but in a remarkably short amount of time, we’ve all figured it out at least to some extent. And like the old theme song says, as long as you have a way to make a digital connection, “everybody’s doin’ it.” Beyond family and friends, we are video conferencing with doctors, teachers, students, financial advisors, vets… even people we would normally just call on the phone, we suddenly feel the need to SEE them when we talk.
It didn’t take long before we all were enjoying the humor of the fact we can only see the top half of our fellow video callers, leaving the bottom half to our imagination – and sometimes our clear view if the person got up from their seat. There are even TV commercials now making use of this 2020 faux paus. Check that off the “another weird phenomenon of this year” list.
At my place of employment, we are all back together in the office – practicing all the appropriate distancing requirements, along with several folks who are still remote due to geographic location or family situations. Which means that even though most of us are together under one roof, we often still hold video calls and meetings. And by often, I mean daily. Multiple times daily. Combine those with my own personal video sessions with friends and family off hours, and I have come to expect certain, shall we say, challenges of this new mode of communication. I’m sure you’ll recognize many:
- In and Out. Living in this modern world does not mean we all have extremely strong wifi connections at all times. Especially with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people connecting all at once. Add in interruptions like natural disasters and weird weather patterns, and we can count on any one of us bouncing in and out of connectivity. So meetings include productive conversations like this: “Hey, there she is! Ooops, wait. Did we lose her? I think we lost her. Well, we can keep going – oh, she’s back! Nope. Nope, she’s not.”
- To mute or not to mute. It’s a handy little button, that. Great for blocking out things like external office noise or when you need to sneeze. It’s very simple: Click: mute. Click: Unmute. Yet there is no button that is harder to find and click when the dog starts barking or a family member comes in to ask you what’s for dinner. Conversely, trying to find it and click to unmute yourself when someone else in the meeting has asked you a question for some reason takes upwards of 30 seconds. Even better is when you THINK you have unmuted but you haven’t. There you are, the voiceless talking head like an old silent movie. Thus creating more riveting meeting dialog: “You are on mute. We can’t here you. You need to unmute.”
- We can still see you. Just as handy as the mute button is the video on/off button. You can still participate in the meeting without being seen live, and instead pop up a lovely posed still photo of yourself. Perfect to use when you are eating or blowing your nose or adjusting your bra strap. Because no one needs to see any of that happening up close. Especially effective is going Double-Dark, by clicking both video off and mute. This is most commonly used, honestly, when we are all trying to multi-task and are only partially paying attention. Oh, come on, don’t act like you haven’t done this. D-D is perfect for getting up to let out the barking dog, turning around to chat with a co-worker or answer your child’s question about dinner, or respond to emails. Just like talking when muted, however, we have all fallen victim to thinking our video is off when it is not. That’s when others have seen our empty chairs, watched us empty our trash, totally divert our attention elsewhere, play with a pet, or in some well-documented cases on social media, get up to pour some coffee wearing pajama bottoms. I’m going to be honest here and say I live for these moments. After way too many hours in Video Sessions, these are the humorous real life bits I need.
- Freeze Frame. Remember that Wifi issue? Yeahhhhhh, even better than getting totally kicked off the call is when your video feed freezes. This never happens when you are looking lovely and peaceful with a pretty smile on your face. Oh no. Your video will freeze when your eyes are closed, your mouth open, and your head at an awkward angle because you’ve just flipped your hair back. And you look like some sort of deranged muppet.
- Great Forehead. We are all using any variety of desktop or mobile devices during our video calls, and we could be anywhere from our desk to our backyard to the kitchen table to the car to propping the laptop up on a chair. So the angle of view is often not a piece of perfection. We don’t look like a well-staged Hoda Kotb. I’ve had numerous conversations with people’s foreheads, people who look like Kilroy peering over a counter top, someone who is tilted downhill, or – sometimes briefly, someone’s boobs. There’s a reason Video chats provide your own image mirrored back to you. We don’t need to look like Hoda, but talking to a body part or piece of a face is kinda spooky.
- Good Fakes. Since all this video craziness began, there has been a big emphasis and fascination on backgrounds. Often more attention is given to someone’s background than to the person themselves. Any of you who follow RoomRater on Twitter understand the importance of a bowl of fruit or well-placed plant. Now many of the Video formats allow the user to pick a PB – Pretend Background. I’m a fan of the slightly blurry background because it makes the person look sharp and more 3-D-ish. Some backgrounds are more realistic than others. I have been momentarily duped into believing that one of the other meeting participants is calling in from a swanky penthouse apartment, an ornate library, or a tropical rainforest. Until they move and lose an arm or their hair because it uses the same technology as a green screen. “HA! So you really AREN’T at a café in Paris!”
Good or bad, video conferencing I’m afraid is here to stay, here for the long haul. With time, it will probably continue to improve, and hopefully at some point we won’t all have 5 different services we use (because p.s. the audio connection requires different set ups on each, thus creating my awkward and panicked button pushing to get my headset connected).
As frustrating as it may be to be interrupted by road noise, or kids crying, or lose that important piece of information thanks to a disconnect, or deal with the embarrassment of an ill-timed yawn or food spill, we need to cut each other some slack. If there’s one thing that video conferencing has reinforced for me is that we are all human. In this crazy world, we are all doing the best we can to stay connected and to keep our sh-t together. It’s not easy. But the next time you see a cat walk across someone’s keyboard or their screen falls and you get a crooked view of their knees, just pause and smile. It’s the universe’s way of saying we are all in this together.