Sunday, October 3, 2021

Commuting to a zoom meeting - back to work but not quite

Photo by Jose Losada on Unsplash
After so many months of Zoom meetings (or Teams/Google Meet etc) we are now trying to grapple with the novelty of being back in the office. The trouble is that many of the old routines now seem rather inefficient, especially meetings. Of course it's good to see colleagues again and we have all missed the social interaction around physical meetings but I suspect many people will want very convincing reasons to come to a physical meeting in future. Online meetings are generally more efficient and you don't have all the transition time of going from place to place.

One colleague who helps students with special needs said that her level of service had increased while working from home because she could help more students, no matter where they were, and could schedule meetings more tightly than office appointments. It also levelled the playing field for online students and this is important to remember as we move back to campus. Classes and meetings held in Zoom give all participants the same conditions (all can be seen and heard and have access to the chat) whilst hybrid setups nearly always give an advantage to those who are on-site. If we're going to normalise hybrid teaching all students must feel fully included in the session.

However, video meetings can present a problem to all who work in an open plan office. Conditions are not ideal and to get privacy or sometimes even reliable bandwidth many people prefer to take such meetings from home to minimise the risk of disturbance as in this post in Inside Higher EdZooming From the Office.

I knew something was different when I had to leave work early to get home in time for a Zoom meeting.
That happened last week a few times. I had 5:30 Zoom calls several nights in a row, and I live about a half hour from campus. So I left a little early in order to be able to be online in time to keep working into the evening.
Until 2020, that paragraph wouldn’t have made any sense. Yet, here we are.

Similarly absurd is commuting to the office to take part in a succession of video meetings. I used to do that most days before the pandemic but now I will think twice. 

Another feature of tha past year has been having to experience major life events by Zoom: special birthdays, graduations, new grandchildren, weddings, funerals. Another article in Inside Higher Ed, by Leah Blatt Glasser, Zooming Into Retirement, describes the poignant experience of watching the students in her last lesson before retirement disappear one after the other on her Zoom screen. Same for her farewell to her colleagues. Somehow the closing of video windows and finally being alone on the screen says a lot about today's society.

Retiring on Zoom has been one of the strangest experiences I’ve had in all my years at Mount Holyoke College. The rituals of on-campus toasts, collegial hugs, fond farewells, expressions of mutual gratitude, even love, were all postponed indefinitely. What I had at this critical moment of parting was my computer screen. It was all so unreal that even now, several months after that last class, I find it hard to grasp that I did, in fact, retire.

The pandemic has been an emergency situation and digital media at least kept us together and allowed contact that in former times would not have been possible except by letter. However, we have also learnt that online communication can increase accessibility, equity and flexibility and so when we organise physical events in future we need to consider who is excluded and use digital media to widen access.