Op/Ed

Jessie Raymond: Virtual meetings, real struggles

If you, like me, have been working from home since last March, you may be all too familiar with the online meeting platform Zoom.
If you haven’t used Zoom, you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s just like being in a meeting in real life, except instead of sitting at a table, the participants are looking at one another on screen in little boxes, like the opening of “The Brady Bunch” but without the catchy music.
It’s not perfect. Glitchy internet can make you “freeze.” Eye contact is elusive. And a millisecond delay throws off the cadence of normal conversation.
If you blurt out an absolutely hysterical one-liner (which I do all the time, believe me), no one hears it; someone always talks over it before anyone gets a chance to guffaw (which they would, believe me).
Studies show, in fact, that 35% of all Zoom meetings contain the following dialogue when two people, mistaking the delay for a pause, inevitably speak at once:
“And then we — I’m sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry, go ahead.”
“No, you go.”
“OK, well what I — ”
“So anyway —”
“I’m sorry, go ahead.”
After almost a year of working from home, most Zoom users are sick of the virtual interface. But remember: Videoconferencing is the science we’ve always dreamed of. It was a thing on “The Jetsons” nearly 60 years ago, and at the time it seemed just as futuristic as those flying cars. We are currently living in an age of wonder, and all we can do is whine or write humor columns about it.
You should always “put on a good face” for Zoom meetings, and Jane Jetson literally did. If someone called her just as she was getting out of bed, she could choose from a variety of fully awake “Jane” masks to pop on.
Zoom has something even better. Last year, I found a toggle switch called “enhance.” Flipping it on softened your features just a touch, as if you had put on foundation — a thing some women apparently do in real life.
But I checked my settings a few days ago, and the toggle switch has been replaced with a slider. Nudge it a bit to the right, and your complexion evens out. Nudge it a bit farther, and all your worry lines disappear. I buried that slider, and now when I show up for Zoom meetings, I look like I’m standing behind a steamed-up shower door.
I love it.
Zoom has an advantage over in-person meetings in that your coworkers can only see you from the shoulders up. So you can — hypothetically — wear sweatpants and fuzzy slippers to your meetings every day, regardless of how put-together your top half looks.
On the other hand, by giving your coworkers a window into your home environment, the veneer of professionalism can crack. While you can limit the view to the space directly behind you, you can’t, for example, prevent FedEx from placing a package on your porch, an act that may cause your dog to react with a ferocity more suited to a coordinated home invasion by a team of rabid squirrels.
I’ve even heard of one person’s Zoom meeting being interrupted, if you can believe it, by a line of cars honking outside, letting her know that her free-range pet turkeys were blocking traffic. (A bit improbable, if you ask me.)
While I do find virtual meetings weirdly draining, for me Zoom is one of the few connections I have to the outside world these days. And it’s starting to show.
In my twice-weekly forays into town, I’ve become more awkward. I don’t recognize people behind their masks, and anyone I smile at scurries away. I think it’s because, since they can’t see my mouth, I try to smile extra hard with my eyes. My “kindly friend” look comes across as “homicidal maniac.”
To be fair, other than my eyes, my main identifying feature is my hair, which is a lot whiter than it was a year ago. So really, “Yikes, a crazy old lady is leering at me!” is a reasonable response.
Eventually, I assume, the pandemic will be behind us. And I’ll get to relearn how to behave in public as opposed to in Zoom meetings.
I look forward to someday sitting at an actual conference table, having face-to-face discussions with my coworkers. That said, I’m gonna miss my (hypothetical, of course) sweatpants and fuzzy slippers.

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