Zoom meetings work but where's the warmth?


We were always ready for such video calls. But we never thought that a part of our lives would move to this virtual world in such an inimitable way

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Tue 30 Jun 2020, 9:46 AM

Last updated: Tue 30 Jun 2020, 2:34 PM

When Covid-19 crashed your birthday party, your friends knew exactly what to do. You blew your birthday candles in the presence of friends who cheered you on from a video conferencing app. The friend from London was strumming the guitar, another from Abu Dhabi was playing the harmonica, and yet another in Vienna was crooning a birthday song written just for you. The slightly off-key singing by a cohort of collegemates in grid view made your day special.
Our special moments are still captured digitally - except now they look like a virtual chessboard on a 6-inch screen, where the chess pieces are your cousins, who decide to catch-up. What starts as a WhatsApp chitchat ends up on Zoom, Google, or Skype. The most tech savvy cousin who usually happens to be the youngest, sends everyone an invite.
Because Zoom got an early start and picked up a substantial chunk of users when the lockdown began, video conferencing has come to be called Zoom in common pandemic parlance. Those who add a colloquial touch, call it 'joom'. But it all means the same. It gives us a sense of being connected to a world where travel is suspended.
Now Big Tech has joined the video conferencing jamboree, offering cool features like a custom background. It doesn't have to be your erudite bookshelf. Every company offering a digital platform wants a piece of the video conferencing pie. Some bigwigs have always been offering video conferencing solutions to organizations. Their solutions were targeted at a distributed workforce that still came to office but worked in different time zones.
The telepresence solutions already offered more than a decade ago provided a highly sophisticated video conferencing experience in a room that was especially crafted for high-quality audio and video. Even the furniture was set up by experts. Tele-presence was designed to provide an immersive experience. I have moderated sessions in which we actually forget for a while that the participants across the table were not in the same room. But that was before smartphones with powerful cameras and apps were ubiquitous. Video conferencing descended from its rarified club. It became democratized as smartphones became the de facto device for such impromptu sessions.
We were always ready for such video calls. We were using it for work and socializing. But we never thought that a part of our lives would move to this virtual world in such an inimitable way. Now we are meeting clients and even appearing in court cases via video conferencing. Covid-19 hospital wards have installed tablets to connect anxious relatives with patients. Parliament sessions are being considered on video conferencing. Hiring, firing, weddings, divorces, interviews, film and music releases, literary festivals - you name it, it's all happening on video calls. They are cost effective and efficient. Court cases can progress more efficiently because only those related to the case are part of the video conferencing session.
Yet such sessions are fraught with the inherent challenges of glass and pixel. Employees are feeling inordinately tired after a workday. It's called 'Zoom fatigue', which is caused by constantly gazing at the camera. In a face-to-face meeting, you would have glanced around the room, looked intently at the speaker, at your notes or the white board, and stolen a glance at your WhatsApp messages. The peripheral vision helped you relax through long arduous meetings. Now you are having a staring match with your 15-inch screen. It is hard to take your eyes off the screen because you can see yourself. So, you are constantly perked up like a caffeinated hawk.
The persuasiveness and warmth of the physical meeting is missing. Children are yearning to go back to school as the sheen is wearing off e-learning. As teachers and students are growing weary, tech savvy students are playing pranks on their teachers by collectively switching to a 'reconnecting' screen. People are renting farm animals to make a surprise appearance on video calls.
As we learn to make peace with this digital transformation, some occasions may continue on video conferencing and never go back to the real world. This is the staggering truth about the impact of the pandemic on our lives.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies.

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