Clueless users and tricky surroundings
Online meetings from the home office
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way office workers work. One of the major changes for many of them has been that they are no longer office workers but home office workers. Instead of having daily in-person meetings, they were forced to have online meetings. Apart from, at least temporarily, changing the communication culture in a number of organisations, the sudden move from physical to virtual meeting brought about a number of unwanted side effects.
There are two factors contributing to the unwanted side effects of online meetings from the home office: user experience, or rather inexperience, and the different environment. In most cases, these two factors reinforce each other. If this sounds too abstract, let us have a look at a few examples for each factor.
Let me start with some personal experiences from recent online meetings of European research projects in the ICT domain. You would expect technology-savvy researchers from the ICT field, who have had hundreds of online meetings already before the coronavirus lockdown, to be proficient in the use of web-conferencing systems. While this may be true for the majority of them, there is at least one ignorant participant in every call who creates minor or major disruptions.
My experience in ICT project calls is that most participants switch off their webcams, unlike users in most other domains. While this certainly reduces already one channel for unwanted side effects, it still leaves audio. And that can be really disruptive. Like the participant in one of my online project meetings who received a call on his mobile phone. The reason I know this is that his microphone was not muted, and I heard every word he was saying – unfortunately I could not hear the official speaker in the meeting anymore, as his audio volume was a bit low. Appeals to the ignorant talker to close his mic were of no avail – he was fully absorbed in his other conversation, which seemed to be much more interesting than our online meeting. Remember that this is an example from a group of experienced users. It is getting more interesting, if you add inexperience. The following examples are second-hand, but I believe they are true.
Let us stick to the audio channel for this one. BBC News quotes Neil Henderson from Zurich Insurance, who had a call with a client, who was obviously in the bath, as he could hear splashing and the tap running. When the client realised that the microphone was on, the phone slipped into the bath. Then he (the client, not Mr Henderson) jumped out of the bath to get another phone, slid and fell.
If you think this little audio drama was exciting, remember that video offers many more creative opportunities for clueless users to entertain their less creative peers. One example I remember from a recent online project meeting was a participant, who seemed to be oblivious that the webcam was on. He stood up and came back with a sandwich, which he slowly ate in a disgusting manner. It does not sound so bad when you read it, but it was quite disturbing to watch.
Even more unsettling was a woman from the US, who did something really embarrassing in a video conference call – she accidentally left her camera on while going to the toilet, watched in disbelief by her stunned colleagues. How do I know about this? The video went viral on Twitter.
Let us now have a look at the other factor, the environment in the home office.
Already at the office you can have numerous audio-visual distractions that could affect your online meeting. However, even a noisy office environment is like the cave of a reclusive Zen monk in comparison to the audio-visual horrors that many home office environments generate. The worst I personally experienced was an inconsolably crying baby at the home office of a female participant who had not muted her mic.
On the visual side there are reports about life partners visibly passing by at the back of the room – completely naked! Even for those who enjoy the occasional diversion within the hours of looking at boring slides and faces, it may affect focus and productivity – not to speak of the embarrassment of the person in whose home the diversion happens. And while most humans in a household can be educated to display socially responsible behaviour when the webcam is on, there are also cats and dogs that have been reported to interfere with online meetings by making noises or jumping in front of the camera.
In conclusion, I see two paths for the evolution of online meetings at the home office. Scenario one: home office workers update their skills and design their surroundings and technical setup to get closer to an office environment. Scenario two: neither user behaviour nor home office surroundings significantly improve. Instead, the tolerance of online meeting participants will increase the more predictable disruptions like naked spouses and farting dogs become. Time will tell which scenario will dominate.