we need to talk about Zoom

This is a guest post from Mark Carrigan who works as postdoctoral research fellow in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. 

There’s a peculiar kind of exhaustion which comes from spending an afternoon staring at Zoom. I’m mentally drained but I would be if I’d spent a few hours in face to face meetings. My back hurts but it probably would have after a long meeting in an uncomfortable chair. I’ve got a vague headache but that’s probably from a few hours without hydration, as oddly I’m less likely to remember to bring water with me in my own house than I am when at work.

It’s hard to pin down why Zoom, which I’m using here to stand for video conferencing in general, is more tiring than meeting in person but I’m increasingly convinced it is. It combines all the familiar ailments which develop from meetings but with a unique piquancy that makes the ensuing suffering more than the sum of its parts. I’ve just finished another two hour Zoom meeting earlier which could have easily been reduced to an hour. If you were in this meeting with me, I hope you don’t take this as a complaint directed at you because it truly isn’t. But it is a plea that we urgently begin to talk about how we handle video conferencing as a routine part of life. Once the meeting was over I rushed outside into the sun with a sense of urgency I’ve rarely felt after face to face meetings, walking my way back into feeling ok again before deciding I needed to write this post.

These meetings have suddenly become routine features of our daily work as we adapt to the unnerving normality which is the twilight world of lockdown, once we’ve packed up our offices and forced ourselves into a routine of working from home. It’s strange therefore that I can’t recall being party to more than a few conversations about how these meetings differ from the ones we used to have in the olden days, if you can recall our former times when we met with coffee and snacks and bad sandwiches in the world beyond our living room.

The obvious shift in our behaviour would seem to warrant discussion about how we should approach this new way of interacting, what structures we should use and what we should expect from each other. Perhaps this lack of reflection is inevitable as we’ve all been struggling to make the transition into remote work, leaving us with little time or energy to reflect on how we’re doing this. I feel we urgently need to begin this conversation though, not least of all because I’m not sure how many more two hour Zoom meetings I can cope with.

Overly long meetings are at the top of my litany of private Zoom grievances. In part because I’m working at my kitchen table, sitting in a chair which leaves my back aching if I’m sedentary for more than half an hour. But there are many other issues which I can’t be alone in being increasingly bothered by. What about the unbearable cacophony of an unmoderated Zoom meeting with multiple people vying for attention? Or the uncertainty about the point at which glancing at your e-mail goes from being an unavoidable feature of the working day to being rude to the person you’re talking to? Or the fact it feels awkward to ask to simply do a voice call when everyone assumes video is the default?

Can we make clear to each other that it’s ok to get up and walk around during meetings? Or mute the microphone and video if a family interaction needs to take precedence? Perhaps we could come to an agreement about the appropriate etiquette for leaving a meeting early? I’m sure I can’t be the only person torn between not wanting to interrupt a conversation in full flow and feeling a chat message is insufficient explanation for a sudden departure. There’s also the question of how we plan meetings, with Zoom making it easier to hold spontaneous gatherings that might serve a useful purpose and help short circuit what could otherwise turn into an endless e-mail thread over many days. However when we’re struggling to find a rhythm in our work, particularly if our circumstances mean we can’t work without interruption, invitations to meet in the next few hours, if not now, are unlikely to be welcome. They can be difficult to refuse though, particularly if the person extending the invitation is in charge, in the multiple forms that can take within the relatively informal working environments of the academy.

It’s important we create the space in which we can talk about the issues we are all facing. I worry that if we don’t we will institutionalise Zoom, in other words establish ways of doing video conferencing, which will be hard to shift even if we all hate them. Whereas this moment of upheaval when we’re all having to think through how we approach the mundane reality of our work, at least makes it easier to have these conversations than it would otherwise be.

In part this is a matter of establishing mutual expectations, even an etiquette. But we could also see it as a broader challenge of creating practices which are inclusive and effective. For example Dyi Huijg, convenor of the Neurodiversity Reading Group, uses the ‘raise hands’ method and written chat to ensure that everyone feels comfortable contributing, asking participants to mute their microphones until the administrator unmutes them after raising their hand. My colleague Jana Bacevic uses a similar approach in the self-isolation reading group she is convening within our research cluster. Once you’ve participated in meetings which work like this, it can be difficult to go back to the cacophony of people talking over each other.

If we encounter what feels like a great way of managing the problems of Zoom, we should talk about why it works and if it works for everyone. We should share the difficulties we’re experiencing with Zoom becoming a regular part of our working life. Perhaps mostly importantly we should all do whatever we can to avoid inflicting two hour Zoom meetings on each other.


Photo by Tobias Seward on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, Mark Carrigan, meetings, online meeting and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to we need to talk about Zoom

  1. Kelli Dendle says:

    Here here Mark! There has been a move towards making face to face (F2F) meetings short and to the point in recent times, but somehow all the good work seems to have flown out the window now we’re online. As an occupational therapist I give you permission to build a break into every meeting at the half hour mark, with a maximum of 1 hour meetings. Being sedentary is the new smoking and we don’t want any more challenges to our health, do we? Flag at the beginning that you are going to break at 25 minutes for 5 minutes so people can get up, stretch and move around, duck to the bathroom or deal with that thing that’s been happening just off camera. Perhaps everyone could switch video off or cover their camera for that time. I’d encourage employers and institutions to develop a protocol (dull as that sounds) for the kind of meeting you describe with moderation, wholesale muting and respect for all parties. Perhaps we could also adopt standard ‘I need to go now’ phrase/s to cover all eventualities e.g. ‘I have to duck out but expect to be back in X minutes’, or ‘I have to leave now’. Hopefully if we have more people adopting good Zoom practice there will be more happy, healthy and productive folk working from home. Time for a short walk I think…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pauline McGonagle says:

    Thank you Mark for this article. I am married to someone who works for UK govt department which is highly secure. He regularly works two days from home as we live at some distance from HQ but now like me is working at home all the time. I shared this info with him. All these issues have been considered by them for some years now and their practice includes only pre-planned meetings with shared online diaries, camera off is the norm but the option of opening it when needed is there, sound off by the admin at first, discussion box separate to screen so chair knows when someone wants to speak and they get to do so. Breaks are included. He was very surprised that an organisation like CU have not got such things in place or considered the practicality of how this works. Many companies and organisations have been working like this for some time and have had to consider these issues for a range of reasons: diversity of their staff’s situations, health and safety, privacy and security online. In my own case, I am using Zoom for online Pilates class, for a book club and for a Sat evening quiz and all of those have various problems and I agree, in many ways are more exhausting than the main event would be- but none of them are ‘business’ events or formal meetings. My only ‘business’ PhD supervision meeting carried out on Zoom was fixed at 45 minutes. If we were to do this more regularly I would think carefully about embedding some of those issues raised. I think I will be getting my husband to advise me. It would be interesting to do a survey on how well various organisations are managing this, particularly those for whom it is entirely new.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Rebecca Johnson Bista says:

    Thanks for this post – it sounds as if you have been in some badly moderated zoom meetings! The meetings I have attended have in general been characterised more by awkward pauses while someone waits for the next person to raise their hand, or doesn’t know it is their turn until prompted by the moderator/meeting lead. Chat seems to be a fine way to leave a meeting early, the etiquette by default has to be more informal than it would be if you were actually physically disrupting a room by getting out of your chair to leave. I have even managed to attend some zoom meetings in my pyjamas (though with a jumper hastily thrown over the top!). What’s interesting is that people in zoom meetings are beginning to get an understanding of how much you miss out when most of your interaction is by remote video link – all the informal conversations. Luckily these are also taking place now by zoom or similar and those who work remotely for health or other reasons, like me, are suddenly much more included in the life of the research organisation. This is a good thing and once others have got to grips with the technology, would be great to be able to continue in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Our department has our regularly scheduled weekly faculty meeting by Zoom—it takes slightly longer online, but that may just be because there is more urgent business than usual. We also have our weekly research seminar by zoom—attendance has almost doubled, as people no longer need to trek across campus (or the 4-mile uphill bicycle ride from the research institute) to get to the seminar. Most department business still happens by e-mail (the recently set-up Slack channel is essentially unused)—but we’ve been dealing with being a small department scattered among 5–6 buildings for over a decade, so the switch to zoom has not required a major shift in how we work together.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mark says:

    Perhaps this could solve all our problems! https://loomai.com/zoom

    Thanks Rebecca, Maddy, Pauline and Kelly for your thoughtful comments. You’re helping me see what a sustainable Zoom etiquette might look like – now to hope it actually spreads….


  6. Excellent piece and indeed there should be frank conversations about etiquette, I tend to switch my video off blaming the quality of the my internet connection when in actual matter of fact I need to be able to listen in a less invasive way… you can never tell who is looking at who, the complicity you might have with someone in the room in a face to face meeting is totally flattened out in video conferencing and for me, that is part of what makes it exhausting and abusive.
    I love using it to conduct large staff meetings where information download, questioning and discussion is required but as suggested above the enforced communication there is through muted microphone, no video, but visuals to support and the chat to ask for clarifications and raise objections… that is actually still exhausting but it does reap better results than a face to face meeting would… not only do colleagues stay focused but they also ask questions and as an academic leader I get a better sense of where we are at.


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