Close Talkers (Video Conference Version)

I’d say that I have participated in more video conference calls over the past three weeks than in the rest of my extended work life, combined.  And, as I participate in the calls, I realize I’ve got a lot to figure out.  Other people do, too.

forehead man wrinkles before and afterRecently I was on a multi-party video call with one of those split screen set-ups.  One of the participants was positioned too close to his camera.  His oversized eyes and forehead, positioned in the upper left corner of my computer screen, loomed over the other talking heads like he was Gulliver among the Lilliputians.  It made me think that, if there was a Seinfeld about life during the coronavirus pandemic, one episode probably would be about close video conference talkers.  (And I expect that, in the COVID-19 Seinfeld world, Kramer would undoubtedly violate all social distancing requirements and still barge into Jerry’s apartment to eat his cereal.)

The gigantic forehead incident made me realize that I need to think carefully about my  video conference presence.  Am I too close to the little glowing dot at the top of my computer screen, or too far away?  Is your video conference head supposed to pretty much fill the screen, or is the proper dimension three-quarters of the screen, or one half?

And the position of the head is important, too — especially for the older guys like me.  If your head is tilted forward, you’re giving the unfortunate viewer a huge dose of your forehead, receding hairline, and thinning scalp.  If you lean back, on the other hand, you’re forcing the viewer to focus on the multiple chins and the vibrating neck wattles.  Either way, it’s not exactly a pretty picture.

There’s also the issue of what kind of attitude you’re projecting with your video position.  If you’re leaning in, you look earnest and engaged, but also perhaps hard of hearing.  If you lean back, your look “cooler,” but maybe uninterested.  And if you’re somebody who uses his hands to accentuate the point you are making, as I do, how can you be sure that the screen is capturing those carefully calibrated gestures?

It’s all pretty confusing for the novice video conferencer who doesn’t want to assume the Gulliver position in the upcoming conference calls.  It makes me think that the picture element adds a really significant dimension to the communication that requires you to give some careful thought to these issues before the calls start, and position yourself accordingly — and deliberately.

The Boys And Girls In The Bubbles

Ohio has been in shutdown mode for some time now – hey, can somebody remind me how long it’s been, exactly? — and I feel like we’ve adjusted pretty well.  Human beings are good at that; genetically, we’re hard-wired to assess new situations, figure them out, and come up with new strategies and approaches.  In only a few days, changed routines have been established, new daily patterns have become the norm, and what was once unusual has been accepted and incorporated into our lives with a kind of resigned, collective shrug.

aidan2bin2ba2bbubbleFaceTime and Zoom and Microsoft Teams and countless other video applications have gotten a workout.  What used to be simple, voice-only calls have morphed into video calls as a matter of course, not because video makes the calls more efficient, but because it’s incredibly nice to see other human faces from time to time, to get a smile or a laugh and hope that you’ve lifted someone’s day as they’ve lifted yours.  Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, we’ve had virtual coffees and virtual beers after work and virtual cocktail parties with friends and family and colleagues to keep that human touch and to know that everyone looks okay and seems to be hanging in there.   Seeing faces turns out to be pretty darned reassuring and uplifting, when you think about it.

When we go outside for walks, we maintain that assured clear distance of six feet to the extent we can, veering into the street or onto the grass at Schiller Park to respect that buffer zone.  Social distancing is a physical concept, though, and it doesn’t mean we can’t maintain non-physical social contact with the people we see, through a smile and nod and a cheerful greeting and a brief chat as we stand appropriately apart.  People seem to be more consciously outgoing, as they steer clear of each other.  Maybe it’s just the fact that everybody is at home all day long where they used to be at their offices for most of the day, but it sure seems like there are lot of people out on the street at any given time.  Perhaps that’s because it’s another way to get that human contact — even if it’s remote contact.  That’s another element of this new paradigm that seems to have been adopted and incorporated without too much trouble.

During this shutdown period, we’re all living a kind of virtual life, but of course it’s our real life.  We’re all like the boy in the bubble, living in our little zones.  It’s a fascinating social experiment, and I hope people will remember this instinctive need for contact with fellow humans when this isolation process ends, as it will.  I, for one, will never take walking into a friendly restaurant or bar for granted again.

Into Full Dispersion Mode

Kish has been in touch with our neighbors up in Stonington, Maine.  Stonington, as you may recall, is a tiny lobster village located at the far tip of Deer Isle, jutting out into the Penobscot Bay.  It is a remote location, to say the least.

img_8663In their communications, our neighbors have mentioned something interesting:  many of the seasonal property owners are coming up earlier than ever before to open up their Stonington residences.  Normally, only permanent residents would be in Maine during this time of year, in what the locals jokingly call the “mud season.”  Typically, the summer residents wouldn’t show up at their Deer Isle places until late May or the beginning of June, at the earliest — and yet, this year, here they are already, up from New York City and Boston and Washington, D.C.

Can you blame them?  The big East Coast cities are COVID-19 hot spots, where many of the U.S. cases of coronavirus have been identified and there are concerns about how the medical facilities will handle the caseload.  In contrast, one neighbor told Kish that there are no reported COVID-19 cases in Stonington, on Deer Isle, or indeed anywhere in the surrounding county.  (Of course, nobody up there has been tested, either.)  According to recent news reports, there have been 155 cases of coronavirus in all of Maine, with most of those clustered in Cumberland County, where Portland is located, which is about three hours away from Stonington by car.

I would imagine that the dispersion from NYC and Boston to places like Stonington is being seen throughout Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.  It’s mind-boggling to think of how difficult it must be for Manhattanites living on a densely populated island to achieve meaningful “social distancing” during this time.  If you’ve got to work remotely, and you’re fortunate enough to have the option of going to a faraway location where you aren’t cheek by jowl with other people as soon as you step out your front door, why not take “social distancing” to the max and head out to the remote, less populated areas and wait until the COVID-19 virus burns itself out?

Many of us wonder whether this coronavirus pandemic will result in lasting changes to American culture and society.  I think that one possible result is that more people will become interested in exploring, life outside the big cities, where there’s some elbow room to be had when the next epidemic hits.  They might just find that they like it.  And with the technological advances that allow people to work remotely, why not go into full dispersion mode?

Letting Your Resiliency Roar

If I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s that most people are pretty resilient and adaptable.  Bad things happen to us all, for sure, but generally people cheerfully bounce back — and, more importantly, they consciously find a way to bounce back.

1940s-two-women-office-workers-standing-by-office-water-news-photo-1580932806I thought about this yesterday when the B.A. Jersey Girl started a text message chain for those of us who are working together on a particular matter.  With the B.A.J.G. kicking things off, we all shared pictures of our home office set-ups to be used during this work from home period.  There was a wide variance in the home office work spaces shown in the photos, with some people rigging up impressively elaborate arrangements with multiple monitors and printers.  (My kitchen counter arrangement is decidedly at the spartan end of the spectrum, I might add.)  And we got a peek at some dogs and cats that were intrigued that their human friends were home at times that they usually weren’t, and apparently decided to just check things out.  It was funny and fun at the same time.

There’s a social element to work, whether it’s somebody ducking their head into your office to chat about the latest news or family developments, casual greetings in hallways. or friendly banter in the elevator or around the coffee station.  When you work from home, obviously, you’re not getting those in-person encounters — but people are resilient and will find a way to make up for that.  And with technology offering various alternatives, there are work arounds for just about everything.

My guess is that cell phone providers are seeing a real surge in text messaging, face timing, and phone calling to establish that element of human interaction during this period of social distancing.  For office colleagues, it’s a way to make up for lost time around the proverbial water cooler.

Blessed Be The Laptop Makers

For many of us, the primary impact of COVID-19 has been to move our place of work from an office building to home territory.  The coronavirus has really driven home the message that modern technology allows white collar workers to enjoy a flexibility that prior generations just didn’t have.

Think, for a minute, about the impact of the kind of closure measures that were imposed during the 1918-1919 “Spanish flu” pandemic, or what the effect of workplace closures being imposed now would have had even 30 years ago when computer networks were in their infancy.  The vast majority of people in those eras would have been thrown out of work because there was no option to work remotely.  But now, thanks to the invention and proliferation of laptops, wireless technology, cellphones, and the internet, a considerable chunk of the American work force can turn off the lights in their offices, remove their laptops from their docking stations, go home, turn on the lights in their kitchens, studies, or dining rooms, log in, enter a password or two, and get right back to work.  We’ve come to take this technology for granted, but it’s really pretty amazing when you stop and think about it.

When something as disruptive as the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 hits, you wonder whether it will have long-term impacts on work habits, social interaction, and other aspects of American culture.  Did the 1918-1919 flu — which was far more pervasive and impactful than the coronavirus, and which led to many closings in an effort to stop the spread of the infection — have such an effect?  I’m not aware of any fundamental social changes that occurred.  But I suspect that what we are doing now will simply spur a trend that was well underway before anyone heard of coronavirus:  working remotely, without being tied to an office building.

Of course, not everyone has the ability to work remotely, and we should all be thinking about what we can do to help those businesses and workers who have been most affected by the closures imposed by authorities.  Kish and I are going to be sure to get carry-out over the next few days, for example, to help support the restaurants and bars that have been shuttered and allow them to maintain some cash flow until things reopen down the road.   

But now, it’s back to work.

The Hip Headphone ‘Hood

My old iPhone headphones gave up the ghost this week.  Or, at least, one side of the headphones did.  First the sound out of the right earbud became intermittent and filled with static, and then it stopped producing any sound whatsoever.  That’s pretty annoying when you’re trying to listen to music in the morning and you can only hear one part of the total effort.  Mozart orchestral works just don’t sound the same with only left ear input.

I attempted the tried-and-true method of repairing a broken, self-contained electronic device:  banging it several times on a hard surface in hopes that something on the interior had become dislodged somehow and would be restored to its former working status with a few hard jolts.  (Plus, giving the broken electronic gizmo a few brisk knocks makes me feel better and exacts a kind of revenge against the device for breaking down in the first place.) Unfortunately, that method didn’t work — although it was enjoyable, admittedly — so the only option was to go out and buy new headphones.  

Surprisingly, the local cellphone store doesn’t sell earbuds that are connected to your phone by a wire anymore.  As a society, we’ve moved beyond that benighted technology!  The only options it offers are those little wireless ear fittings that look like shunts for a kid’s ear infection.  I’ve got to have my music in the morning, so there really was no choice but to buy them. 

I was a bit resistant to it, because I associate those wireless ear buds with consciously hip posers who strut around airports and other public places talking in  overly loud tones, and I don’t particularly want to be associated with that ilk.  This was an understandable reaction, but an odd one, because the ear bud cord could be a pain, such as when it gets  snagged on something like an unexpectedly leaping dog’s paw, and yanks the ear buds out of my ears.  At least I won’t have to worry about that any more.

No dog cord snags, in exchange for association with the consciously hip crowd.  Life has a way of presenting choices like that. 

Faucet Shock

Back in the ’70s, futurist Alvin Toffler coined the phrase “Future Shock” to refer to the mindset of many people in modern societies.  According to Toffler, “Future Shock” occurred when constant technological advancements and other changes in the world produced a peculiar psychological state in which individuals were overwhelmed by experiencing too much change in too short a time.

Me, I’ve just encountered “faucet shock.” 

That’s the baffled condition you experience when you go into a bathroom in a hotel where you’re attending meetings and the sink complex looks like the controls of a motorcycle, or maybe a video game, with nary a lever or handle or anything labeled with a C or an H in sight.  So, what do you do here?  Which gleaming device supplies water?  Do you grasp the wings sticking out of the central column and twist or turn?  Or just wave your hands around underneath the whole complex, hoping that there are photoelectric cells somewhere that will activate the water flow?

If you’re confronted with this bathroom set up, here’s what I learned after some embarrassing “faucet shock” trial and error.  First, you stick your hands under the little unit to get a dollop of soap foam, then insert your hands under the central column to activate the water flow — with no option to change the lukewarm temperature of the water, incidentally.  Then, after your hands are soaked, you place them under the wing pieces to have a Dyson unit blow-dry your hands. 

Or, if you feel silly doing that, as I did, you just grab a few paper towels, briskly dry your hands the old-fashioned way, and back away from the whole enterprise.