Zoom Doom, Teams Travails, And Webex Woes
Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely adore working from home. I’ve been agitating for telecommuting for years as it is a pure unadulterated win all round: no hours of precious life wasted in tedious commuting, no wearing of silly clothes, and no sitting in soulless cubes like some human version of a battery hen while managers wait for little egg-outputs.
We’ve had the technology for more than a decade and it’s a testimony to human incapacity for taking advantage of things that we needed a supposedly major viral threat to spur corporations into doing the blindingly obvious.
There is, however, a drawback.
No, I don’t mean the spurious idea that without physical contact there will be no “water cooler moments” when some totally random but magically serendipitous face-to-face encounter in which two people fight bitterly over the last paper cup turns out to be the inspiration for a whole new product range that will save the company. Because, let’s face it, any organization that thinks it depends on such unlikely occurrences deserves to vanish without trace as rapidly as possible. And can you imagine the quarterly analyst call?
Analyst: “So you guys just turned it a pretty disappointing set of results. What’s your strategy for improving the numbers?”
CFO: “We’re initiating a program where we send every employee to the nearest water-cooler forty times a day. We figure this will dramatically increase the chances of us having a company-saving water-cooler moment.”
Nor do I have any patience for people whose social and family lives are so barren that the office becomes their primary means of human contact. These folk need to get a life and they shouldn’t be relying on the rest of us to backstop their bleak and dreary existence.
Here’s the single problem with using modern technology for remote working: meetings.
When meetings take place in a physical location, people have to waddle from one place to the next in order to attend. This dissuades a lot of people. Furthermore, if some folks are on the other side of the globe while the rest are in a conference room, the incentive to join the meeting is significantly diminished. But when everyone is in the same electronic boat, there’s no limit to the number of people who suddenly discover an urgent need to participate in that all-important meeting about how many packets of paper-clips Department 01–3 should be allowed to order next year.
And so the number of attendees grows like a kid who can’t stop cramming corn-dogs down his throat, and with much the same final result.
The more people in a meeting, the greater the probability that the meeting will be dominated by one person: the person whose intellectual faculties ensure they are far, far behind everyone else.
There’s always “the slow kid” in any large meeting. This is the kid who took long years in Middle School to work out what the Periodic Table is all about, and so now when the rest of the High School senior class is discussing the Napoleonic Wars or vector transformation across a Reimann manifold, the slow kid keeps dragging the conversation back to Magnesium.
The slow kid turns into an adult who just can’t keep up with new concepts because it was so painfully difficult for him to grasp previous ones. He’s the auto manufacturer middle-manager who, when presented with a design for a Start button on the dashboard, keeps asking where the owner will insert their keys.
He’s the guy who, when shown the latest range of progressive contact lenses, keeps asking where the frames are and insists that they need to be a brown-red color.
There are always slow kids in any major corporation. Normally, pains are taken to ensure the slow kids aren’t invited to many meetings. When they do show up, there are various ways to minimize their negative impact, ranging from simply cutting them off to zapping them with a Taser.
OK, maybe not zapping them with a Taser. But we can dream, right?
The point is, in virtual meetings the slow kid is the grit in the cylinders that causes the engine to grind to a halt. The slow kid is oblivious to the harm he’s causing and thinks he’s the only one in the meeting who really understands the problem he’s identified. The slow kid is sure he adds value to the organization because he’s never been fired. He’s simply moved sideways every couple of years, which he imagines is because someone higher up wants him to get a broad set of experiences in preparation for… well, maybe his retirement.
But let’s not despair. If there’s one thing we can be sure about regarding the mentality of Silicon Valley it is this: there’s a technological solution for absolutely anything.
I am eagerly awaiting the day when our Zoom/Teams/Webex meetings all have a way to send the slow kid elsewhere, perhaps into a virtual meeting full of chatbots who will all feed back to him his idée fixe while the rest of us get on with the business of doing real work.
Until then, however, beware the slow kid.