December 26, 2020

Online Meetings: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly 


Dear PERF members, 

It’s the morning after Christmas, and I’m thinking that the people who read this column might need a break from the endless problems of the pandemic and everything that’s happening in policing.  So today I’m going to talk about a few less consequential things. I hope this makes you smile and maybe laugh – although my wife often reminds me that I’m not as funny as I think. 

But I digress.  Navigating through this pandemic has been challenging on so many fronts, but honestly  technology has changed how we communicate and do business. And some of these changes have been what I would call the good, bad and ugly.

The good:    We’ve all learned how to use Zoom, Facetime, Microsoft Teams, and other platforms for communicating remotely.  And it’s not just for work. I haven’t been to a high school or college reunion in years, but lately I’ve heard from a bunch of old friends, and they use these video calls!  We all get to see each other (and try to figure out who looks the worst!).

There are also those chaotic family zoom calls. They can get totally out of control. And because I have a bit of experience with unruly groups of police chiefs, my family asked me to moderate our calls.  And strangely I feel this urge to roll up my sleeves as I start these calls….

Overall, this is good. We’re communicating in a way that make us feel like we are together, sort of. I think a lot of us will continue doing FaceTime calls with our relatives, long after COVID is over.

Video calls also can be fun because you get a glimpse into people’s homes -- and their lives.  Often, someone is making a presentation on a call, and their young child comes into the room and asks for help with their homework.  You get a real-time view of what multi-tasking is for parents these days. They’re doing their own jobs and also serving as schoolteachers.

And there’s the weird things that just happen, like a cat crossing over the desk while a person is talking, or the dog that won’t stop barking in the background.

On one PERF call, we had a chief who shall remain anonymous who laughingly showed us that she was wearing her full uniform on top, but was wearing shorts on the bottom.

Now, the bad.  Video call technology is glitchy and tricky to use!  How is it that we’ve all done hundreds of Zoom calls over the last 10 months, and we all still forget to unmute ourselves sometimes when we start talking?

Or we talk over each other, and then say, “Sorry, go ahead.” “No, you go ahead.” And then you both go ahead, and start talking over each other again.

And can we talk about the anxiety of using technology?  It’s too complicated. Sometimes I’m on Zoom, other times I’m on Teams. Sometimes I’m on my laptop, other times my iPad or my phone. The microphone doesn’t work as well on my laptop, but the camera isn’t so good on my iPad.  And every platform has 20 little buttons you can press, and they’re never the same.

So you start talking, and people say something like, “You’re all pixelated!”  You start pressing buttons and hope you hit the right one, knowing that the young people on the call are probably rolling their eyes at you! 

Or worse, you spend several minutes talking, and finally you stop, wait for a response, and discover you lost your internet connection who knows how long ago, and you’ve been talking to yourself.

Don’t forget the ugly:  So here is the problem. On these videos you are constantly looking at yourself. Take me for example. Do I really need to be reminded that I am bald? I know I am bald but seeing myself on the video can be startling over and over again throughout the day!  

I read an article in the Washington Post that mentioned that plastic surgeons’ caseloads have skyrocketed during the pandemic. The conjecture is that people don’t like the way they look on these calls. In fact, what happens on some calls is people decide they don’t want the camera on, and turn off the video. And when you ask them to turn it on, they say, “I am not camera-ready!”

We had a zoom meeting with a bunch of cops and everyone decided to turn off their cameras, and I am thinking, “What is the purpose of a zoom call if no one can see each other?”   And then there are some who actually turn their camera on while they are driving, and that would be unsafe at any speed! Granted the technology and cameras do a number on all of us, as we can be seen to freeze or the internet connection doesn’t work, and isn’t perfect, but it is better than talking into thin air.

One more thing to remember.  As you do Zoom or Teams calls, don’t forget what your background looks like – especially if you do news media calls from your home or your office. 

There’s a Twitter account called “Room Rater,” which evaluates people being interviewed remotely on TV news programs, and rates their background on a scale of 1 to 10.

For example, PERF’s good friend Chuck Rosenberg, former U.S. Attorney, head of DEA, and top official at the FBI, got a 9 out of 10 for his well-lit, nicely organized home office:

Volusia County Sheriff (and PERF Board Member) Mike Chitwood had to do interviews from home during a period of self-quarantining.  Can you tell that Mike is an avid cyclist?  Two clues: an antique bicycle hung on his wall like art, and his fluorescent biking shirt.

So last week when I sent out the memo on the annual meeting in San Francisco in June, I started to visualize walking into a crowded ballroom and quietly taking off my jacket, rolling up my sleeves,  and smiling and saying, “Thank God we are back. Finally. Face to face.”