Education

Zooming From the Office | Confessions of a Community College Dean

I knew something was different when I had to leave work early to get home in time for a Zoom meeting.

That happened last week a few times. I had 5:30 Zoom calls several nights in a row, and I live about a half hour from campus. So I left a little early in order to be able to be online in time to keep working into the evening.

Until 2020, that paragraph wouldn’t have made any sense. Yet, here we are.

I had to smile at this Washington Post piece about going to the office, only to spend the day on Zoom. The part about wearing pants isn’t quite right — I do that anyway — but I’ll admit often being shoeless when Zooming from home. No need for dress shoes in the house.

Oddly — and this comes up in the Post piece, too — the Wi-Fi is more reliable at home than in my office. I’ve had to run office Zoom calls on my phone’s hotspot a few times just to stop the video from freezing. (To be fair, that hasn’t happened in a couple of weeks.)

I’ve been in a few meetings when someone from an adjoining office — literally a shared wall — is in the same meeting. There’s a stereophonic effect that’s slightly disconcerting, since the audio lag is just long enough to be noticeable. But when everyone else in the meeting is at a greater distance, it’s the way to go.

There’s something uncanny about driving a half hour to an office only to spend much of the day on Zoom. It has some value, though, assuming that there are at least some gaps.

Zoom works really well for certain kinds of scheduled interactions, but it’s not great for serendipity. Spontaneous discussions matter. Last week I stumbled upon a couple of colleagues talking in an office that resulted in an exploratory conversation that actually led to some great ideas. I was literally walking past the office when I saw them in there, door open, chatting away; discussion ensued. That sort of serendipitous interaction is much less likely on Zoom. Hallway conversations and standing-in-the-door small talk are part of building rapport and community.

Some colleagues use the office as an escape from home. (Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote an entire book, The Time Bind, about that.) In those cases, even spending the entire day on the office computer at least allows an excuse to get out of the house. That’s not my situation, I’m happy to say, but I can’t argue with anyone who sees the relative quiet and calm of the office as a working respite. When the kids were younger, there were times that I was glad to have the relative quiet of the office.

Walking around campus during gaps in meetings is helpful, too, in getting a sense of the pulse of the campus. I’ve noticed, for instance, that even with more classes being offered virtually, the hallways are still busiest on Mondays and Tuesdays. Some things don’t change.

We’re still forming the etiquette around hybrid work arrangements. I hope that we don’t move too quickly to jettison them and forget everything we’ve learned over the last couple of years; there’s much to be gained from a bit of flexibility. We just haven’t quite found the right mix yet.

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