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Zooming In During the Pandemic: Work Life Online
by
Posted On May 19, 2020
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, videoconferencing has grown perhaps faster than any other technology. It aids in news reporting, office calls, and reference services across the globe, and professionals are finding videoconferencing to be a critical link during this time of quarantines and stay-at-home orders. People are using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, RingCentral, Intermedia AnyMeeting, Cisco’s Webex, ClickMeeting, Microsoft’s Skype, and many others.

Videoconferencing isn’t new—but its recent growth has set new records. A 2019 survey from Wainhouse Research (registration required) found that “over 250 decision makers across 200 commercial enterprises revealed that the average respondent uses video or participates in a meeting with video in 45% of their total meetings.” The growth in the past few months is staggering. Zoom company officials announced a new milestone on April 22: It has more than 300 million daily Zoom meeting participants—up from just 10 million in December 2019. Remembering that the estimated U.S. total population is about 330 million, that’s an incredible achievement—and an unprecedented challenge for this relatively new startup.

AVATARS, VIRTUAL WORLDS, AND NOW, VIRTUAL WORK LIFE

Using computers for multiple tasks involving a wide range of people isn’t new. The term avatar was first used for the on-screen representation of users beginning in the late 1970s. With the rise of massive online games (MOGs), users could more easily and actively participate in their chosen activities by making independent movements within these environments and by being able to control their own roles throughout the games.

Second Life became a hit not only for gamers, but also for libraries. Some librarians created a presence on Second Life as a way to attract users to the service options libraries could provide as well as to connect like-minded librarians across the world. Academics began serious studies on the impact of technology on daily work life and people’s activities (imagined or real) as they interacted in complex online environments.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) offer “the ability to compete with players from all over the world in a variety of online-only game modes [which] overshadows the single player mode that many of these games were originally designed around.” Enabled by the enormous changes in technology and web functionality, these games have not only highly sophisticated design, but also huge market share.

So, why shouldn’t real work life exist in a more virtual setting? A study from Owl Labs, the 2019 State of Remote Work, finds that “34% of U.S. workers would take a pay cut of up to 5% in order to work remotely. And those who do work remotely say they’re happy in their jobs 29% more than on-site workers.” Today, however, we face the unprecedented challenge of working cooperatively only in an online space.

ZOOMING AHEAD

In 2011, Eric Yuan quit his job at Cisco, where he worked on the Webex team, to found Zoom. The system has been criticized for “security lapses and poor design choices” in past reviews. However, on April 1, Yuan officially apologized for the security issues, explaining that some existed because Zoom was initially designed for “large institutions with full IT support.” Yuan announced then that the company would be releasing transparency reports. On April 27, with the release of Zoom version 5.0, the security and privacy concerns were addressed in detail, with Yuan later noting, “I am fortunate to witness our company helping millions of people during an extremely difficult time. It has also been challenging for us, with opportunities for us to drive meaningful change and improvement.”

Recently, Zoom acquired Keybase, a secure messaging and file-sharing service, in order to “build end-to-end encryption that can reach current Zoom scalability,” which will certainly help with long-term acceptance in the business sector. Zoom has been easily adopted by many institutions, with many offering excellent guides for users, such as Baylor University, the University of Texas Medical Branch, Indiana University, Gonzaga University, the University of Arizona, and Guilford College. If you know of others, please feel free to mention them in the comments section at the end of this article.

Zoom’s astounding rise to prominence is certainly due to the fact that it is free, as well as easy to set up and use, and offers a sound base of features. Interestingly, it’s been reported that both Microsoft and Google had previously looked at Zoom in terms of its potential for acquisition but were unable to pursue a purchase—something both companies may be regretting now.

Despite access issues that are common to any new technology, Zoom and other systems have provided important support for physical distancing and limiting the spread of COVID-19 for institutions and individuals. As Yuan recently noted, “The strongest steel is forged in fire. Our team, our culture, our platform, and our company will be stronger and more equipped to deliver happiness to our customers because of this experience.” But what about the future beyond the pandemic? What permanent changes can we expect?

THE LONG-TERM VIEW

COVID-19 has naturally caused discussions about the future and raised urgent questions about the impact of pandemics, and their associated countermeasures, on the economy. Policymakers are in uncharted territory, despite the fact that other pandemics have occurred in the past. And professionals are dealing with new business realities and service practices that require developing new skills.

One example is ad agencies. According to AdAge (subscription required), one agency has decided to go back to more traditional pitches: “We decided early on not to do presentations but conversations. We’re not screen-sharing but just talking to [clients], and I think that’s really helped us.”

THE NEW NORMAL

As a recent Frank and Ernest comic notes, “Even though we’re having our business meetings with Zoom now, things move along at a snail’s pace just like before.” There is no magic bullet. In an environment in which it is predicted that, even after the COVID-19 crisis, most people expect they won’t be going back to the “old” normal, it will be interesting to watch as we all work out new ways to connect and share.


Nancy K. Herther, recently retired from the University of Minnesota, has been following technology and information trends since the 1970s.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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