Zoom gone wrong: Cautionary tales from the remote workplace

Online meetings have brought about a whole new genre of virtual gaffs and faux pas—some funnier than others
01 September 2020
By SPIE
Zoom gone wrong

Over the past few months, as we attend virtual meetings, conferences, and even parties, we have all chuckled at stories of people forgetting they're in a public forum, or showing up to a meeting dressed only from the waist up, or—less funny—fending off trolls. We asked the photonics community to share their learning-curve experiences in this brave new online world.

If you're not speaking, mute your mic and be aware of your camera

Is your camera on? Should it be? Is your microphone muted? (Again: should it be?) Be aware of your surroundings: Is someone in your home practicing a musical instrument? If so, mute your microphone (or the budding musician). Is the wall of superhero action figures behind you going to distract from your presentation? Apply a virtual background. Is your partner, child, or pet within camera distance making faces? Consider moving to the linen closet—or some other space that affords a little privacy.

When Camilo Ruiz, an associate professor at Universidad de Salamanca was attending a webinar, a speaker was waiting for her turn to present and thought her camera was off. "We could all see her," says Ruiz. "We could see her pacing nervously, jumping, and mumbling her presentation. It was fun, but painful to watch."

Meriame Berboucha, a MRes student at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, has also experienced the forgotten microphone and camera—but she was the one who forgot: "Always, always, always check that you're on mute or your video isn't on when you don't want it to be," says Berboucha. "I was singing during the interlude while someone was setting up their presentation, and everyone heard me!"

Familiarize yourself with the platform before the meeting

Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, FaceTime, Google Duo, GoToMeeting, and every other video conferencing tool have their own unique set of tools and controls. Presenters and moderators should understand in advance how to interact with the audience.

For Haley Marks, a postdoctoral researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, this issue became painfully obvious as she attended a webinar on global/foreign patent filing. Throughout the meeting, several interesting conversations and questions came up in the chat box, yet when question time arrived, the speaker did not realize that only he could unmute the audience. Instead, he sat through a few seconds of very awkward silence as dozens of questions continued to be posted—and then logged off.

"I remember feeling so disappointed for everyone," says Marks. "For the audience with their unanswered questions, but for also the speaker who didn't see what a great conversation he had ignited. Luckily, he apparently noticed or was informed of this: a few days later he emailed answers to those of us with questions."

Expect the unexpected

Problems aren't always due to technical issues; sometimes the outside world simply doesn't cooperate. Tatjana Pladere, a researcher at the University of Latvia, was attending a Zoom meeting when lightning knocked out electricity on one side of the Daugava River—the side where Pladere lived. She used her cell phone to return to the meeting. "It was multitasking o'clock," says Pladere. "I was following the meeting, documenting it, thinking about a plan B, reading news, and trying to figure out when the electricity might return." Fortunately, power was restored just before her phone's battery gave out. After the meeting, the group shared their stories and laughed about the most active, problem-solving meeting they had ever experienced. "And," she adds, "because of the stress, I documented everything in a much more detailed way than I usually would have."

Weather isn't the only unpleasant surprise: several meeting platforms have experienced difficulties with security, including trolls who break into meetings uninvited, wreaking havoc. To celebrate the International Day of Light (IDL) on 16 May, Tatevik Chalyan, a postdoctoral researcher at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, helped set up an IDL 2020 celebration in Armenia. "We pulled together a Zoom workshop," says Chalyan. "Over 80 participants registered. The Armenian optics community is not that big, so 80 literally means almost everyone in the field."

One day before the meeting was to take place, the site was hacked. "Just imagine," says Chalyan. "A few hours before the meeting, I was thinking of changing the communication platform, which would create a total mess. I was very nervous!" Instead, Chalyan was advised to use the "waiting room" option which would allow the moderator to screen who was (and wasn't) allowed to enter.

Have fun with it

Not all surprises during online meetings are a bad thing, as Elizabeth Bernhardt, scientific and government sales manager at TOPTICA Photonics Inc., knows firsthand. "At a recent conference, we held a TOPTICA Tuesday party and sent attendees Grubhub credit so they could order food and drinks," says Bernhardt. "At one point, an attendee started making pancakes for her two little ones, and we could hear how excited they were for pancakes. We all started joking that we wanted pancakes. So afterward, TOPTICA sent pancake mix to everyone who had attended the party."

Just as with "normal" conferences and presentations, virtual events don't always go as planned. Many of us are still in the learning curve in the virtual world, though this situation may become the new normal. So, dance like the world is watching—because you might have left the camera on.

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