OT: Virtual meetings suck. We might need to do business this way right now but the computer app-driven meetings uniformly suck. And the coffee is bad too...

Face of photographer getting ready for video conference,

There we are on a call with our client here in Austin, a couple of his co-workers linking in from NYC and a few more from Seattle. We're talking about an upcoming project that started life as a really simple series of still lifes and proceeds, even now, to grow in scope and complexity by leaps and bounds. 

It all starts innocently enough. You've had a phone meeting with an art buyer and you've gotten a shot list and sent along a successful bid. You've nailed down the shooting days on the calendar. You've done this a thousand times and you're going through your own check list to make sure you can deliver everything you said you would. Then you get the e-mail from your direct client asking/inviting/insisting that you need to be on a call with "a handful of people" just to make sure everyone is "on the same page..." but they never are.

You've mastered FaceTime, and Zoom, and a few other virtual meeting software applications but the client tosses you a new one that requires: 1. You download and install an app that demands, almost at gunpoint, that you agree to a Tolstoy-length T.O.S. You are compelled to give over control of your computer's microphone and camera. And they would very much like to use your GPS info to "locate" you. And the company that makes the app is sinister and almost universally disliked...

All that stuff gets tossed into your machine and then, about ten minutes before the "call?" you try out the link your person sent along. Oh Lordy! It goes to a 403 screen and shoves you into a downward spiral of asking you to....download and install the program-again and again. You do this a couple of times before you pick up an actual phone and verify the link. But you get voicemail so you punt to texting. And two minutes before the meeting goes live your person responds, apologizing for sending a damaged link and now providing one that looks nothing like the old one. 

Person number three in Seattle can't figure out how to get their microphone to work for a while but it's obvious that this disfunction is not obvious --- to them. Someone finally texts them and, after a minute or two of frenzied activity their audio gets fixed. When they finally come onto the call with full service interactivity you find that they are the modern equivalent of that art director you experienced a while back when shooting for an arduous annual report. There was a model in the A.R. who reflected the "lifestyle" of their product. At the planning meeting some time was spent discussing wardrobe and it was decided that the blue, broadcloth, button down shirt was the best option. But when the shoot got closer you got a request to have available, and to shoot, with a pink shirt, a blue shirt, a white shirt, a striped shirt and...."just for fun" a forest green, polo shirt.  When we multiplied the choices by the number of people in the shots we found that there could be 24,969 possible combinations. And I'm betting the art director would have doggedly tried them all; if not for the timely intervention of a wiser client!

I guess when meetings become virtual and all engagement comes from a screen it seems like a video game and encourages people to ask for the moon. 

The call continues and I try to keep track of everyone in tiny windows along the bottom of the screen. 

All the people involved in the call are in the marketing and advertising field and yet their screens represent the worst "production values" I have see yet on a multi-player call. One person is sitting with his back to a window effectively silhouetting him entirely. Another person seems to have achieved sharp focus on the bulletin board in the background of her office but is so out of focus that we're not sure where her eyes end and her nostrils start. Or whether she has hair or is wearing a sickly hued yellow bowl, turned upside down, on her head. And yet another person seems to be making his appearance via a 1992 laptop which is currently delivering about 192 pixels (total) of resolution. 

Even though we've all received the same briefing package, delivered as a .PDF days ago, we engage in the strange ritual of reading along through the entire document together. With that done the person who originally had audio issues begins the part of the call that every freelance image maker should dread. It starts with...."So, we need three different views of the new router and I see that we've included that on the brief but I'd like to show some of the accessories too. Could we do each angle with and without the charger, with and without the accessory antenna, with and without the packaging it comes in? Would that be okay? I mean, as long as we're there.... And then finally a group shot for each product showing the antenna, the power supply and the packaging altogether?"

Since we're going to be dropping the product out to white and compositing in new screens the bulk of the real work isn't necessarily the extra time spent photographing it's the extra time in post production, that the client doesn't see, that frightens me. But it's also the fact that all the permutations will effectively double the time we've estimated and should, at least, double the budget that's been approved so far. 

The art buyer and I talk them off the ledge and explain how much the budget will need to expand and wonder if she will approve it out of her budget. She relents. But she chews her gum more quickly...

By the end of most of these calls I'm confused, bored, frustrated and wracked with new anxiety. Half an hour later I'm ready to call my direct contact and surrender the field entirely. But instead I just demand a complete dictionary of his particular company's incessantly used acronyms and gird myself for the big event. 

And each time I hit the button to hang up, whether it's from a chatty social Zoom call with fellow swimmers or an hour long video slugfest with an ad agency, I end up swearing that I'll never participate in a "virtual meeting" again. Ever. 

And then I get the e-mail with the iCal icon that asks me/invites me to join in. Seems like one of those horrible new added steps in life. Reminds me of the early days of Power Point.... (shudders at the memory....).
face of photographer after eight way video conference.

If you've already retired from the workplace I'm sure you'll respond with how great Zoom calls are because now you can keep up with grand kids and old friends. And if that was the only use I'd praise it too. But like most things/inventions pressing them into the flow of business is just painful.

Another way to do meetings....which were already mostly a waste of time.


David said...

I was in the computer support department of a company when we started rolling out virtual meeting software back in the early 2000s. The software, the procedures, and the meetings were awful, as you say. I would have hoped that twenty years later things would have improved. I guess not. And you have to supply you own snacks. Bummer!

typingtalker said...

In the notification for an upcoming "virtual visit" the organizer suggested using a phone rather than a computer or other hardware for the call. Presumably this was because most of the communications software on people's phones "just works" while computer stuff often doesn't work without some time consuming tweaking or fiddling.

But phone screens are so tiny!

Frank Grygier said...

Zoom fatigue is real. Part of the post-covid apocalypse. Use poor lighting. Silhouette against the window and sleep during the meeting. Also, claim you having audio issues in the chat window.

Anonymous said...

A club I belong to decided to have meetings on Zoom. 50% of the time, Zoom hung my computer, requring a hardware reboot. It also reset video and audio settings, making my transmitted image horrible.

Pro democracy advocates planned a memorial meeting on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square on June 4, 2020, held over Zoom, for victims of the Chinese government crackdown there. The Chinese government asked Zoom to block several Chinese living in the US from attending that Zoom meeting. Zoom complied, blocking people living in the US from exercising free speech.


Zoom has now been premanently banished from my computer.


crsantin said...

Online meetings are awful. I'm Zoomed out. School starts up in September and I'm already dreading the Zoom staff meeting. 100 people who have no interest in being there. What a complete waste of time. The in-person monthly staff meeting was awful enough. Zoom takes it to a whole other level of cruelty.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

It's so rare a photographer really needs to sit through one of these dreadful tortures. Just send the brief and a comp and we'll take it from there. To waste time as people "Hmmm" and "ummm" and fidget is so annoying...

TMJ said...

Compared to Microsoft Teams, Zoom is absolutely wonderful.

Robert Roaldi said...

On my last job, we had weekly Skype audio-only meetings because our department had several members who lived and worked in other parts of the country. The head office computer projected the Skype window onto a screen, and each participant was represented by an icon with their name on it. The people at head office found themselves speaking to the projected screen instead of at the microphone in the middle of our boardroom table. Every now and then I'd point that out and everyone would laugh but eventually people would turn back to the screen.

People from away complained about the sound quality from head office so one day I found the microphone manual and switched the mic to "surround" instead of "cardioid". That improved things a bit.

Jason Hindle said...

I can imagine the US is particularly bad, with lots of competing tech and long established tech because you’re all so used to working remotely and dealing with remote workers. Here in the chocolate producing counties we seem to have settled on Teams and Zoom. Teams is good... I can invite a customer in West Africa to a Teams meeting and they can just join via a web page. Zoom not so good - requires the other end downloads “an app”.

Still, I’m not digging our strange new world. Can we get our strange old world back? Nothing beats face to face for getting things done!

George said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

So what is you lighting setup for the video call?

Craig said...

Thanks for posting this along with your artistic renderings of the frustrated photographer.

I've been putting up with this insanity for weekly product meetings with our software engineers in Poland bi-monthly for three years, but since March EVERYTHING has to occur via Teams or WebEx, and your post reminds me why I'm having a video conference with my boss Thursday morning to give notice and retire.

It's awfully scary after 48 years of working, but this reminds me that it'll be worth the little bit of financial uncertainty.


Craig - Minneapolis