By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter
Are you done with Zooming yet? Zoom for business, Zoom with family, Zoom with friends. Does a day go by when you don’t have a Zoom meeting or two or three or, good grief, an all day conference? The COVID-19 pandemic has made Zoom the go-to platform for how we connect with just about anyone. The October 2020 Gartner report on meeting technology identifies Zoom as one of the top three companies in its “Magic Quadrant” of communication vendors. Zoom, founded in 2011, reported over 300 million daily users in April of this year. Can we live without it? Can we live with it?
Living with it depends a lot on the nature of the Zoom event itself. There are interactive Zoom meetings, Zoom lectures, Zoom exercise routines, Zoom cooking demos, Zoom doctor’s appointments. There are as many formats as subjects: the completely interactive version where everyone sees everyone and everyone can speak; the straight lecture where you register to get a link but can’t communicate or see the rest of the visitors; the partial interaction where the moderator can open up the microphones to let individuals ask questions; the webinar that incorporates video and breakout rooms.
It’s clear that avoiding it may be impossible, but the Zoom experience can be better for both hosts and users with a little thought and a few creative approaches to adopting it, as many Chicago institutions and individuals are discovering. For John Russick, Senior Vice President of the Chicago History Museum, Zoom has been invaluable in maintaining staff cohesion during the pandemic.
John Russick, Chicago History Museum
“We use Zoom as the group connector,” John reports. “With so many of us not going into the museum very often any more, it’s hard. So much of our work is collaborative; Zoom became the surrogate…eye contact, private chats, seeing each other, asking a friend ‘How’s it going’….it helps substitute for good will and community building within an organization team. It’s indispensible.”
Of critical benefit to the Museum is the ability to collaborate on a project. Russick observed, “With Zoom, the screen sharing function is a powerful tool. Normally we’d all look at the floor plan for a new exhibit, for example. Now the designer is uploading it… We’ve hijacked your screen. Those images can be animated, color-coded, audio, video; they become provocative tools to galvanize the meeting. You have focus and the opportunity to use your media as a tool to organize the conversation…In general, it’s the go-to platform.”
Maria Doughty, the new president and CEO of The Chicago Network, an organization of Chicago’s leading female executives, reports that Zoom was a game changer when she joined the Network in the middle of the pandemic. “My 90-day plan had to change significantly from accepting to starting the job. How were we going to stay in touch? Zoom made it so simple,” Doughty noted. She had met few Network members before she started and found the Zoom naming technology very helpful in connecting names and faces. She also liked the ability for members to see each other’s homes and home offices. “Calls are so impersonal. Zoom allowed people to be their authentic selves. People could see people’s environments…cats, dogs, children; it made people more reachable, more genuine,” she said.
Chicago Network Committee Meeting
One of The Chicago Network’s most recent Zoom programs was dubbed “a delicious event” featuring three members who are top restaurateurs in the area: Sarah Stegner of the Prairie Grass Café, Rohini Dey of Vermillion, and Carrie Nahabedian of Brandille. Not only could members see and talk to these experts about the food industry and challenges from COVID via Zoom, but while they watched, they could also enjoy a dinner specially prepared by the trio for pick-up ahead of time.
The ability to pivot quickly from in-person to Zoom meetings enabled Jill Misra, president of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits (ACN), to shift board meetings seamlessly from downtown lunches to online. Working closely with Executive Director Tricia Fusilero, Misra likes the ability to record the sessions. “It’s now better than in-person meetings with some calling in by phone…I can now see everyone… It’s easier to distribute content, despite issues of facilitating, security and who can host meetings.” She does, however, miss the informal side conversations and ability to meet someone after the meeting for coffee.
ACN Program Committee Meeting
For ACN members who live in the suburbs and out-of-state, Zoom meetings mean they can participate more fully and more easily. Documents can be shared on the screen, focusing on the specific issue being discussed. Fusilero’s own workload has shifted from arranging for nametags and refreshments to uploading and editing materials, adding meetings to the website, and sending out schedules. She notes that collaborating with other organizations using the Zoom webinar format, as with Forefront for “Ask the Expert” programs, works smoothly and enables more frequent programs.
The ability of Zoom to draw participants from anywhere has given colleges and universities a significant new way to connect alumni. The University of Virginia local alumni clubs have sponsored faculty lectures on such topics as the restoration of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia and shared them nationally.
Wellesley College’s Class of 1966 has tapped the achievements of selected classmates to create so-called mini-reunions on a regular basis. 60 to 100 or more classmates from across the country gather to hear authors and experts talk about such topics as the current cases before the Supreme Court; one’s career as an award-winning poet, and the writing of the biography of Wellesley graduate Katherine Lee Bates (author of “American the Beautiful”). One alumna wrote in the Zoom chat: “These mini-reunions have been life changing for me.”
Wellesley College screen 1 of 3 for 75 classmates watching lecture on exercise and health
The multi-day conference experience demonstrates the flexibility of Zoom. In mid-October, the Cook County Food Summit organized by the Chicago Food Policy Action Council used a variety of media to connect farmers, food distributors, academics, policymakers and interested citizens for presentations on food deserts, equity issues for Black and brown urban farmers, and the Good Food Purchasing Program adopted by Cook County in 2017. The two-day event published a schedule from which one could select sessions to attend; software generated a personalized schedule that with a click would connect an attendee to the desired Zoom session. Sessions combined music, video, live speakers, and participant interaction for a visually rich and informative status report on Cook County’s effort to support local farming.
Zoom is increasingly being used for the most personal, private events. Chicagoans Sally and Vince Anderson were feted on their 50th wedding anniversary by their children and grandchildren, featuring a Kahoot trivia quiz using questions about their 50 years of marriage.
Vince and Sally Anderson
Brides find their wedding dresses on virtual Zoom fashion shows like the New York Bridal Fashion Week in early October and then invite guests from across the country for “non-destination” ceremonies. Zoom baby showers link old friends and feature silly games for attendees like guessing which parent will handle which baby duties.
The end of life is also celebrated on Zoom, like the event recently held to honor the late banker, scholar and philanthropist John Bross. Artfully produced with opening photographs, music and readings by family members, the celebration was thoughtfully led by John’s son Jonathan. Over 300 friends and relatives offered remembrances, some submitted in advance and read by family members; others were offered live. There was no end time so everyone who wished to contribute was able to do so. In closing, a touching coda incorporated a video of John reading a favorite poem and finally photos of John’s multi-generational family groups. It was a superb example of how Zoom could be the vehicle for a meaningful and memorable afternoon, frankly in many ways more powerful than a traditional funeral.
Reactions by participants in Zoom are as varied as the ways one can use the platform. Universally, some challenges persist: uneven Internet connections that drop signals, new users still learning to activate audio or video, insecure sessions that outsiders can crash. Despite these problems, however, users find that Zoom is worth the effort, particularly when geography prohibits meeting in person. For a Chicago-based member of the board of an island marina in Washington state, Zoom allows him to join fellow board members from Arizona, California, and Washington.
Blakely Island Marina board meeting
Increased attendance is reported by many organizations even in Chicago. Participants save time and money by not needing to drive and park for local events. Last-minute decisions to join or leave are always possible. Still, event leaders miss the personal contact and observe that it’s hard to read body language over Zoom. Side conversations and reading the room are more difficult.
Many professionals have been using Zoom since 2014, long before the pandemic boosted its use so dramatically. Martha Teeter, a former chemistry professor at Boston College, reported that she ran a professional scientific society, many interest groups, and committee meetings on Zoom. Further experience using Zoom as board chair of a nonprofit, a member of a song circle, and a participant in many fitness classes has made three sessions a day not uncommon for her. It should be no surprise that when she married this past September 75 guests joined the ceremony on Zoom from across the globe, including the US, Canada, France, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Hong Kong.
For older people, Zoom has been particularly significant. San Francisco attorney Barbara Creed wrote that when COVID shut down activities in her retirement community, she undertook to teach her fellow residents how to use Zoom and was able to get all committees active again online, reviving a depressed community. Another retiree Aida Price Merriweather expressed her pleasure at participating in a Zoom pilgrimage to Chartres Cathedral in France, “I live alone except for a cat with no family close by. I am continually surprised at how delighted I am just to see people’s faces.”
Wheaton resident Liz Quigg sums up what Zoom is now for many of us: “Zoom has been central to our life during the pandemic. My husband uses it to conduct his professional life, watching and giving presentations and meeting with collaborators and colleagues. I regularly connect with old friends and classmates, some I haven’t seen for years, some on different continents. I use it to meet with book groups and my League of Women Voters board and committee members…” and her list goes on as it does for many of us.
Liz Quigg, far left, with League of Women Voters colleagues
Nevertheless, Zoom fatigue is real, and some report that Zoom concerts and lectures are losing their appeal. But we have little choice for the moment if we want to connect for business or pleasure. And many believe Zoom will be with us in one form or another after the pandemic.
John Russick observes, “I don’t think we’re going back. Smart organizations will be thinking about how this changes the workplace and the workforce… It would be a mistake to go back completely; the nature of the work and the audience is changing… Changes are to come; we just don’t know what they are.”
So it would seem that we really cannot live without Zoom. And therefore, I do need to offer a few final words of advice for you, the user, to be more effective on Zoom:
- Take time to learn how to use Zoom views, chat, mute, and other features.
- Don’t sit in front of a window! You’ll be a dark outline.
- Arrange soft front lighting in front of your computer so your face is visible.
- Position your computer so the camera is at eye level. No one cares to see your ceiling fan.
- Dress appropriately for meeting in public. Wet hair straight from the shower is not okay.
- Look at yourself on camera to make sure no plant is growing out of your head, the bathroom door is closed, and your head is centered on the screen.
- Be thoughtful about virtual backgrounds. The waving palm trees can be confusing if you ask a question about snow removal during a condo meeting.
- Remember that if you stand up, what you’re wearing or not wearing below your waist will show.
Which reminds me, I was actually told a Zoom joke:
Question: What is a zoom Halloween costume?
Answer: One-quarter of a regular Halloween costume.