Columns

Gimme Shelter: Locked up

Am I the only one who thinks Zoom meetings are like visiting day at Sing Sing?

There, in front of you, is a person whom you know and who has come to see you. But their voice is slightly strange. There’s a glass partition separating you, and the lighting — dead, institutional neon —conceals more than it reveals. Is this a real meeting — visit? As for my experience of greeting visitors while imprisoned, I have none (not for want of trying). But the Zoom meeting has made prisoners of us all.

At my first Town Board virtual meeting, I logged on, waited, and then when an image popped on my laptop’s screen, I thought I’d made an error and was streaming a slasher flick. There was a close up of a face in shadows, a bearded fellow of a certain age, his expression a mix of panic and anger, a maniac about to reach for his hatchet. Me.

Police Chief Jim Read saved me, quietly telling me that I needed more light. I looked for a switch on my computer, but the chief said I needed more light in the room, and then pointed me toward the mute video function. I became a name without a face.

Thanks, Chief.

I am now there at town meetings, but not there, which might sum up all of our current virtual lives.

Jack Chen, retired chief information officer for Adelphi University, told me that videoconferencing can be effective, but cautioned it’s not the same as walking into an office or goofing off on Skype with a friend. “One downside is people have to realize they’re essentially in a studio,” Jack said. “Your eye has to look at the camera and you have to learn to focus.”

Learning to focus is a problem these days in any situation, but a virtual meeting makes it much more difficult.

Except for those with a narcissistic personality disorder, no one likes meetings. The Harvard Business Review reported on research that showed America has gone meeting-mad, that gatherings “have increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years, to the point where executives spend an average of nearly 23 hours a week in them, up from less than 10 hours in the 1960s.”

Former Shelter Island Fire Department Chief John D’Amato, a retired regional director of AT&T, told me about a technique a former boss used to run meetings. The executive would invite team members to a conference room and when they arrived they’d find all the chairs had been removed. “The most productive meetings ever, and the shortest,” John said. “We stood, got things settled, planned, and left.”

I once worked in a newsroom where the weekly editorial meeting to plan the next week’s paper was scheduled for noon on the day the current paper was published. But it was bad from the start, because 30 minutes in, people were hungry and looking for lunch. And the editor held meetings that sometimes lasted nearly two hours, talking about children, last night’s game, high school anecdotes, and other topics you wouldn’t even want to hear at happy hour.

One reporter was always late, sometimes as much as 45 minutes, and always had some valid (feeble, made-up) excuse. Once, when the meeting time was changed, our editor looked at him and said, “Now — are you listening to me? — the meeting is at one o’clock next week. Got that? One o’clock. Sharp.”

The reporter became a legend when he said, “Sure. One o’clock. I can be late for that.”

Town Hall meetings in the flesh were sometimes tedious — I’m being polite — but never really dull, because there were real, live human beings in front of you. More was said than words, and eye rolls, broad smiles and genuine concentration on an agenda made for interesting encounters.

People are getting used to staying at home and enjoying meeting in the virtual world which, I hope, eventually wears away. Accountants at many companies are calculating what is being saved on rent and transportation, when a work force can be as productive at home as in an office. And many employees — usually those without children — are enjoying a life where you never have to get off the couch.

If money saved by employees working from home means better salaries, more hires, stronger companies and better results, who can argue? And if the new world coming of empty office spaces that don’t require electricity, and empty roads that cut down fossil fuel emissions, the home office might just save the planet.

But there are costs to isolation.

According to The Atlantic magazine, for more than two decades the Japanese have used a term — hikikomori — to “describe an estimated 500,000 to one million Japanese citizens who refuse to leave their homes.” Dr. Takahiro Kato, a psychiatrist, who the magazine says has done research on the hikikomori, said they “display depressive and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.”

No kidding?

One fact that can’t be argued against is that it’s getting weird out — in? — here. And, as Dr. Hunter Thompson’s research revealed: “When things get weird, the weird turn pro.”