Tech Life Essential missing information

What We Lost

Who is this?

Princess Leia, right? End of Rogue One. Wrong, this is not Princess Leia. This is.

A photograph of Carrie Fisher in her role of Princess Leia. Chances are, your brain can tell the difference between the two photos. The first is a computer generated image (“CGI”) and the second is a straight-up photograph.

How does our brain know its CGI? It doesn’t. Your brain knows that something is strangely off about this image. The eyes are a little too big. They lack life. The smile isn’t a Carrie Fisher smile. My brain is fully aware this image is intended to look like Carrie Fisher. Still, my brain also instinctively raises a red flag alerting me, “Something is wrong” because my brain is shockingly good at receiving and parsing visual information when it comes to the human face. It is essential that I can gather and process signal from the humans around me. Quickly and efficiently.

The dissonance you sense staring at this image is a part of a rich, more significant problem we humans are collectively experiencing during this unending Pandemic.

This is Not a Meeting

Let’s start with disclaimers:

  • I’m pro humans working together. Always have been.
  • Distributed work has been and will continue to be required in these times of the Pandemic.
  • There is no doubt in my mind that distributed work works. I believed this before the Pandemic, and I believe it more now.

With that said, I can confirm that this is not a meeting.

I suspect this is a staged Zoom call for marketing purposes. How do I know this? Everyone is smiling.

Here’s another one. Again, randomly pulled off the Internet, but more slightly realistic.

That’s more familiar. Humans staring in random directions. Many clearly not listening. Camera off for one participant. Here’s the question, how many humans are on this call?

Zero.

Yeah, I won’t let this point go. There are no humans on this call. Yes, there are 14 participants with their video on, one with their video off, and someone dialing in. Yes, you can gather some interesting signal from a single frame of this meeting, but this is a crappy 2D representation of the team; both essential signal and purpose are missing from this situation.

Five or Seven Senses

You have five base senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Bonus fact: you actually have seven. The mysterious additional two are:

  • Vestibular: the movement and balanced sense, which gives us information about where our head and body are in space. Helps us stay upright when we sit, stand, and walk.
  • Proprioception: the body awareness sense, which tells us where our body parts are relative to each other. It also gives us information about how much force to use, allowing us to crack an egg while not crushing the egg in our hands.

Every single of these senses, yeah, even vestibular and proprioception, are limited in a video conference call. You do not see the entire person; you see them from the chest up. Your hearing is limited and frustratingly altered by the milliseconds of lag and subsequent awkward interruptions to the conversation when someone attempts to insert a vital fact only stomped by the current speaker who hasn’t heard the interruption yet. You probably don’t think smell, like taste, is essential, but that is because you’ve been sitting all by your lonesome in your home office for the two+ years (like me) and have forgotten that smell, while not critical, contributes to the information tapestry of an in-person. And touch, the feel of the table in front of you. The slight echo you feel in the wood when someone sets their coffee cup on the table.

It’s an endless list of little things that you think you’ve forgotten, but you haven’t. You are quite literally built to sense an infinite amount of subtle bits of signal from your fellow humans. We were not built to live alone in caves; we were built to live together in them.

And this is not Princess Leia:

Endless Bits of Friction

Relative to the Pandemic, the single biggest work question I’ve been asking myself for two years is: what did we lose? What is the measurable and objective loss for teams not working in close proximity? I’ve been looking for cracks. I’ve been looking for leading indicators of future doom. The Great Resignation seems like a proper crack, right? But are people quitting their jobs because they can’t work together or because their current job sucks and all this terror in the air has given them a new appreciation of what really matters?

What I see are endless bits of friction:

No, I can’t hear you. You’re muted.

No, I can’t see what you’re sharing.

No, I have no idea that you’re in a bad mood. You’re just the same old postage stamp two-dimensional muted headshot that you were in the last three meetings.

No, I have no idea that everyone hates the idea you just proposed because my ability to read the room has been mostly erased. I can’t tell the difference between “We hate this idea” silence and “We’re mostly just quiet because it’s a chore to speak during a video conference” silence.

Yes, I’m inserting your name into the conversation because I see you aren’t paying attention, and I know the conversation is heading in your direction.

Yes, I appreciate that folks are using visual cues like nods and thumbs up to indicate their agreement, but does everyone remember that we were capable of such understanding with none of the awkwardness?

Yes, I spend an excessive amount of time looking at myself. It’s ridiculous.

A video conference is a sterile dehumanizing experience. A good in-person meeting is pure jazz. Its elegant sparring between those who care deeply about the things they are building, and watching and participating in this banter is one of the joys of my professional career.

And This is Not Princess Leia

If I were to ask right after you viewed Rogue One whether that was Princess Leia or not, you’d say, “CGI, right?” I respond, “Yes, but what was wrong with the image? How could you tell it wasn’t Princess Leia?”

To which you’d shrug, “I don’t know. Her eyes were a little creepy?”

Suppose you’re not a professional computer graphics artist. In that case, you don’t know what’s precisely wrong with this image, but understanding the specifics is not a requirement for your brain to alert you that something funky is going on. Your brain has been trained and rewarded for successfully deriving information from the simplest facial expressions. You have learned much from listening, from understanding each word they speak, and for listening to the pause between the words because there is information there, as well. And you were in that meeting. We all were, and we’ll never forget it because, at one point, she stood, slammed her fist on the desk, and yelled, “I can’t believe we’ve let this happen!” I couldn’t believe it, either.

Do you want to know why you’re fatigued at the end of a long day of video conferences? It’s because your brain has been straining to collect essential information that is no longer there.

I look forward to seeing you again. Together we are more.

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28 Responses

  1. I was meeting one on one with a peer and she was talking and suddenly stopped and said, “I assume from that little eyebrow raise [which I didn’t even realize I’d done] that you’re concerned about that.” She was right. And later, all I could think about was how if this had been a multi-person meeting where I was the size of a postage stamp instead of filling her whole screen, she would never have caught that.

  2. I hear what you’re saying- you miss all that non-verbal communication. But what the pandemic has shown us is that this is actually the minority view. Most of us prefer remote work because it eliminates all the downsides of in-person work that you didn’t list here: the interruptions, the loss of focus, the needless ritual of starting and ending your day with a frustrating commute, etc. These negatives far outweigh the non-verbal information you aren’t getting.

    Do you know what else an entirely remote position enables? Diversity and inclusion. I’m a short, soft-spoken man and I get talked over in meetings all the time. My ideas get ignored only to be repeated by another colleague a few minutes later and applauded. Since I’ve been working remote these problems have virtually disappeared. From talking to colleagues who are Women and POC (who experienced these things far more often than I did) they have also had a great increase in access and respect since the pandemic.

  3. Raphael 3 months ago

    So I have felt like one-on-one calls (small groups) work pretty well. Also, just not using video most of the time.

    The main thing though, is that 16 people meetings _always suck_. They are never good. They suck in person (and like scientifically proven to increase CO2 enough in the room to lower everyone’s IQ!), and video calls aren’t going to make things better.

    There is of course the whole “in person meeting is booked for an hour but you chat before and after”, and that’s a bit harder to do with people you don’t know too well over digital stuff.

    But seriously, the video presence in particular is not great, nobody wants to sit and listen to an all hands, and the 16 person meeting in real life is _also_ just the 3 loudest people talking.

    But I think you can still have some very good and productive work with small groups, because ultimately you’re just chatting in a phone call. The more reduction in formalism you can have, the smoother things can go. It _is_ possible to interact with fellow human beings over just voice, as proven by the many people I know who got married to people they only knew over IRC and Skype all those years ago.

    Get rid of the all hands, nobody is listening anyways. Just post a pre-recorded video (glib for effect, but that’s the thought technology for the day from me).

  4. Interesting that the blender development team is spread around the world and incredibly successful since pre pandemic. I believe the lead lives in Australia…

    IMO the majority of meetings pre and post covid are a waste. The most important thing is that the technical team is on the same wavelength and that people of experience are leading them.

  5. Introvert 3 months ago

    You poor extrovert. For the rest of us, in person meetings are not ‘pure jazz’. They are pure hell. Remote meetings are so much easier to deal with.

  6. Chris 3 months ago

    What extroverts lost.

  7. MediumLebowski 3 months ago

    Really frustrating to read articles like this having been through 2 years of making remote working super productive.

    I think some people just have an aversion to making it work, or a power trip, or need for bums on seats.

    For example, our team amazingly left our business in a much stronger position “post”-pandemic than pre-pandemic. But as soon as there was the chance, our boss pulled us all back in.

    Given the sacrifices made, 80% of the core team that achieved these results were gone within 3 months, and the last 20% will be gone by the next 2 months, including me.

    I really believe in remote, however I/we weren’t even asking for that. Just the flexibility and trust to choose what worked best at any given time. Sometimes that meant hooking up and meeting in person; or, for focused work, staying at home using all the commute energy on a great piece of work, then having dinner with your spouse.

    Articles like this are a joke. Yes, I’m very frustrated about it as these kind of views directly lead to the break-up of our great team, and has left me looking for another job.

  8. CdrJameson 3 months ago

    I remember a paper from when I was a student (25 years ago…) about CU-SeeMe and how video quality affects meeting recall/participation.

    Conclusion was the better the video, the less people participated or could recall what the meeting was about afterwards.

    It’s almost like video conferencing is just like a worse way of conducting a phone call.

  9. Hey, Rands, big fan here and I really liked this article. Agree 100% about meetings.

    But as a total off-topic aside, I work in VFX and have a take you may find technically interesting. Can you really tell that it’s a CG Leia? I mean, really, how sure are you that you can tell from things in the image being “wrong”, versus how much is actually based on the knowledge that Carrie Fisher is dead so your brain knows the image has to be fake somehow and therefore ex-post-facto makes up reasons to believe that the image is wrong (but really isn’t)?

    My circumstantial evidence for this is that people only seem to point out these flaws when the actor is dead, or being portrayed as a very different age than they are known to be in the present. But somehow, nobody says it looks fake in the dozens of other examples every year where we replace living actors with CG versions simply because we needed to swap them for their stunt double, or the scene was too dangerous or difficult to film so we did the whole shot in CG, or simply that the director changed their mind and wished them to act that shot differently long after the on-set shooting was finished. This happens All. The. Time. And nobody notices.

    This makes me think it’s more plausible that people often know the thing is fake for extraneous reasons and then manufacture justifications for that belief in the image, rather than that they actually perceive flaws in the image and correctly conclude that it must be fake. (Grain of salt: obviously, sometimes we do this magic more effectively than others, depending on budget, time allotted, and individual artist or company skill. But people who say generally “CG looks fake and I can spot those fakes” are wrong, wrong, wrong. They have no idea how much CG they’re seeing in totally ordinary “non-VFX” kinds of films.)

    • rands 3 months ago

      Super interesting thoughts, LG. It completely makes sense to me that BECAUSE I KNOW IT’S NOT HER that I manufacture the flaws, but I’d be curious of a readily accessible example of CGI of a very-well-known-face that we totally missed. Like a long shot of someone we “know” that was manufactured.

  10. Counterpoint:

    That’s Princess Leia.

    or – as much as they could give you. That’s a digital image representing an actress that hasn’t looked similar to that for a long time now. It’s not perfect, but compared to either recasting the role – which would not look like Carrie Fisher in her prime – or trying to use Carrie when she was still with us and de-age her, it’s good enough – because we can’t have perfect (yet).

    Sometimes we have to settle for good enough, and keep working to improve the state of the art. At some point the difference will be small enough to not notice. At some point someone will re-work that CG and you won’t be able to tell it’s not really her.

    A zoom meeting isn’t a traditional one. It’s worse, for the reasons you give. It’s also better – because it’s possible and what you want isn’t right now. And online meetings will keep getting better, but maybe, for now, like CG Carrie – they’re good enough.

  11. Sarah 3 months ago

    Having been in the film and TV industry, it is just a different venue that requires different skills.

    Stage actors are taught to really go big and project – so they come across as way too much on film. Film actors are taught to be subtle and nuanced – so they don’t read well at all on the stage.

    In person is like a film set, intimate and cozy where subtle non-verbal cues are picked up on. Zoom is like the stage where you have to go big or the back rows don’t feel your energy.

    Having a big personality myself, I find Zoom fits me nicely. My husband is more subtle so he’s better in person. So I think it’s a matter of getting used to the venue.

  12. Alexander 3 months ago

    There’s a very simple solution to all this drama – turn off the video and use voice only. I look forward to seeing you again too, but not in the office. 🙂

  13. Mary in GA 3 months ago

    I have worked on a remote team since 2005. My manager and several team mates were in NJ, myself and several teammates in GA, others in IL, TX, CA and OR. Meetings were done remotely via LiveMeeting, then WebEx and now Zoom.

    In 2008, we went entirely home-shored for our team, so we didn’t have to go into the office unless there was a direct need.

    At the time, we had a lot of business travel, so we had face to face interactions that way. And we had fantastic tenure, so the team was very cohesive just because of how long they’d worked together.

    NONE of that was impacted by remote meetings, or by working from home.

    In 2019, I became a supervisor over one of the teams. I have onboarded several people into our remote world since then, never with any issues.

    SOME positions and job roles work better in a F2F environment, but there are many that can (and should) be done remotely, for all the reasons listed by Raphael & MediumLebowski.

    I would prefer an organization use a common sense approach and evaluate actual needs and practical reasons rather than having a blanket approach.

  14. Ten years of full time remote working and I wouldn’t work any other way now. As others have already said, it means I can get on and do useful work without all the pointless, irritating and distracting rubbish that goes with office life, especially open plan office life. Colleagues are much easier and pleasanter to deal with on the end of a wire. You don’t have to put up with the reek of cheap aftershave or whatever the bod 5 cubicles over is having for lunch. Nor do my colleagues have to put up with *my* foibles. Office life? You can keep it thank you very much.

    As for meetings? Doesn’t matter if they’re dial in jobs or huddle in a room jobs, 9 out of 10, 99 out of 100, meetings are a complete waste of time. That useful 10th or 100th meeting is the one called by one of your peers to thrash out a single problem, the remainder are an excuse for a “manager” to practice her or his “leet” powerpoint skills and drone on about, “vision” and “values” or any of the three dozen buzzwords they’ve dreamt up to persuade themselves they’re worth the money they’re being paid; that or a broadcast about which particular set of deck chairs they’re going to be rearranging this week.

    Hmm, that was a bit of a rant. Sorry ‘about that.

  15. 27Unsuited 3 months ago

    I read this. And nodded. Then I read the comments. And nodded.

  16. Jeremy 3 months ago

    I started working for a 100% remote company a couple of years before the pandemic started, and I’m still there. Remote first companies seem to be massively more productive. Before that I worked in an office, a very nice office, with very nice people, and I ran a lot of meetings and did what I could to make them useful and fun.

    What have we lost? I think a small group of people feel like they’ve lost a lot, because they were able to dominate meetings and other people. It sounds like you’re such a person. I don’t think you realise it, or would frame it that way. I was the same. Many people don’t like being in meetings, don’t want to put themselves in front of other people in that way, prefer one to one conversations and async communication. Even people who like the social side of the office don’t necessarily wish to be stuck in a meeting with people like us.

    So let’s be clear: what you have lost was a detriment to other people. They have gained at your loss. I think it was a net gain. Let’s celebrate that and give in to the new way.

  17. Jean-Victor Côté 3 months ago

    However, for people on the autism spectrum, meetings have nefer been better…

  18. Think about the friction points that needing to come into an office brings up.

    Hard nope for me. I’ll take slightly decreased productivity for lower transport costs, better home lifestyle, better work life balance & sleep/fitness routine any day of the week.

  19. Clint 3 months ago

    This was informative, enlightening, and super-fun to read. Thanks! Let’s all give a hearty “thumbs-up”!

  20. Perhaps I’m introverted, but for me, in-person meetings are much more tiring than an efficient video call where everyone knows they must communicate effectively with their mics unmuted – and not rely on subtle, pixelated eyebrow movements.

    If the team stays silent when they “hate the idea” that’s on the team.

  21. This is brilliant. Thank you. (Now I have a new rabbit hole) Insights that are totally missing from the big conversation about work. It’s always been the hard to distinguish between good and great, but greatness requires all of this sensory input.

    We should call the hard sciences the easy sciences because we’ve explained relatively so much of them. The so-called soft sciences should be called the hard sciences because we collectively understand about a toenail clipping’s worth.