Zoom Meetings and the Need for Evolving Social Norms

Par Bryn Williams-Jones

Professeur à l’École de santé publique – Département de médecine sociale et préventive de l’université de montréal. Co-responsable de l’axe éthique, gouvernance et démocratie de l’OBVIA.


The COVID-19 crisis and resulting population-wide lockdown and physical distancing measures implemented to protect public health have rapidly accelerated the uptake of video-conferencing technologies. This has opened up a host of possibilities for large group meetings and distance learning, facilitated by easily accessible integrated video and chat. But these innovations also raise challenges, most notably around privacy protection, but also to do with bandwidth and (in)equitable access, as well as the invasiveness in one’s personal life. With facility of access comes a blurring of boundaries, and thus the need to establish new social norms for the use of these video-conferencing tools and other digital technologies.

As a university professor, I have for a long time been comfortable using Skype for individual meetings while away from the office. But I’ve also embraced the facility of technologies like Facebook Messenger to quickly talk with colleagues and students when other applications didn’t work. With the advent of Zoom, whole new realms of possibilities have opened up before me: the ability to combine a video discussion with an easy chat function, to organise secured meetings with small groups, and the simple facility of being able to bring in users from multiple time zones without the cost of a dedicated 1-800 telephone number. In the current crisis, with some academic colleagues we were able to quickly organize a weekly Zoom meeting to support bioethics professionals working in the healthcare system; the aim was to create a space for discussion and to facilitate access to resources and academic expertise that would enable these “on the ground” bioethicists to better do their job of helping health professionals and managers in making difficult decisions. More broadly, the academic community has responded to the lock-down by moving conferences and public seminars online. Just in the field of bioethics, a plethora of academic webinars are being regularly organised around the world to support health professionals and students, to participate in public debate, and to continue research collaborations and knowledge exchange. As a result, knowledge that would have otherwise been limited by in-person interaction is becoming globally accessible. Finally, the current crisis has pushed academics (and other educators) to rapidly move their teaching online (both synchronous and asynchronous), which has enabled them to reach students where they are, regardless of distance.

But with these recent innovations – both technological and social – have come important challenges to our social norms and expectations of one another. Many are concerned by the move to online teaching because of the disconnect with students, and the fact that many students (and professors) may not have a home computer or internet connection that is able to handle large videos or streaming. There is also an impersonal aspect to online interactions that has to be addressed. Some students may be more comfortable in online interactions, because the barriers to exchange are lifted (e.g., easier to write a question in a chat than to raise one’s hand in class), but others may find that video (e.g., with 25 to 50 students or more all on screen) very intimidating and demotivating. Many professors and students are not yet comfortable with these technologies, leading to gaffs (e.g., not activating / de-activating the microphone or video at the right time) and equipment failures. Further, this extensive use of video-conferencing blurs the boundaries between work and home; we now regularly see into our colleagues’ or students’ personal spaces in a way that was unimaginable even a few months ago. On the upside, it leads to moments of humour (e.g., visits by children, pets) that can help break down barriers and build relationships; but it can also lead to disengagement or a loss of a sense of professionalism.

« While full of potential, the widespread use of Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms to overcome the limitations of the current public health lockdown and enforced physical distancing requires us to adjust our previous social norms around how we interact. »

I and other colleagues have also noted an explosion in the number of online Zoom meetings, some of which have become more efficient (e.g., a regular 3h meeting now gets done in 1h!) but many others which seem redundant. One often wonders why we’re meeting to discuss things that could have better been addressed by email and which would in other times have never warranted an in-person meeting. There seems to be a technological imperative at work: Zoom is easy and available so let’s use it! Then of course there’s the cognitive (over)load of trying to pay attention to a video meeting/class for more than an hour. It may actually require more energy than an in-person interaction because of the filtering or lack of social/visual cues. I find that a large Zoom meeting also augments the tendency – which was already present in in-person departmental meetings, for example – to disconnect and stop listening, and to instead check email or Facebook…because no one can tell that you’re not paying attention.

While full of potential, the widespread use of Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms to overcome the limitations of the current public health lockdown and enforced physical distancing requires us to adjust our previous social norms around how we interact. We cannot just pretend that previous norms apply; we are going to have to be very patient with each other as we adjust our norms of professional and social interactions…and recognize that this is an ongoing project. We also need to recognize that these powerful digital technologies are not neutral – they’re value-laden and imperfect – and that they necessitate a collective learning and building of new ways of being and working together.

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