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From Zoom Fatigue to Serendipity

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Here we are, approaching the anniversary of national lockdowns, and we're still dealing, front and center, with COVID-19. I wrote this column a few weeks be­fore Christmas, and I knew then it was foolhardy to make predictions about what 2021 would hold, although I normally try to do a forecast in the first Streams of Thought column of the new year. 

In the streaming industry, especially the portion that comprises media and entertainment OTT viewing, the fact that COVID-19 continues to keep people at home will only help companies like Disney, which has shattered its OTT subscriber goals. In December, the company announced that Disney+ has more than 86 million paid subscribers, vastly outpacing anticipated growth. Disney is so confident in the numbers that it's following Netflix's lead and raising rates by a dollar a month. It's unlikely the increase will lead to many cancellations during this harsh pandemic winter.

On the work front, the number of industry event cancellations each month exceeds the number of lawsuits to overturn the election that former President Donald Trump filed. As a result, conferences continue to be hosted virtually, and the go-to tool is Zoom. There have been so many Zoom meetings and conferences that we're at the point at which the name “Zoom” has become a verb. Zoom, or any other videoconferencing tool geared toward group gatherings, is a great way to stay connected to colleagues, family, and potential business partners. And yet Zooming brings with it Zoom fatigue. There's a point at which the human psyche craves travel and face-to-face interaction. Such fatigue isn't new, necessarily, and videoconferencing has proven to be a much better way to cope with isolation than we've ever had before. 

I'm going to date myself a bit, but I saw this same trend when I first started in videoconferencing in 1992, as the Department of Defense was establishing secure videoconferencing rooms to hold both classified and run-of-the-mill virtual gatherings as training for the still-ongoing Cold War and as a way to save on travel costs. People who used videoconferencing for project meetings would remark that they really liked to travel first, to meet people face-to-face, and then use the secure rooms to handle ongoing weekly or monthly meetings. One reason they'd offer was that since most locations only had one secure room, the room reservations had to be coordinated across multiple locations and booked well in advance. But that wasn't the real reason: People working together on a project wanted to do what we jokingly referred to as the "sniff test" of meeting potential business partners face-to-face. 

What has changed, perhaps, is the realization that the travel at the beginning of a project—and, as we saw back then, at the end of a successful project—wasn't about boondoggling or poor videoconferencing experiences, especially since these same people would praise the use of videoconferencing for midpoint meetings. Rather, it was about the need for human interaction and the serendipities that come with gathering a group of people at a conference or business meeting: the side conversations that yield new business, the warning signs that come from body language, or a whole host of other things we can't put a finger on but know are part of why meeting people in person either draws us to them or repels us.

So, here in the middle of the pandemic, when we're reliant on Zoom to bring us together, don't forget that the vibes you get as part of the virtual meeting experience—whether from the background decor or the more relaxed environment that Zoom tends to foster—aren't the full picture when it comes to making business decisions. Here's to finding our way back to serendipity soon.

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