There Is no good time for a pandemic, but because of today’s technologies, businesses and individuals have better coping mechanisms to minimize disruptions related to a communicable disease.
While the federal government is still saying that the risk of an individual getting the coronavirus is low, and that for most people who get it, the consequences are manageable, there is no doubt that being in close proximity to other people increases your risk.
I’m not living in a cocoon. I’m writing this column from a restaurant aside servers and other patrons, and yesterday, I went grocery shopping. But, like millions of others, I’m cutting back on non-essential travel and avoiding crowds and large gatherings.
But, on Tuesday, I attended an important business meeting that was originally to take place in an office in San Francisco. I was prepared to drive to the city for the meeting, but some of the participants live on the East Coast.
In an abundance of caution, the organizer decided it wasn’t such a great idea to put them on planes, even though domestic plane travel is still considered to be low-risk. So, instead of traveling to San Francisco, everyone stayed home or at their local offices to join via the Zoom video conference app.
The experience wasn’t quite as pleasant as a face-to-face meeting and lunching together, but it was efficient. Not only were participants spared the time and hassle of travel, but the meeting itself was more efficient. We got through our business in under two hours instead of the five hours (including a lunch break) this group typically spends on similar meetings. We used Zoom, which like most video-conferencing systems, not only allowed us to see and speak with each other but to share documents and screens. Much of our work involved having to review and comment on videos, which was easy because the organizer showed the video on her PC and shared her screen and audio with the rest of us The organizer emailed each participant a spreadsheet to rank and comment on each video. I converted that Excel document into a Google Sheet, so that my comments and ratings could be seen by people I shared it with.
Free video conferencing
Zoom offers a free service that lets up to 100 people gather for up to 40 minutes at a time, but for $14.99 a month, you can get a Pro account where meetings can be up to 24-hours long. Users can join by video from their device or call in on any type of phone. Zoom also offers conferencing equipment and services for business conference rooms.
Another free video-conferencing option is Google Hangouts. Until recently, the free version was limited to 25 participants, but, because of the coronavirus, Google is making its premium version free until July 1.
During this period, Google is allowing anyone to use the Pro features for free, but they’re especially promoting them for schools. In a blog post, Google wrote that “We’re committed to helping students and their teachers continue learning outside of school. In Hong Kong and Vietnam, where schools have already been closed, we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of students start using Hangouts Meet, our video-conferencing tool.” Google normally charges $13 a month per user for these advanced features. Microsoft is also offering free access to the premium version of its Teams business chat and collaboration application.
You don’t have to be a big business to take advantage of these types of collaboration tools. My small non-profit, ConnectSafely.org, which has only two full-time and two part-time people, frequently uses Google Hangouts, Zoom conferencing and other group collaboration tools like Dropbox and Google Docs. Unrelated to any risk of communicable disease, our staff members have always worked from home, but thanks to these tools, we not only have “face-to-face” meetings, but can share documents and – via Google Docs – work collaboratively in real time. With the exception of in-person meetings, it’s as if we’re in the same office suite on the same computer network. Dropbox, like similar cloud storage systems, allows us all access to the same documents, including those that have been recently updated.
We write the first drafts of our parent and educator guides in Google Docs, which enables each collaborator to make comments or make changes. Its “suggesting” mode allows users to make temporary edits that can easily be undone if others don’t agree. Sometimes we work in documents at the same time with colleagues immediately commenting on or correcting what others write. Google Sheets allows you to do the same with a spreadsheet and there are other modules including a web-based drawing tool and presentation tool that are compatible with PowerPoint slides.
I’ve been working from home for more than 30 years and have found it to not only be more pleasant but a lot more efficient. Not only do I avoid a commute, but I get more done in a day than I did when I worked in an office. There are downsides. I don’t get to hang out with colleagues nor am I a party to office gossip, so I’m out of the loop at times. But being away from the office also spares me from some of the drama that’s an inevitable part of any organization. Unlike people who work at Google and Facebook, I don’t get free lunches, but my kitchen is only steps away from my office.
I fervently hope that the coronavirus is short-lived and that very few people get seriously sick as a result of it. But I am glad that there are tools available that make it possible for people to have meetings and work collaboratively while it remains a threat. And, even after the virus is no longer a threat, I hope that people continue to use these tools along with those old-fashioned get-togethers that will always be an important part of human-to-human interaction.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely, a non-profit internet safety organization that has received support from Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other technology companies.
Published at Thu, 05 Mar 2020 12:00:45 +0000