Year-end musing: To Zoom or not to Zoom?

By Tonya Graser Smith and Kate Kovats

We’ve been reflecting on the past year … er, more like the past three years … now that COVID-19 is hopefully, mostly (knock on wood) in the rearview mirror.

What have we learned in our practice of family law that we will carry with us? What have we learned that our clients, colleagues and friends in other professions might want to keep top of mind as well? Here are a few musings for your consideration.

Meeting or mediating in person is better than video.

This year, especially in the latter half of it, we each have tried to get out and see people — clients and colleagues — in person more. Meeting in person really makes a difference. It’s been a pleasure to feel other people’s energy and to look eye-to-eye and not through a screen. It’s been wonderful to be fully present with others. That’s how connections are made.

Sometimes we have felt that divorce mediation sessions are more productive in person. One reason might be that people tend to be nicer in person than when there is a screen acting as a buffer to bad behavior or unproductive comments.

And let’s face it, Zoom fatigue is a real thing.

Making eye contact through a screen, seeing your own face reflected for hours each day, struggling to stay focused and not multi-task. Exhausting. Zoom fatigue has been studied by Stanford University researchers, among others, no doubt. “Videoconferencing is a good thing for remote communication, but just think about the medium – just because you can use video doesn’t mean you have to,” says Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab. You can read more about Stanford’s finding on Zoom fatigue here.

Or maybe Zoom is better.

At a recent continuing education event, a mediator challenged our notion that meeting in person is best. He maintained that divorce mediation sessions via video are more efficient and effective. People like to be in and are more comfortable in their own environments, he said. It’s easier to make progress when people are comfortable.

Plus, the stress of getting to an in-person meeting, which takes more time and involves variables like traffic, is eliminated when you meet via videoconference. When people show up relatively calm and relaxed, it makes a difference.

He makes good points. Maybe we’re just tired of Zoom. Maybe we just need to mix up how we interact and conduct our meetings. And that leads us to…

You know, perhaps meeting people (figuratively) where they are is best.

 We don’t have to be absolutist about how we meet people. In-person meetings and video meetings both have their place. And sometimes we don’t have a choice. Sometimes it might be up to the court whether a meeting or hearing is done in person or via video.

But when we do have a choice, we should be intentional. We should ask ourselves what is best for us on a given day or at a given time. And we should ask those we are meeting with what is best for them. We should expect the answers – ours and theirs – to vary based on what’s going on in any given week. And that’s OK.

This also isn’t an either-or situation. You know, we could bring back a good, old-fashioned phone call from time to time. Doesn’t that sound refreshing?

Here’s another thought we’ve had: We might like to get out of our office, but our clients might not be able to leave theirs. So long as they have a place that’s quiet and private to meet at their office, we can come to them.

We shouldn’t assume everyone wants to meet only in person or only via video. People are different. And the same people are different week to week, day to day. Each day the answer might be “it depends on where I am today (literally and figuratively).”