Webcams force us to look alert as our time is wasted

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 June, 2010, 12:00am

It's very difficult to adjust your tie during a video conference. It's easy to see whether it is straight or not since there's a great big television picture of your face right in front of you. But reach up and try to straighten it and you'll see what I mean.

The images are reversed, so when you try to move your hand from right to left, on the screen it moves left to right. To the person on the other end this makes you look pretty silly. Efforts to straighten your tie, fix your hair, or brush something off your jacket appear highly unco-ordinated.

Image reversal is one of the many disconcerting things about video conferences. Another is that the technology rarely seems to work.

Most in-house video conference systems borrow bandwidth from the computer network that carries e-mail, internet and everything else. How well the video conferences work then, depends on how active the whole computer system is. When the system gets busy, the picture starts to go fuzzy and jumpy, and worst of all, the audio starts to slow down.

When the audio slows down it creates a delay between you saying something and the other person hearing it. Even a delay of a fraction of a second will completely annihilate any chance of having a productive conversation.

Everyone has experienced this. You start talking and just then you realise that the other person had already started talking. So you stop. But they also just realise that you started talking so they stop too. So you start again, but so do they. And so on, until you both agree to give up and use the telephone.

As an experiment that I hope will soon be over, we have been having our regional management meetings by video conferencing rather than paying for everyone to fly to one place and spend up big in the hotel bar. The meetings follow a regular pattern.

The first 10 minutes is spent with the participants all asking each other 'can you hear us?' and 'can you see us?' Once it is established that everyone can see and hear each other, the CEO will try to start the meeting.

'I wanted to talk about...' he starts.

'Umm sorry, this is Mumbai, we are having trouble hearing. Can you speak a little closer to the microphone?' comes a deep voice, followed shortly afterwards by the image of the moving mouth of our Mumbai office chief. The image carries on moving briefly after the talking has ended.

'Sure, no problem,' says the CEO, although since we are not using the phones, it is not immediately obvious where the microphones are, so he just speaks louder 'as I was saying, what I really want to address ...'

'Hello. This is Bangkok. We just got connected. Sorry about that,' comes a voice out of nowhere, 'our video feed is down but we can still hear you OK.'

'Great, welcome,' says the CEO. He pauses to allow for any other interruptions.

'What I wanted to talk about,' he continues, 'is the new compensation policy.'

This is probably the one topic that everyone has a strong opinion on, and on which everyone is desperate to be heard.

The screens erupt with movement and the audio system is immediately overloaded. All I can hear is little snippets of dialogue from each location.

Unsurprisingly, everyone is saying the same thing, that the new compensation policy is an outrage and that it's going to result in a mass exodus of talent to our competitors who are all paying substantially more and so on and so on. Probably the same thing that every one of our competitors are also saying to each other.

And this is the final tedious thing I want to mention about video conferences. If this were an ordinary conference call, I would at this point press mute, put my feet on the desk and pick up a magazine.

But, even though I might not be participating in the debate, there's still a picture of me on a television in every one of our offices. And on that television is someone who gives the impression of sitting up straight, paying attention and listening thoughtfully.

What I am actually doing is wondering if I can get a life-size cardboard cutout made of myself that I could sit in this chair in front of the camera. Then I could go and do something useful with myself, like make a phone call.

Alan Alanson is an investment banker writing under a pseudonym. Contact him at



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