Newman's Notions | November 2020 | FREE
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Administrative life is about committing to committees and moving from boardroom to bedroom lately.

The most recent decade of my professional career has been defined by meetings. There have been quality meetings, education meetings, practice meetings, and meetings just too fierce to mention. I've been on boards, committees, workgroups, and task forces. I've been ad hoc and ex officio, chairman and secretary. I've struggled to stay awake and argued minutiae. I've been a proponent and a devil's advocate. I've lived and died by Robert's Rules of Order.

Illustration by David Rosenman
Illustration by David Rosenman

Now that I've established my committee bona fides, it's clear that the boardroom is my happy place. Or so it was. But now we've all entered an unrecognizable reality, from the round table to the kitchen table, from the C suite to the bedroom suite. It's a new world, but I'm not all that brave. COVID-19 has made Committee 2020 into a virtual hellscape. Gone is the premeeting discussion of the weekend, the postmeeting debrief and huddle. Instead there is a screen full of tiles, with virtual backgrounds and strategic muting.

Part of my job is staying informed, knowing what's happening, taking the pulse of the hospital. I consider myself an information merchant (though others might call this being a gossip). Without the passing comments in the hallway, the tidbits at the coffee machine, and the sotto voces in committee, my shelves are empty. Snippets and factoids that might be passed and amassed in person are unlikely to rise to the level of texts or email. The schmooze has become the snooze.

I am lucky enough to have a secluded office on campus, with a nice backdrop of my odd collection of medical history books, art, and memorabilia, but eventually I succumbed to the putative allure of working from home. My first virtual meeting was on the phone. It was a 10 a.m. discussion of hospital flow, which is a topic I truly enjoy (really, I do!). However, I'd been up half the night due to chronic insomnia and a hyperflatulent canine and was struggling to keep my eyes open. I was sitting at a table in my bedroom as I dialed in and thought how nice it would be to take the meeting lying in my bed. I've fought to stay awake at in-person meetings, and I felt that same wave of head-nodding somnolence washing over me.

Suddenly I heard a voice on the phone ask if someone was snoring. I instantly woke up and said that it was my crazy dog. I was so proud of myself for covering up my stentorian wood-sawing. Bad form to fall asleep, worse that I was chair of the committee. Only later did I discover that nobody believed me. Now I own it. My Patronus is a snoring boxer.

Lately I've graduated from phone meetings to video. With a phone meeting, it is too easy for participants to become detached while muted. One can only wonder if they are actually doing the dishes or playing with their kids. I have a recording of crickets chirping that I play if a question is asked and there is no reply. (Also I discovered you should mute before you eat, especially when it's something chewy. I learned this lesson with a handful of stale candy the other day, after I got five texts telling me to stop chewing so loudly.) Then there's the problem, not entirely new but exacerbated without the feedback of nonverbal communication, that some people don't know when to stop talking. That's the beauty of the chair's ability to accidently hit the mute button.

The video meeting has rules and behaviors all its own, and they are rapidly evolving. Let's start with backgrounds. If you're at home, make sure there no fans turning or dirty clothes hanging on dressers. If you use a premade or personal background without a green screen, remember parts of your head and arms will mysteriously appear and disappear. What should you wear? No reason to put on a suit and tie for a video meeting unless it's with your boss, or maybe your boss's boss. But if you do wear a shirt and tie, it's good form to also put on pants. And if you don't wear pants, don't stand up for any reason.

If you remote into a computer at your office, be careful. I was doing a meeting from home and remoted into my office workstation. It was 10 minutes into the meeting before I realized that the video feed was coming from my office and everyone was seeing an empty chair whenever I talked. If you need to drink during a meeting (not that COVID-19 would do that to a person and I absolutely think this is a terrible idea), it's best to use a mug with a tea bag label showing and fill it with the liquid of your choice.

If you have kids, pets, or a dad who wanders into view shirtless, everyone will enjoy the show. I wonder what people are doing sometimes beneath the screen. Are they watching a movie on their phone or reading a book (an arcane device with printed words on paper)? And if their screen goes from video to a photo still, it is almost guaranteed they are participating in that most human of endeavors, going to the bathroom. But remember, friendly reader, don't just pause the video feed; also make sure to mute. Nobody wants to hear a toilet flushing during a meeting. And of course, don't forget to wash your hands.