A few weeks ago I suggested that I am a scientist because I put numbers on things. Although even I recognize some limits to that argument, I was quite serious in suggesting that measurement and numeration is a central feature of being a scientist. I am not seriously suggesting that skyping is a central feature of being a scientist. But sometimes it feels like it!
I now average more than five hours a week on Skype (or Google Hangouts – I’m using skype as a generic verb here). I am part of three collaborations that have weekly one hour calls. And I have two postdocs and a graduate student who live in other states for personal reasons and who I meet with weekly on Skype. My lab meeting is on skype every week as well. If you like collaborations and believe in students having lives outside the lab (e.g. spouses that can’t get jobs in my university town) but want to maintain a mentoring relationship, there is really no choice these days.
I hardly think I am alone in this trend. Back a couple of decades ago when I was in business, I spent a lot of time on the phone (usually one-on-one but a fair number of speakerphone and conference calls too). Then as a graduate student and early career professor, somehow I seemed to get by with just email Word track changes for all my collaborations. Basically travel to meet in person once a year, and then email. But as technology has gotten better (and cheaper), skype/google seems to be an ever growing presence in science. And I think that is a good thing. It certainly reduces my carbon footprint to be smaller than it would be otherwise (even if it is already too big). And it lets me to continue to mentor students that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to interact with (although that could happen over the phone too, although I think the video is beneficial). But the big change I’ve noticed is that the working groups I participate in now have a new modality – they continue to function as a large group after the face-to-face meeting is over. In the old days it was fly in to meet. Go home, and one or two people did specific tasks, emailing each other. But email falls apart when you have 5 or 10 people still trying to coordinate things. The multiparty skype call seems to be tailor made for maintaining momentum and group dynamics after everybody goes home (as I’ve noted a major challenge in working groups).
A few things I’ve learned the hard way along the way:
- Invest in a really good microphone. When I’m the only person my end of a call, I will use a headset (I use this one but there are many for around $25). More importantly when I have many people on my end (e.g. my lab group), I have invested in a $150 microphone (I use polycomm for skype). Words cannot begin to tell you how many times over these investments have paid for themselves. I have been on too many calls where I can only hear half of what is being said. It is exhausting, disruptive and often a downright waste of time. And there is absolutely no reason for it with modern technology except maybe being a cheapskate. A good microphone is probably almost literally worth its weight in gold. The headset has the added advantage that the sound from the speakers doesn’t go into the microphone causing feedback. There’s nothing worse than a call with somebody who cranks up the volume really high and then points the speakers at the microphone. Even if modern technology prevents outright feedback and echos (most of the time), it greatly degrades the call.
- If its a multiway call and you’re not talking, mute your microphone. And everybody else should do the same. Yes its a pain to unmute and remute when you want to talk. And its embarassing to be visibly talking when nobody can hear you. But it quickly becomes second nature. And if you don’t do it the call becomes much harder. All the back ground noise in all the rooms starts to circle around and degrading the call. It really is a matter of courtesy to mute when you’re not talking.
- It is worth taking a few minutes just to chit-chat about nothing important. We still all act like the old days where long distance phone calls cost $1/minute and tend to get right to the point. But whether it is a student/adviser relation or a collaboration keeping the social processes oiled is worth an extra 5 minutes
- Use video. Not everybody agrees with me. And certainly if I’m eating. Or cheating and working while listening to a call I am only partly engaged in I will turn off my camera. But for the same reasons as #3, I think it is long-term beneficial to keep the camera on and keep visual contact with facial expressions as they are an important part of social interactions. The one exception is when the network connection is poor, turning off video can drastically increase the audio quality.
That’s pretty much it .#1 and #2 are absolute musts in my book. And #3 and #4 are good ideas. Some people have big agendas about which software to use. I’ve found both Skype and Google Hangouts work pretty well. For a while skype was clearly better. But I’ve found skype less stable in the last 6 months and google hangouts has improved. So I would call them about equal these days. Ironically I find both the free tools better than the commercial meeting software from Adobe and Citrix.
All that said, I am pretty firm believer that we will never fully eliminate travel. Collaborations still need to be face-to-face every 6-12 months. So do those long distance advising relationships. And since half the point of meetings is not the talks, meetings unfortunately our CO2 impacts will almost certainly be face-to-face for some time to come.
I am curious how often you skype for scientific/professional reasons and what software you prefer:
What do you think. Is video technology up to the job. Does it improve or degrade our lives? Will it ever replace conferences?