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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Zoom Faculty Meeting Incentive Structures: Some Urgent Proposals

We just had our first faculty meeting since the advent of what the TV commercials are calling "These Uncertain Times." (Vastly preferable to "In The Age of," in my opinion. I now believe I was too generous before, and that law reviews should shoot for a zero percent target for articles using that phrase in the title.) It was a genuine pleasure to see my colleagues' faces again. It was not, however, a short meeting. No one is to blame! But it reminded me, with a chill of recognition, of a legal academic Facebook friend's Boschian description of a faculty meeting, relatively early in the Uncertain Time era, that was still going after four hours. And it occurs to me that, perhaps without our recognizing it, the incentive structures for faculty meetings have suddenly changed significantly and dangerously. 

I take as a general proposition and guide for living that any meeting that lasts longer than 60 minutes should be counted as a failure. (There are exceptional cases, of course, but they should be as limited as possible.) Usually, a meeting scheduled at an inconvenient time, or near the end of day and around the advent of rush-hour traffic, offers at least some incentive for people to wrap things up and head to class, home, or otherwise to get the heck out of Dodge. But Zoom meetings already take place at home. You're already seated in your favorite chair. You're not dependent for refreshment on catering, which at well-organized meetings can be cunningly organized to maximize the desire to wrap things up in a hurry. (For example, offering a tiny number of diet Cokes and a large number of Sprites, or a nut mix calculated to maximize the unpopular nuts and provide an insufficient snack to each person given the attendance number, or rigging the ratio of chocolate chip to oatmeal cookies.) Those who enjoy long meetings--there's one in every bunch--and who perhaps are not weighed down by child- or elder-care requirements or other responsibilities can protract the meeting indefinitely and literally at leisure. Impatient looks and sighs directed at that colleague, which rarely work even in person, are even less effective online.

This simply won't do.

One possible solution is a simple policy change: For any meeting, each participant must agree to raise or lower the temperature of the room in which he or she is sitting to a painfully uncomfortable level. This will serve as a proxy for the general inconvenience and painfulness level of in-person meetings. (I think heat would work better than cold: one can always keep bundling up, but modesty and fear will prevent faculty members from stripping down too far. But your mileage may vary.) The obvious problem with this proposal is that it seems to depends largely on voluntary self-enforcement. But there is a possible solution to this problem. The smart thermostat has become a more common feature in bourgeois homes. Zoom could work together with Alexa and other Internet-of-Things hosts to track attendees' thermostat readings. Just as some places right now require a thermometer screening before one can enter a shared space, so entry to a Zoom meeting could be restricted until one registers a thermostat setting of at least 85, and one could be cut off for failing to maintain that minimum temperature. We might call this the Demon Seed Plan.  

As a friend--not an economist, admittedly, but as a law professor he may be assumed to be a general expert in any field--pointed out, however, there is a deeper incentive problem: Zoom pricing structures. Perhaps with the Endless-Meeting problem in mind, Zoom's free plan has a 40-minute limit on group meetings--quite a bit shy of the 60-minute failed-meeting mark, to be sure, but better safe than sorry. Most universities, however, mindful of studies suggesting that an audience's attention span in a lecture setting tends to drop off after 20 minutes, schedule their classes in 50-80 minute blocks. Accordingly, they have subscribed to premium plans that allow Zoom classes to go on ad nauseam--and Zoom meetings to continue post nauseam. This is a terrible structure, one in which the cheapness of one resource (cost per unit of time) allows, or even encourages, the overuse of another scarce resource (sanity and common sense).

I would thus like to propose another solution, one that is much easier to administer than the smart-home proposal. Call it the Ulysses Plan. A meeting organizer operating on a premium pricing basis can designate a meeting as falling under the Ulysses pricing structure. Once this option has been selected, Zoom will charge a steep and perhaps rising penalty fee for every additional minute over one hour. Of course there are still free-rider problems, but those can be fixed fairly easily. The penalty can be automatically deducted from the faculty research and travel budget. Or, if one worries--surely baselessly--that some people who indulge in the unnecessary prolongation of meetings are also people who don't do much writing or traveling, and thus won't feel enough of a sting, one can use Zoom's own technology to charge the fee directly to the salary or discretionary budget of each individual who is still speaking after 60 minutes. In this way, we can fully internalize the costs of failed meetings. Think of it as a pre-commitment measure, like stickK, but with a touch of the lash instead of the weak constraint of donation to charity.

I have focused on faculty meetings because they are what I dread know. But these proposals have a much wider potential application. Not only are there faculty meetings, there are university administrators' meetings. And, beyond the college gates, there is also--roughly speaking--every other meeting. When one considers the aggregate costs of Zoom-extended meeting lengths across the whole economy, it is clear that the total of lost minutes constitutes a significant financial drain in what are already economically precarious and Uncertain times. I do not, of course suggest that these simple measures would constitute a complete and effective remedy for our current economic difficulties. But I'm not exactly not suggesting it either.

I offer these proposals gratis. I am happy to give Zoom, the smart-home companies, and universities, corporations, and other meeting-plagued institutions the right to any intellectual property involved at no cost, for the sake of the common good. I ask only that after this is all over, as a small token of gratitude for saving millions of minutes of unnecessary meeting time, a modest bronze statue of me, in full Roman senatorial regalia, be erected in every faculty, university, and corporate meeting room.            



Posted by Paul Horwitz on April 21, 2020 at 09:57 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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