It is 27 years since I started working from home. It is hard now to remember how isolating that felt before advances in technology like email and broadband brought the world to my desk. It has become respectable since then, and coronavirus is making it almost obligatory. Do I still have reasons to go out? What about the video interviews which form so much of my output?
Although much of my output is written, here on this blog, the highest-value and most interesting parts (to me, anyway) are those which are delivered in person or by video. For many years, I have happily travelled to anywhere in the world with an audience, to moderate or participate in panels and to interview people involved in eDiscovery. For the interviews, I have taken one or two of my sons, Will and Charlie, together with a pile of cameras, lights, tripods and audio equipment.
The aim was to maintain the output quality wherever we went, buying and carrying ever better (and usually heavier) equipment. It has been harder in the last couple of years thanks to my failing hip joint, which made travel tiresome, but that is now fixed and will be as good as new in a month or so.
Other things, however, have developed which prompt a fresh look at how we do these videos, with their current premise that I travel to distant lands with equipment and technicians. The most recent is the coronavirus, which is emptying planes and prompting interesting (and sometimes positive) discussions about ways of working which don’t involve everyone converging on the same place.
Pure cost is always an issue. We can bring back 25 or more videos from three days at big events like Legaltech and Relativity Fest which makes it easier to spread the costs between them, but one-offs are difficult. The other big factor is quality. At one extreme, you see some industry videos which have evidently cost many thousands of dollars – glossy stuff, but usually with a script and a voice-over rather than real people talking about their work. At the other end, you see cheery efforts whose focus is just getting out the messages promptly, without our obsession with lighting, colouring, and audible audio. We aim somewhere between the former as to cost and the latter as to quality.
That has all worked for us hitherto, but there are new and wider factors affecting businesses of all sizes. Global viruses are not the only factor discouraging travel. The world is closing in on itself and borders are coming back, with more bureaucracy and queues. Travel is becoming more expensive, less convenient and less reliable. The demand for good content remains high. How do we deliver informed commentary in an attractive way at a time when external factors militate against its collection?
We did two videos last year which were largely experimental. One aimed at the distance problem – how to conduct a live interview across oceans to a high standard without anyone having to travel. The other was similar to our usual type of in-person interview but without the array of tripods and lights which we usually set up. There is no claim to uniqueness in either case – broadcasters do this sort of thing all the time. The focus was not on whether it can be done, but on whether the output justifies the input, on whether we can produce high enough quality with the resources at our disposal, and on whether we can do it profitably.
It is easy enough to record a Skype interview, but the quality depends very heavily on the camera and audio equipment at each end, and on having a crisp internet connection. Audiences are forgiving of internet-level video and audio quality in a news broadcast, but we want to get as close as possible to the quality of our usual interviews, not just with the production values, but with the ability to make a conversation out of it. Equally, it is easy to point a camera at someone and get them to talk, but there is a reason why we usually lug our lights, tripods and audio equipment around.
Our experiments last year suggested that we can get good results without travel and without too much kit. I would still rather be there and be properly lit, especially for the big events, but the coronavirus may be just what we need to spur us to use technology to reduce the travel without compromising too much on quality.
Other activities are easily done with home- or office-based technology – webinars are an obvious example. Conference talks can be given from afar, though I would hesitate before moderating a panel remotely because I like to see both the panel and the audience.
There is nothing obviously positive about the coronavirus, but it may prove a useful spur to new ideas at a time when other factors are already making travel tiresome. I would not want to stop going to the events I always attend anyway, not just for the formal sessions and meetings but for the bits in between – the chats in the corridor and the social side at which one really keeps in touch with what is going on. But there are opportunities to supplement these things with a greater use of ever-improving communications technology.
More on this in due course.
When I had finished writing this yesterday, I took part in a meeting in London, attending remotely via Zoom. The justification for not attending in person was not the coronavirus nor saving of time or travel costs but the recuperation of my leg, not yet up to the rigours of travel. The quality of both video and audio was very good and I felt part of it, both because I could see what was going on in the meeting room and because I could hear them and they could hear me without strain.
What about that perceived need for “justification”? Why do I need to justify saving half a day of travelling for a 90 minute meeting? I know others do this every day and have done for years. How can we adapt both the technology and the expectations of users to accomodate shifting ideas of work and the content delivery?
In a way, that virtual attendance at a meeting helped me turn a corner, coming as it did just after writing about remote delivery of information. It is not a substitute for actually meeting people (I have been to earlier meetings of the same group), but it was efficient and I lost nothing by not being there. As it happens, the meeting itself was about quick and cost-effective ways of delivering accessible justice – that involves more than technology, but technology will play its part, not least technology which reduces the need for personal attendance at every turn.
As a kind of PPS to this, I was about to publish when I saw Paul Magrath’s interesting post at The Lawyer called Coronavirus and the courts: how will a pandemic affect the conduct of litigation? He too sees the current fear of illness as a stimulus for change, and perhaps rapid change, in the delivery of justice online. There will be objections, especially in criminal matters, both about the interests of justice for the people directly involved, and about the state’s ability to deliver the basic mechanics. Those objections are not to be dismissed without serious debate – but let’s get on and have that debate. The present state of affairs in our courts, in the probation service, and in the treatment of advocates is pretty dire. Perhaps we can jump clear of some of that under the pressure of pandemic.