In-Person Meeting in the Pandemic

Deciding for yourself what’s best.

Posted Nov 02, 2020

 Marek Studzinski/Unsplash
Source: Marek Studzinski/Unsplash

My patient Carly, who’s in her 60s, was thrilled to land a job with an international nonprofit that helps disabled kids. It was spring of 2019, well before the pandemic, and she laughed, “I’m finally doing what I should have been doing—just 40 years too late.” 

We talked about her plans for rebuilding the organization’s website and bringing local color to its high-minded videos. She was over the moon ... until the moon crashed, along with most of the organization’s activities. The website-building continued, but barely, with very little impetus to complete it. Instead of treating Carly for a sense of pre-COVID aimlessness, I was now treating her for post-COVID depression

We’d talk over Zoom about how she kept busy. “I’m helping the director write a book,” she said. “I’m not sure when we’ll get back to helping children.” 

It looked like long-term doldrums (“I knew it was too good to last”) until, one day in mid-September, the director told her that things would pick up. Over the Labor Day weekend, he’d met in person with some supporters, who urged him to get out in front of the pandemic. They told him, “If you’re looking for funds, you want to get the jump on everyone else.” He understood and suggested that Carly start working on some new videos.  

But then things took a turn. The director wanted everyone to resume weekly meetings. In-person. He said that the group’s camaraderie had disappeared and, along with it, the spontaneous exchange of ideas. “If things are going to pick up, then they have to open up,” he said. 

He even invited the head videographer, who lived in India, to visit New York so that he could meet Carly. He scheduled some meetings for late October. Carly was stunned and terrified.

Although Carly had disliked not working on big, important projects, she understood that the lockdown was necessary. She also realized that in her case, as opposed to that of most other people on the staff, she could have been seriously compromised by close, personal contact. “I’m in that age group,” she sighed. Everyone else was in their 30s and 40s. 

So, her dilemma, which she presented during our most recent conversation, was whether to attend the meetings. In particular, she had doubts about meeting the head videographer when he arrived from India. “Under the circumstances,” she asked, “can’t we just Zoom?”

Apparently not. The director, who was around Carly’s age, had started going out more and felt that everyone could do so responsibly. His trip to meet the supporters, one of whom had opened his house in the Hamptons to accommodate everyone, had turned him around. He was now convinced that people could meet safely in person and that it was undeniably more productive.

“Just being around those people,” he said, “generated so many ideas. I cleared my head out and then started up again.” He thought everyone—including Carly—would have a similar experience.  

His idea was that people could meet on the roof of his building on the Upper West Side. If it finally got too cold (or too noisy, this being New York), they’d move downstairs to his living room. Everyone could wear masks except, of course, when they broke for lunch, which he’d have delivered. 

“I cringed,” said Carly. “I knew we’d end up in that living room.” She polled some of the other people who also weren’t thrilled. But they didn’t want to start a rebellion. She was on her own.

“So, I told the director that I was reluctant,” she said. “But he has this thing about everyone keeping up their spirits—and keeping up our momentum as we return to action.” He insisted that she meet the videographer since that was directly related to her job. “You two need to work together, and there’s so much to talk about.” 

In fact, he wanted the three of them to discuss how best to pick up the pieces. “We can meet three or four times while he’s here,” he said. Carly thought she’d have a fit. She’d been hyper-cautious since March and saw no reason to take any gratuitous risks.

Couldn’t he appreciate her concerns? Apparently, he couldn’t. During a Zoom call among the three of them last week, he started talking about the videographer’s meeting schedule. So, Carly felt she had to assert herself. “Look,” she said, “I haven’t met anyone face-to-face since March, and the risks aren’t going away. Everybody knows that.” 

She was surprised that the guy was even coming. But he was. She was also annoyed, since they’d laughed at what she’d said, making her feel prissy and old (which she saw as weird as well as insulting since the videographer himself was almost 60).  

She felt bullied—the victim of peer-pressure—and misunderstood. This was her dream job, and she wanted to do everything to make it work. But was she supposed to risk her health when, in her opinion, there was no absolute necessity?  

Many organizations have found that people work just as well from home as they do at the office. Carly knew that. But still. There are times when in-person collaboration really is better, even if it isn’t crucial. In the director’s mind (and with the support of the videographer), this was one of those times. 

Making and editing videos is a frame-by-frame art, calling for a good eye and skilled judgment as to what is likely to appeal. The videographer had been at this for years and had a lot to teach Carly about technique. Carly had a strong sense of the organization’s mission and could guide the videographer concerning subjects that he should go for. There were obvious synergies. Carly couldn’t just put down the director’s newfound interest in face-to-face meetings as totally irrational. 

Thus, in counseling Carly, we talked about whether the director’s desire (demand?) that she comes out of her cocoon was fair. He clearly wanted what he saw as best for the organization (even if his interest in face-to-face meetings was somewhat over-the-top). So, I asked if she thought that her own fear was irrational—after all, there were stories every day of people returning to their offices while taking proper precautions. Some companies were even requiring that people return. 

But Carly still felt queasy. She was in a risk-prone group, and she felt that her routine had kept her safe. “I hate having to upset the director, whom I actually love, but I don’t think he understands where I’m coming from.

In the end, we decided that she was not being over-cautious. She had to do what she felt was right for herself and not allow herself to be pressured over something so personal as her own health. She remarked that when she was a child, her mother would insist that she eat everything on her plate whether or not she was hungry. “I developed this sense that one’s body is nobody else’s business.” 

She was a big supporter of pro-choice groups. She felt that in this instance, she would have to stand her ground. “We could be in the middle of a second wave,” she said, “why should I give it help?”

As we adjust to life with a pandemic (“there goes the neighborhood!”), different people will have different levels of tolerance for its exactions. If our own is stricter than someone else’s, then we shouldn’t feel as though we have to apologize. Life is too short. Literally.