29 Apr 2021

Covido, ergo Zoom

European Projects Behind the Scenes (9)

Gregor Cerinšek, IRI UL

“Honestly saying, when I received the invitation to join the project I was mostly inspired seeing all the different geographical locations of participating partners. They were from the cities and countries that I would most probably never visit if it wasn’t for the project purposes. What happened then is that the project was approved when this @#$%ing Covid-19 pandemics started and the Kick-off, which had to take place in Madeira, was delivered online. After the formal part of the meeting, our partners even organized a virtual tour of Madeira, but I just pressed the disconnect button…” 

Even though project meetings and respective traveling could be sometimes quite stressful due to several organizational, logistic, and cognitive reasons they still represent one of the most tempting elements of European projects. “When a project is approved, I firstly look at the first page to check which cities are involved.” It is not free tourism since the majority of these trips are limited to two or three days and besides the airports, subways, and hotel & meeting rooms you barely see city attractions, its people, and other cultural specifics. What makes it attractive is the opportunity to go somewhere and to be there. To move from your regular day-to-day business and to work from somewhere else. And connecting it with new encounters, socializing with other people, and discovering unknown territories.

Needless to say, the pandemic greatly affects this experience. Virtual (non-)traveling limits project meetings to bare instrumental function. “I’m virtually in Madeira, physically in my home office, metaphysically in a waiting room for a better tomorrow.” We have become armchair project managers stuck inside the four walls trying hard to make the meeting experience as genuine as possible – which can cause headache and frustration, ultimately transforming us into “ZOOMbies” (as figuratively expressed by my friend, anthropologist Dan Podjed). We use different web tools to lead and manage virtual workshops and to enhance collaboration between people “when at a certain point someone unintentionally changes some elements of the preprepared board and ruins the whole system”. We experience a new social phenomenon called the “Zoom Fatigue” being tired and drained from all virtual meetings, conferences, seminars, and lectures. “I cannot take seriously any longer these small brackets that stare at me from a TV screen”. Some participants are quite innovative and take a photo of themselves sitting in front of a computer and then cover the camera so that it looks as they are still present – when in fact they are not. Others, for instance, apologize at the very last minute due to other urgent matters (but in fact, it is a question of priorities) which would not have happened if they were physically present in another place away from their home. Again, as explained by Dan Podjed, when talking through a web tool we frequently do not look each other in the eyes but we mainly watch ourselves in those little brackets. If we wanted to give an impression of looking into people’s eyes we would need to stare directly into our camera, something we do not do. “And the funniest thing is when at the end of the meeting everybody says at the same time: bye, thank you, see you… But I just disconnect.” 

The Covid-19 pandemics has once again and probably in a most severe way reminded us that we cannot and should not consider human as the center of the universe. Paraphrasing the philosopher and ethnologist Rajko Muršič, humans are nowadays even more machine-dependent and are becoming a sort of cyborgs massively extending the work and personal life into the virtual worlds. Even though we all desperately wish the current situation to improve as soon as possible, a return to our pre-pandemic reality will most probably not happen, at least considering the EU projects. There is no doubt that we can all benefit from this “new normality” and reducing the negative environmental effects that are caused by unnecessary traveling is probably the most obvious one. The question is whether or not this new normality can also jeopardize to some extent the main idea behind the EU projects – i.e., enhancing the cooperation and establishing new connections and synergies between organizations and people across Europe. Which besides performing project tasks requires eye contact and a true handshake beyond digital interfaces. At least in my opinion.

Gregor Cerinšek, IRI UL researcher and project manager, reflects on the background of European projects, i.e. all practices, events and activities that are not publicly discussed, but nevertheless significantly affect the acquisition of projects, their course and long-term success (or failure). He formulates findings and recommendations on the basis of conversations with project managers, coordinators, researchers, supervisors, consultants and evaluators – with all those who are in any way involved in the phenomenon of European projects.

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