Opinion: Above all else, virtual meetings should endure in the new normal
Switchboard’s Kathleen Reid pleads her case for the virtual meeting.
By now, you’ve probably heard the joke that virtual meetings are basically modern seances:
“Kathleen, are you here?”
“Make a sound if you can hear us!”
“Is anyone else with you?”
“We can’t see you, can you hear us?”
However chaotic and confusing virtual meetings can be—even after two years of non-stop practice—I hope they continue to be a big part of business-to-business communications. Of course, as with just about everything in life, it’s important to strike the right balance between productive communication and the human need for social connection.
Innovators value virtual options
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all benefited from the social distancing enabled by virtual meetings. And I know I speak for many new parents when I say that the flexible work schedule these meetings enable has been a life-saver. Being able to work around my baby's sleep and feeding schedules, for instance, allows me to fit more back-to-back meetings into my day.
I’m certainly not alone in appreciating the many benefits of virtual meetings. According to a recent poll conducted by the scientific journal Nature, 74 percent of respondents said meetings should continue to be virtual, or have a virtual component, after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. Of those respondents, 49 percent cited accessibility benefits as the top reason for their preferences, with 21 pointing to reduced carbon footprints and 19 percent to cost savings.
Because I work closely with tech-oriented organizations of many different sizes, these scientific perspectives resonate. Collaboration is essential to innovation, but flying team members around the world for in-person meetings cuts into the resources that fund innovation. Virtual meetings eliminate this Catch-22 while reducing the airline emissions that are disproportionately damaging to our environment. In terms of effectiveness, meanwhile, virtual meetings may actually have an edge over their in-person counterparts. A 2021 U.K. study found that virtual gatherings of less than 10 people were up to 6 percent more efficient than in-person meetings.
As long as everyone follows established virtual rules like going on mute when others are talking and raising their hands when they have a point, I attribute these efficiency gains to three main factors. First, the acknowledgement that no one needs to stay online longer than is necessary. After all, clicking “leave” after a quick farewell is less awkward, disruptive and time-consuming than standing up from a boardroom table mid-meeting and shaking hands with everyone. Second, attendees have quicker and more equitable access to shared documents, which goes double for people like me who have relatively poor vision and sometimes have trouble seeing PowerPoint slides across a darkened room. Last but not least, the time (and GHG emissions!) saved by not having to travel to a meeting can be used to better prepare for their virtual equivalents, and as any high-school gym teacher knows: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. “The Five Ps” for the win!
Go big or stay home
To the surprise of no one who has attended a virtual meeting with double-digit attendance, the U.K. study noted a steady decrease in efficiency as virtual meetings grow larger. The Nature survey revealed another shortcoming: “Poor networking opportunities,” which were cited as the top drawback by 69 percent of respondents. The takeaway here: When geographically dispersed organizations do meet in-person, bigger gatherings are better gatherings.
We are wired to respond to in-person interaction. University of Chicago and Harvard researchers have found that negotiators who shake hands are more honest and open with each other, and reach better outcomes, because shaking hands activates areas of the brain associated with rewards. At the same time, when all our senses are engaged in noticing things about other people that can’t be picked up on a Zoom call— perfume, cool socks—our brains become more engaged. According to a white paper from the Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University (which argued for more investment in business travel), “a new environment offers the opportunity to introduce novel experiences and situations to wake up our brains and open them to see things from a new perspective.”
From masking up to social distancing, respect for individual comfort levels has been a central theme of the pandemic, and there’s no reason that should stop as COVID recedes. If meeting in person makes you happier and more productive, then that option should be available whenever it makes logistical and financial sense. If virtual meetings, and the flexibility they enable, have changed your work life for the better, then that option should also be on the table.
Ultimately, a blended approach makes sense for most of us—and if we happen to make contact with our great-great-great grandparents that’s an added bonus.
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