As COVID-19 continues to dominate our lives it is worth reflecting on at least one positive development that has emerged during a challenging year. 2020 has seen the rise, and continuing rise, of virtual meetings which are unlikely to be going anywhere in a hurry. Like the impact of the pandemic, the mainstream move to virtual meetings will change our working lives forever.
Sure, some companies are now proudly boasting they have been using virtual meetings for years. However, for the rest of us, until 2020 if we had attended a virtual meeting it might have involved a few calls with family members over FaceTime, the occasional webinar or long teleconferences with no video at all.
It is fair to say the vast majority of businesses and employees were oblivious to the benefits of virtual meetings until it was thrust upon them by necessity and virtually overnight.
The move to virtual meetings as a business norm is an exciting development that is hopefully here to stay as we witness it leading to changes in meeting dynamics as well as providing a much-needed tool to help boost workplace inclusion, diversity and work life balance.
I spend most of my working week in meetings. Before the pandemic, this meant being on a flight once or twice a week to attend board meetings in different locations around the country. My calendar was generally filled with a variety other meetings as well including coffee catch ups, lunch meetings, business events and speaking engagements.
With the onset of the pandemic, like so many others I suddenly found myself working from home and attending all my meetings virtually. I was also giving speeches to a virtual audience I could not see. At the start of 2020, I was a relative novice using Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet and yet some six months later, I think virtual meetings are not only here to stay but have been one of the brighter moments in an otherwise challenging year.
Here are ten reasons why I think virtual meetings have so much to offer us all.
1. Less Waffle, More Decision Making
As a general rule, virtual meetings tend to be more efficient as there is an acknowledgement that no one wants to stay online longer than they have to. If you have a well-run virtual meeting, your agenda will have been circulated ahead of time, pre-reading will have been done by attendees and the meeting will start and finish on time. Having virtual meeting ‘rules’ such as staying on mute when not talking, asking questions in the chat function or using the raised hand to indicate you want to speak, allocating time for breaks and having a Chair who keeps the discussion on track, will all mean an effective meeting where decisions are made and time is saved.
2. Discussion Dominators Are Diminished
As all of our meetings move online, you may have observed that colleagues who might have once dominated discussions now seem a little quieter (or at least now only speaking in equal amounts to their colleagues). I am confident one day a direct correlation will be found between those who used to dominate face to face meetings being the same people who now always need to be reminded that they are still on mute. And they are also the same people who seem incapable of positioning their camera in a way that people can actually see them. In short, speaking loudly and interrupting people may have once been a way to help dominate a discussion but those rules no longer apply.
3. Death Of The Power Suit
As many people are now working from home or working in vastly more empty workplaces, we are seeing our colleagues wearing what they have probably always wanted to wear to meetings – comfortable clothes. Gone are the expensive power suits, high heels and perfectly coifed hair. Virtual meetings allow us to respect and value our colleagues for their contributions rather than their appearance and people are encouraged to bring their authentic, whole selves to meetings rather than external symbols of success and power. The time saved in getting dressed and ready for a meeting is time well saved!
4. Size Really Doesn’t Matter
Anyone who has previously held a room through their sheer size and physical presence must now be feeling at a bit of a loss. The power pose, overbearing handshake or the habit of leaning aggressively across the desk to make a point are now gone. Much more valued by your colleagues, and completely unrelated to physical prowess, is being able to position your camera in a way that people can actually see you, knowing how to use the technology and being available and able to contribute.
5. Everyone Is Welcome
Pre-COVID, many membership organisations or businesses held events or gatherings designed to bring people together after work, often in a city location and frequently at a time that didn’t suit many. Such events often precluded people with caregiving responsibilities, people with a busy diary, people with disabilities and people who did not live nearby. The move to have these gatherings online has meant many more people can now participate in events, breakout room discussions and networking opportunities. The old view that networking can only happen in person has been well and truly challenged by the move online.
6. Sharing Made Simple
Regardless of how impressive a physical meeting room might be, it is a more seamless experience to receive a presentation and participate in a meeting online than it is to sit around a table, craning to see the presenter and shuffling chairs to see the presentation screen. With a virtual meeting, everyone can equally see and hear the presenter, the slides are able to be read clearly on your screen, you can ask questions through the chat function rather than having to disturb the flow of the discussion and you can switch off the camera and take a bathroom break without having to sneak out the back of the room hoping the door doesn’t slam and disturb everyone on your way out. Breakout rooms in a virtual meeting are also much more efficient than instructing people to form groups of a certain size, find a space somewhere in the room, carry a chair and finish on time. In a virtual meeting, breakout groups can be timed to ensure a focused discussion, it is easy to allocate people into any sized groups and everyone can feel they have been consulted.
7. Buying Back Time
For as long as any of us can remember there has been discussions about whether the elusive concept of work life balance can ever really be achieved. While online meetings are not the only answer, the time saved in travelling back and forth to face to face meetings now means we have regained time that can be spent on other things. Depending on how far you might have previously needed to travel for face to face meetings (across the world, across the country, across the city or across the office) the travel time which has been saved is an enormous bonus for people who can now spend that time on other things they might have previously have needed to do at the end of their working week.
8. Coming To You From … Anywhere
The beauty of an online meeting is that it no longer matters where you are physically located. You might choose to live in a city, on a farm or at the beach. Or perhaps on a boat or in a van, travelling the country. Geographic freedom is a massive boost for those who choose to live away from their physical workplaces and importantly it also means employers now have a virtually boundless pool of talented potential employees to choose from. It also means people with disabilities or others who may have been prevented from commuting to work for whatever reason can, and should be, considered for your team. The idea of having to live commuting distance from a physical office has been shown in 2020 to be a concept that is being seriously challenged.
9. Punctual Is Perfect
A punctual meeting is a good meeting and as a general rule, virtual meetings tend to start and finish on time (or at least far more so than a physical meeting). There is no more waiting for stragglers to finish making their coffee in the office kitchen, waiting for someone who visited the bathroom on the way to the meeting or for those colleagues saying goodbye to their last client in reception before arriving late. Gone are the days you can blame traffic, delayed flights or public transport for being late for a virtual meeting and for this, your colleagues are very grateful.
10. One In, All In
With everyone attending virtual meetings there is a much greater sense of equality of experience amongst meeting attendees. Pre-COVID, sometimes virtual meetings may have been a mix of some people “in the room where it happened” (thanks, Hamilton) while others dialled in and invariably missed out on some of the body language and experiences of the physical meeting. There was often a sense of ‘otherness’ if you were the person on the phone or video call when everyone else was in the physical meeting. This has now been removed by everyone part of the same experience and benefits.
There is no doubt virtual meetings are now here to stay. The longer the use of online meetings are a normal part of life, the less likely it is that we will return to pre-COVID ways of frequent, long meetings in person. And that is a very good thing.
For all the positives, there are also downsides to virtual meetings. We lose the opportunity for impromptu side conversations and relationship building outside of the formal meeting. We lose the chance to chat and network in a way that feels much more natural. And the sense of feeling isolated and removed from colleagues and family when talking through a computer screen all day is real.
However, the downsides of online meetings are far outweighed by the benefits which include the ability to include, equally, all members of a team and to ensure all voices are heard. Online meetings provide an excellent way to help drive diversity and inclusion and to also employ people who have the talent to offer regardless of where they might live.
Love them or hate them, the virtual meeting is here to stay.