Like many, I’m still getting to grips with video conferencing. But I think I am hooked. I must admit. And I am wondering if there is greater equality in online meetings.
Over the past four months I have attended several and organised many more. I’ve used them for one-to-ones, small group discussions and seminars for up to 200 people at a time. Telephone calls just don’t cut it anymore. And with limited options to travel, and an understandable reluctance to do so, it is more than an attractive option. Especially given how much smaller my social world is at work and at home.
The benefits are many. Gone has the need to prepare to travel, present myself, travel, arrive, settle-in, participate in meeting preamble and small talk, attend the meeting, and then do everything again – but in reverse.
There’s the obvious and instant-nature of opening up a laptop screen and the saving of time for all that unnecessary stuff and actions leading up to a meeting. Sometimes it can be a bit of a shock – the juxtaposition of work and home life. One minute putting out the rubbish, the next talking with the CEO.
But it is the interpersonal dynamics and powerplays that have always fascinated me in meetings, and online is no different. And this is where I miss the table. There simply is not a table to sit around. This is a huge shift. Often it is the table that is the silent force in a meeting. Some people arrive early so they get their pick of the positions. They may organise to arrive with someone so they can sit together, or they may choose to sit beside or opposite someone else. In online meetings, there is no head of the table. The dynamics of who is sitting next to who are gone. The small screen decides who sits where, there’s no hierarchy of placement or unspoken physical alliances and battle-lines.
Online meetings strip out the opportunities to give each other sideways glances, either hostile, supportive, encouraging, cynical or coercive. Although, let me tell you I have noticed when people are texting each other – the tech equivalent of a sideways glance. I do it myself, I must admit.
The screen limits what we see; heads and shoulders usually – user error excepting. People are still not always positioning their cameras to their best advantage. But mostly, we don’t get to see the whole body, the leaking body language, and all the other captivating observational cues and signals.
And what’s more we can choose how to participate. The functionality allows for choices in our contributions as well. You can sit back and listen, switch off your screen or your audio, chat away on the sidebar, or raise your electronic or actual hand to indicate you want to join in. if things get tricky, dull or you get a better offer, you can cut off the connection and blame your broadband provider. It’s like a meeting ejector seat, at the touch of a laptop button. It’s the stuff of dreams.
A great benefit is the reduction of awful and meaningless pre- and post-meeting chit chat. But I am not naive enough not to realise that this is where much business gets done. Especially in unequal workplaces. I always felt sorry for people dialling in to meetings because when meetings ended they hang up, but the chat continues. It’s those Columbo moments when somebody ‘remembers’ an important question – you know, usually preceded by the phrase “oh, just before you go…”. It disadvantages those that have already left the meeting. To some extent there is greater equality if everyone ‘dials-in’ but beware not to hang up too soon is my advice. Overall, it does seem to feel like a levelling, more equal and choice-filled workspace than what we had before.
Too much of a rose-tinted glasses view? Probably. There are classic dynamics in place. Who organised the meeting, who is chairing it, and who decides who gets to speak? All key questions and the answers reveal who the puppet master is. The role of chair has never been more important and they need to be up to the job.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and believe Teams or Zoom are emancipatory forces. The meeting controller can mute you all at the touch of a button. A very useful function I have to say. I have joyfully used it. Not only for improving the quality of sound, but it gives one uninterrupted time. It is quite a unique tool I must say. One that really comes into play when delivering training to potentially hostile learners. If only I’d had the benefit of that years ago. And so, the role of meeting lead is a responsible one. It is one that should commit to equality in participation and to make the best of this new way of working. Perhaps an online meeting chair also needs to be the table?