Virtual Meetings: Should They Stay or Should They Go?

A look at the democratizing effect for the habitually marginalized

Welcome back Chaise Lounge readers and an especially warm welcome to our newest subscribers. This week we will take a look at the pros and cons of virtual meetings as the country makes the transition from COVID lockdowns. There is a lot to consider, and I thought it might be helpful to put some ideas out there. I would love to hear what is going on in your workplace, too, so let us know in the comments section. In the meantime, let’s check out some global and national news items.

Global Updates

Japan fails to increase the number of female managers

According to a Reuters poll, women make up less than 10% of the managers in Japanese companies who responded. While a goal of 30% female managers had been set for the end of the decade, most polled do not believe that will happen. Respondents cited general cultural attitudes and a lack of child care as reasons for the failure.

Maida Bilal wins 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize

Maida Bilal was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize last week for her activism in saving the rivers in Bosnia-Herzegovina from being dammed. In 2017, she started her crusade by gathering about 300 people, mostly women, to sit on a small wooden bridge thereby blocking the equipment trucks from building the dam. In spite of attacks from soldiers and arrests, the group continued their protest and took their fight to the local courts Ultimately, they won their case after 503 days of (wo)manning the bridge.

National Updates

UVA researchers discover new information on autism in girls

Girls with autism have frequently been overlooked in the research base, but fortunately, researchers at the University of Virginia used functional MRIs to look at brain activity during social interactions in the brains of boys and girls with and without autism. They found that “autistic girls used different sections of their brains than girls who did not have ASD. And, most surprisingly, the difference between girls with and without autism was not the same as the difference in the brain seen when comparing boys with and without autism, revealing different brain mechanisms at play in autism depending on a person’s gender.” This discovery may lead to new interventions and treatments for girls with autism.

Who benefits from innovation depends on who gets to invent

A study published in the journal Science examined biomedical patents from 1976-2010. They found that patent teams made up of all female inventors were 35% more likely to focus on women’s health than those with all-male members. Additionally, they found that female inventors were more likely to find new female-focused ideas. Clearly, this is an area where representation matters.

High school student wins an appeal in a sexual assault case against the school district

A female high school student at Oakton High School in Fairfax County, Virginia has won a new trial regarding a sexual assault against her that took place on a school bus. The student was on a band trip when the assault happened. She reported the assault to school authorities but was asked what she was wearing and told she could get into trouble. The school did nothing to separate her assaulted from her and she continued in band class with him. The school did not follow Title IX practices as they are required and the jury agreed to grant her a new trial. We will be following this story as it could set some important precedents in Title IX cases in high schools.

Virtual Meetings: Should They Stay or Should They Go?

While we are all experiencing “Zoom fatigue” and looking forward to meeting in person again, it is time to evaluate the role that virtual meetings will have going forward. Many were surprised at how easily they could transition to the virtual workspace while others found it to be a mine pit of problems and exhaustion. And of course, not everyone has the technical setup or space for virtual meetings to be permanent going forward.

I recently had a lengthy discussion with a group of professional women around this topic, and we found that overall, the benefits of virtual meetings outweighed the downsides. Now obviously using virtual meetings for all of your communication is not ideal when you do not have to. But hear me out on all of the benefits that came up in our discussion and then make your own judgment. 

Democratizing effect

Virtual meetings have a democratizing effect on the workplace. Everyone has to submit their questions the same way or “raise their hand”. You are either muted by the presenter or have control over your own microphone in the same way that everyone else does. The interruptions are far fewer as people are more careful to make sure that they do not speak over one another. As a result, it is much more obvious when someone is a serial interrupter. For those who previously worked in field offices where they had to call into meetings, all of a sudden, they were in the room with the same level of interaction as everyone else. For women, the virtual meetings phenomenon reduced issues around how to dress. Additionally, being online eliminates issues around physical bearing like height. 

For those in the disabled community, virtual meetings enabled them to participate on a more equal footing. People in a wheelchair look just the same as everyone else in their pixelated box. Without the exhaustion that a commute can impose on chronically ill or disabled individuals, many found their productivity rising and their pain improving. For others, like Fifer Charlie Loftus, Zoom meetings gave her an equal place at the table in spite of being 4’6”. 

“No one looks down at me because for once, we’re all on the same head level. No one glances awkwardly at me, trying not to stare, but wondering how I got here.” Fifer Charlie Loftus

And accessibility has not only been a boon in the workplace but also in civic engagement. As all meetings, including town councils and boards, moved to virtual spaces, all of a sudden many more people were able to participate, both able-bodied and disabled. Working parents were able to tune into the PTA meeting, citizens could attend meetings that affect their daily lives, constituents could tune into presentations by those running for office all in ways that never would have happened before. 

For a writer like me, the pandemic silver lining was the ability to tune in to a plethora of conferences that were held online instead of in person. I was able to engage with national figures in ways that never could have happened pre-pandemic. Most of the conferences were free and I could move in and out of the sessions just like in real life. The opportunities for learning and connection were amazing. 

And I am not the only one recognizing the benefits of virtual conferences. According to a survey in Nature magazine, scientists are asking that future conferences have a virtual component in addition to the in-person meetings citing accessibility, reduce costs, and reduced carbon footprints as key factors.

What are the downsides to virtual meetings?

Of course, there are downsides to virtual meetings, and I am in no way recommending that we move to all virtual meetings all the time. The Zoom fatigue that we all felt was real. Having to sit for hours at a time and look like you are paying attention is difficult and unlike the real world where you can get up and move around. The lack of personal connection or an ability to read body language is a true impediment to excellent communication. 

Many people who were forced into virtual meetings had neither space nor equipment to set up a professional environment for work. Some may say that is an upside in that we got to meet each other’s pets and children, but if you are the employee being interrupted by family, you may not feel so happy about it. 

Annual conferences and summits are typically fundraisers for many organizations. If all meetings were to remain virtual, many could face long-term financial difficulty. 

Conferences around professions provide the best place to network with the top people in your field. So much goes on at a conference beyond the workshops. We cannot lose those connections and the ability to share ideas and broker deals. 

A recent study found that virtual platforms like Zoom, MSTeams, and Skype compress voices and as a result, women’s voices come through as less expressive and charismatic. If you have a poor internet connection, the effect is even worse. Women need to be aware of this effect, especially when they are in a role of persuasion or sales.

A happy medium - the hybrid approach

Thinking about the ways that virtual meetings can be used as we move forward is a plus for everyone. While some municipalities already broadcast meetings publicly prior to the pandemic, there was not an option for interaction. Doing so in a virtual meeting setting allows those at home to participate. Opening up our democratic system to include more people is a winning solution to allow more citizens to have their voices heard.

While we expected schools to seamlessly create a hybrid experience for students, few businesses did so. Employers are just beginning to figure out if they will allow some (or in some cases, all) of their employees to work remotely. When you have a hybrid workforce, you need to have processes of communication that work for everyone putting them on an even playing field. For those going this route, they must find ways to bring staff together for decision-making or planning purposes, and virtual meetings are the easiest way to do so.

I would love to hear about what discussions those in your workplace are having around this issue. And if you feel that I left out something important to consider, don’t be shy, be sure to leave a comment below.

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