I was a trustee of an M.E./Chronic Fatigue Syndrome charity when the COVID pandemic hit.
Being a largely vulnerable group, we moved our monthly meetings online and saw attendance increase. Those who had struggled to travel into town were able to participate from their homes, and people found that the meetings had less impact on the rest of their day.
Meeting online is often seen as a poor alternative to being face-to-face. But not all meetings are the same – different people have different needs, and different meetings have different purposes. So how do we decide whether we want to work online or in-person for a given situation?
When is meeting online more inclusive than meeting in-person?
Wherever we choose to meet – at a hospital, at a community centre, at a pub, in a Zoom room – it will include some people and exclude others. The move to remote meetings has rightly prompted important conversations about digital exclusion. But we also need to consider ‘in-person exclusion’. Some people who might find meeting in-person less accessible or inclusive than meeting online are:
- People with fatigue as part of health condition or disability
- People with anxiety around leaving their home, travelling or being in a room with others
- Parents and others with caring responsibilities
- Vulnerable people who benefit from the option to meet with their camera off
- Very busy people
- People who like working online!
Can we meet better online?
Cultures around the world have used a version of a ‘talking stick’ – an object that is passed around the group for generations. The ‘talking stick’ gives the holder the full attention of the group. The UK public sector is not one of these cultures.
Standard meeting practice has people competing for the opportunity to speak, focusing on the point they want to make rather than listening to others. This kind of gathering doesn’t support us to think well, or to connect to each other and feel good.
For reasons I’m unsure of, people often seem to be better at taking turns when they meet online. People raise their hands to speak, and apologise if they accidentally speak over each other. I really like meeting this way – I find it less tiring than a more competitive mode, and I find myself more engaged as the interaction shifts from competing to make points to building on each other’s thoughts. I also often see better results as people work more collaboratively.
There are losses when we move online – for example meeting in-person allows us to see other people’s body language more fully, and we often find time to connect before or after the meeting in a way that doesn’t tend to happen remotely. There’s not a simple answer to this – it might depend on your priorities for your meeting, but we should at least be open to learning from the best of both worlds.
Looking after our resources
Meeting online reduces the need for office space (or venue hire) and travel costs. More importantly, it can save huge amounts of time. For those whose roles cover large geographical areas, and for those who live and/or work in more remote areas, huge amounts of time can be spent travelling that could otherwise be put to better use at work or at home.
Working remotely when we can gives us an opportunity to reduce our impact on the environment.
Looking after ourselves
When people were furloughed during the pandemic, some people experienced a positive opportunity to take life a bit easier. Others lost a key way in which they connected with others or got space from a difficult home life. Some of us need to be around people for work, others can live better lives working more from home. Having another way to meet gives us more options to look after ourselves and those we work with.
Meeting online isn’t a direct substitute for meeting in-person, it’s a different thing. It brings us a new set of options when we’re thinking about the best ways to meet that are both inclusive and effective.