Do We Really Need to Meet In Person?

Halfpoint/istockphoto.com

Videoconferencing is flawed, but it’s still better than the alternative.

Remember huddling in a conference room? It’s almost cartoonish to imagine everybody squeezing into a poorly ventilated space to talk and trade germs for the purpose of … what, exactly?

As many workers begin returning to their office for all or some of the work week, they’re noticing a key change: The pandemic is nearing its conclusion, but meetings are still happening virtually. In many cases, office workers are leaving home, going to their desk, sitting down, putting on their headphones, and connecting to Zoom to chat with people sitting a few feet away from them. The cognitive dissonance that workers may be feeling isn’t because things are different, but because they’re remarkably similar to the way they were at home. While bosses have been braying that we will lose collaboration and mentorship opportunities in a dominantly remote future, workers have been (justifiably) questioning why they have to leave their home at all.

What do you really gain from an in-person meeting that you have been missing the past 19 months?

[Read: End meeting for all]

Zoom and other forms of functional (and free) videoconferencing software aren’t necessarily better than meeting in person, but they’re also not necessarily worse. And although a company may demand that everybody return to the office at some point over the next few months, that doesn’t mean that their outside partners or clients will do so, making Zoom or a conference call an automatic part of every outward meeting.

I will acknowledge that this absolutely happened before the pandemic, and usually led to everyone sitting in a conference room around a speaker. Except we’ve now had a vivid experience of the alternative, and hardly anyone is clamoring to go back to the way things were, germs and all. For the past 19 months, we didn’t need to interrupt our workday to go to a special room so people could talk over one another and waste time. Meetings weren’t an event, but a to-do-list item that required a little more attention than an email. I suspect that those mourning the loss of pre-pandemic meetings are likely executives and managers who enjoyed the attention and the chance to prove themselves valuable through extremely visible performances. Whereas you might be able to “command a room” in person, it’s much harder to feel that everybody knows how great you are when you haven’t gathered them around a long table of which you happen to sit at the head.

Meetings were previously a novelty—a mutually agreed-upon way in which we could all use up one another’s time nonspecifically that was nevertheless accepted as “work.” Videoconferencing’s low barrier to entry has removed meetings from this vaunted status, making them just another means to get things done, along with email, Slack, and other productivity tools. Early in the pandemic, everybody’s first instinct was to frame Zoom as the problem, but I think the world has shifted to understanding that we were simply having too many meetings before, and that videoconferencing enables us to diplomatically end them as quickly as we made them.

To be sure, after all these months of remote work, you may be experiencing Zoom fatigue, or, more accurately, meeting fatigue. The amount of meetings doubled during the pandemic. But as we approach something like a return to “normalcy” in 2022, I believe that the white-collar future will be dominantly remote not because it’s “better,” but because it’s “good enough.” Remote work gets the job done, it allows more people to participate in more activities, and it is significantly easier to get people to join a videoconference than it is to unite them in a conference room.

I believe we’ll also see an eventual reduction in the time spent in meetings. Meetings used to feel special because of the pomp and circumstance of physically gathering, but reducing them to a link has removed the mystique that pressured us to “take up all of the time.” In my own experiment of offering clients the opportunity to end a meeting when we are done talking, I’ve found that they’re elated—if we can get a call done in 10 minutes, that’s 20 to 50 minutes of their time that they’ve just gotten back, because our meeting culture has shifted from performance to pragmatism.

All that being said, fully remote meetings can have downsides. Relying on a dozen or more different internet connections regularly leads to people inadvertently misjudging speaking cues (something you can gauge a little better in person), or missing parts of conversations, or having someone unexpectedly drop out at the worst moment. It can also be hard to tell whether you’ve actually engaged someone with your comments—for better or for worse—because everybody’s staring at separate parts of the screen. And by now most of us have taken to browsing other tabs while someone else is speaking, sort of half-listening with our cameras on (or off). It is indeed challenging to give a virtual speaker your undivided attention for more than a few minutes.

[Ed Zitron: Why managers fear a remote-work future]

However, these digital cons are vastly outweighed by the pros. Post-pandemic meeting culture is a watershed moment for inclusivity, especially for workers with disabilities. Where these employees may have been previously ostracized for not being in the office, the opportunity of a remote post-pandemic meeting culture is one where there is no limit to the seats at the table. Videoconferencing definitely doesn’t make us look our best, but in some ways, that’s rather freeing—it removes a degree of aesthetic judgment, as well as the ritual of feeling physically intimidated in the workplace. Some of the aforementioned “cons” are also, in a way, “pros.” The lack of a strict focal point means that people aren’t arbitrarily judged for their “attention,” and for those like me who have nonverbal communication issues (such as maintaining eye contact), it’s a chance to not get held back for something you can’t control.

The next several months will be incredibly telling for how meeting culture will change in the long term. The disingenuous framing of returning to the office as returning to “work” will only look more silly as millions of people realize at once how silly it is to commute to an office to open a web browser and join a videoconference. As people go back to a shared physical space, they’re going to start asking reasonable questions such as “Why am I here?” and “What am I doing here that I can’t do at home?” as they and several colleagues a few feet apart join a 10-minute-long Zoom meeting. And when they do so, they may make the choice to simply work for a different employer—and do that work from home.

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for its newsletter.

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