I’m not overfond or in-person meetings, and online meetings are worse. I think we could make them better. And the first step to doing that would be to stop pretending there’s a way we can produce a perfect simulacrum of an in-person meeting through a conferencing tool. This. Is. Not. Possible. We should instead be trying to remember what the point of in-person meetings are, and then try to achieve those goals online.
Attending online meetings is uniquely exhausting and frustrating. Everyone knows this, but we pretend it isn’t true. So the first way we could improve is just to admit that our meetings are both less productive and more exhausting than in-person meetings, minute-to-minute. There are some simple technical reasons that online meetings suck so bad, that are largely unavoidable:
- The audio, uniformly, is terrible: bad microphones, no microphones, background noise, echoes, quality issues related to internet bandwidth
- The video is confusing and usually terrible: people’s images jump around the screen, people appear and disappear, people are sitting in the dark, something is randomly flashing behind someone else, SOMEONE IS ON A SWING AND I’M GOING TO BARF
- Every system is just different enough from every other system for me to feel lost, all the time: can I “raise hand” in this one? Can I pin a video?
These quirks lead to meeting-worsening interactions:
- You can’t actually make eye contact with anyone, ever. You can see their faces, and look AT their eyes, but you don’t make eye contact. Turns out that’s important.
- No one knows when it is their turn to talk: we spend a lot of time waiting for people to notice we want to speak, and it adds a lot of delay and confusion
- People are forever forgetting to mute and/or unmute themselves and we all lose a lot of time waving our arms madly at people to get their attention when we can hear them yelling at their kids, or, when we helplessly watch them move their faces in the shape of words we cannot hear.
- The overall vibe is that we feel pinned to our own chairs and under total surveillance even as every other member of the meeting seems somehow beyond its reach, lost and distant.
If we can just begin by admitting these things, we’re halfway there. But somehow we mostly keep trying to solve the problem of online meetings by trying to overcome these basic realities such that somehow our meetings approach the standard productivity and exhaustion level of in-person meetings which is not possible, and the pursuit of which makes things actively worse.
Consider how we try to make online meetings better:
- Compulsory camera use, to ensure everyone is present and paying attention
- Compulsory mass muting, to ensure the chair has control of the room
- Shutting down the chat to minimize “distraction” and “overwhelm”
- Scheduling more meetings so that (muted, surveilled) members can feel that social contact we miss
Okay, no. I have seen it all at this point and I can tell you that these strategies just ratchet up everyone’s frustration, on various fronts, to varying degrees.
A counteroffer: what if we thought of cameras and microphones and participant lists and polls and public chat and user-customizable display setup functions as each a kind of access tool that overlaps with each of the others to produce a meeting-condition in which a variety of humans with different sensory, cognitive, social, and attentional needs could each in their own way find a way to participate that was least exhausting and most productive to them?
It’s counterintuitive. In-person meetings with physical co-presence root participation in embodiment: you vote or get added to the speakers list by raising your hand. You express your opinions partially through facial expressions and posture that can be scanned by others, and you can scan in turn. You can surreptitiously text your colleague an aside, or quietly lean over to the colleague next to you to ask a brief clarification of a missed piece of information. The meeting chair occupies a role at the head of the table and her authority is visible and deferred to by the attendees. Meeting materials can be scanned with your eyes while you listen to the speaker.
So we would think you improve an online meeting by simultaneously engaging or requiring the virtual equivalent of all of these physical factors: cameras on, ready to talk, everyone eyes forward. But this is not co-presence, or embodiment. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. Or even if you’re wearing pants. Stop.
We could actually do better.
- Those with hearing difficulties could benefit from live-captioning.
- Those with sensitivity to bad audio could also benefit from live-captioning because we could turn the sound entirely OFF and still “hear” the meeting.
- Those who feel more comfortable off-camera could turn theirs off, maybe turning them back on when they wish to speak to the group.
- Those who feel more comfortable seeing and being seen could turn their cameras on, and see those members who share that desire.
- Those in distractingly loud environments might wish to participate by typing their contributions into the chat.
- Those whose cameras are off might also add to the chat, little things like “I agree” or “I would like to be added to the speakers list” because they cannot show those things through their gestures
- Indeed the chat might be used to hold votes, or do straw polls, or for people to post brief introductions of themselves
- Colleagues might wish to send little private-chat messages to one another, anodyne things like “I was so glad to see your dog’s surgery went well!” or “it’s nice to almost be in a room with you again” or “congratulations on that award!”
- Even better, every meeting attendee can change their preferences and their practices from meeting to meeting, or within a meeting!
Conferencing tools can support all of this–flexibility, customization, accessibility–and can produce a sensory, attentional, and variously interactive environment in individualized ways to participants with individual needs, in ways that mostly do not impinge on anyone else:
- Live captions are a feature you can choose to turn on (and see) or not (they don’t exist for you)
- If you want to be on camera you can, and if I don’t, I don’t have to, but we’re both still at the meeting
- If you can share a question on the chat and I can answer it over audio (and captions!) then we’re both happy
- If seeing the messages pop up in the chat is distracting, you can close the chat window. Poof!
- If you love the little bits of humanity and humour in the chat, you can choose to follow it
We can rethink meeting chairing, too: it is next to impossible for one person to monitor people’s technical questions (“can you see my now?” / “why can’t I un-mute myself?” / “I raised my hand but don’t know how to lower it?”) AND manage a speaker’s list by video show of hands, virtual hand-raising, or expression of interest in the chat AND do the actual work of running a meeting. What about putting an admin in charge of monitoring the chat? And inviting a tech person to support people’s inevitable technical problems? It’s impossible to monitor all channels at once: attendees want to customize their experience because it’s too much, and trying to manage all of it while chairing is obviously too much. Delegate.
Conferencing tools, I’m suggesting, can be a more accessible meeting space than the boardroom!
But mostly, we miss this opportunity, because we are all so wrapped up in trying to make the best version of the boardroom meeting as we can, but online.
People seem to have BIG FEELINGS about this idea–that when we moved everything online, it was more than a change in venue, it was a moment that required a far greater flexibility in reimagining how we can meet the goals the meetings were meant to serve. It’s asking us to change not just where we do our work, but to develop new ways of meeting existing goals that we thought we already were meeting just fine, thank you. It’s change upon change, undesired. I get that.
Marshall McLuhan famously asserted that “the medium is the message”–he suggested that the form of any new medium is the content of the medium it supercedes. Early automobiles were designed with insufficient windscreens and shock absorbtion, stuck in the horse paradigm of relatively slow travel. They were faster horse-drawn carriages that didn’t poop; but they were not great cars. This is where we’re at with online meetings. We are using astonishingly powerful tools with amazing affordances for participation, sharing, recording, and access to … make our meetings the same as when we sat in uncomfortable chairs and watched the clock tick in that room with the loud ventilation fans. Why. We have an opportunity here, not to be really mad about not being able to go to campus, but to be excited and open-minded about how this new way of meeting might produce better, customized experiences for all of us. Instead of being mad about how online meetings are even worse than in-person ones, we can think about what wasn’t quite working about in-person meetings, explore the tools of online conferencing that might allow us to solve them, and get creative in remaking a new kind of meeting that might, even, be more accessible and productive than the old kind.