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Understanding virtual meetings pros and cons

This chapter excerpt from 'Suddenly Virtual' explores the importance of using video for virtual meetings and the challenges of always being on camera.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed meetings as we knew them. Stay-at-home orders forced face-to-face meetings to become virtual encounters facilitated by a video conferencing service. For many organizations, it was a trial-and-error approach to figure out how to best implement video to support employee communications.

Now, as organizations plan for a post-pandemic workplace, video and virtual meetings will still be an important part of employee workflows. But organizations need to be more strategic about their use of video to ensure meetings remain productive and curb video fatigue. Employees, too, must learn new skills for virtual meetings, including how to communicate professionally on camera.

The book Suddenly Virtual by Karin M. Reed and Joseph A. Allen, published by Wiley, takes a deep dive into virtual meetings pros and cons. It examines the need to pivot to video meetings in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the skills required to facilitate and participate in virtual meetings, and what the future may hold for meetings after the pandemic.

In this excerpt from Chapter 7 of Suddenly Virtual, Reed and Allen make the case for why video is often the best medium for a meeting and explore the drawbacks of always being on video.

In this Q&A, authors Karin Reed and Joseph Allen discuss how organizations can best support virtual meetings.

The Case for Making Every Virtual Meeting a Video Meeting

Based on the data presented earlier in this chapter, you might conclude that video is a good idea for most virtual meetings, but it's still okay to use the other formats when necessary. Although generally true, we make the case here that the choice of format must be dependent upon the nature of the message being sent and received. The more complex the message, the richer the format needs to be to allow for the transmission of that message.

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We alluded to this in Chapter 2 when we mentioned media richness theory as it relates to the ability to make deeper connections with our conversation partners when using video versus audio alone (Daft and Lengel 1986). Media richness theory is a framework used to describe a medium's ability to reproduce the information sent over it. For example, this theory could be used to describe how effective the telephone is for transmitting general dialogue and conversation versus transmitting the details contained in a photograph or spreadsheet of data. Note, however, that the telephone we are describing here is equivalent to a landline. We are not referring to the computer in your hand (i.e. an iPhone does not equal a telephone).

Media richness theory essentially claims that richer personal communication media are generally more effective for communicating complex issues in comparison to leaner, less rich media (e.g. email, text, or phone). In other words, if you are planning a meeting that will require extensive discussion, debate, consideration of alternatives, problem-solving, and/or decision-making, lean media is not a good option.

When deciding what communication medium to use for a given message or meeting, the primary factor should be to reduce equivocality, in other words, the possibility of misinterpretations or multiple interpretations of a message. The more likely a message is to be challenging to decode and understand, the more cues and data will be needed to interpret it correctly. For example, scheduling a meeting is typically fairly straightforward and can be done via email, a lean form of media. But a detailed message about a person's work performance on a recent project probably needs a richer medium, such as a face-to-face meeting.

But wait, there's a pandemic. Or, hopefully, in the future, it's simply that the person is across town, across the state, across the country, or perhaps on another continent, and you still need to communicate a complex problem or detailed message. In that case, you could use the telephone, which has wonderful auditory cues. However, the better option would be the richer medium, or a virtual meeting using your preferred video conference platform.

We must admit that the face-to-face meeting is still a richer medium than the virtual meeting. In face-to-face meetings, you can manipulate objects together (e.g. engineering project), you can see all the nonverbal cues, and you can even engage in approach touch behaviors, such as handshakes to signify agreement to a deal. Although the COVID-19 world makes us think twice about coming within six feet of anyone, there will likely come a time when face-to-face meetings will resume in earnest and this richest of meeting medium will be available once more.

Until that time, video allows for more "best practices" in interpersonal communication than teleconferencing can ever allow. Thus, we strongly encourage everyone to turn on the camera now!

Caveats to Every Virtual Meeting as a Video Meeting

Now, even though we agree and are strong in our push to encourage everyone to turn on their camera in their virtual meetings, that recommendation does not come without a major caveat that must be attended to and discussed here. First, "Zoom fatigue" is real. As early as April, articles from trusted news and research-oriented sources started exclaiming all the virtual meetings were sapping all of our energy and drive for work in general (Fosslien and Duffy 2020). Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy described the issue of Zoom fatigue and several ways to combat the exhaustion, including avoiding multitasking (sound familiar?), taking breaks, and so on. By May 2020, it was no longer "What is this thing?" and had transitioned to articles titled "Zoom fatigue is real -- here's why video calls are so draining" (Sander and Bauman 2020). Libby Sander and Oliver Bauman identified five reasons why they are so draining, as follows:

  1. We miss out on a lot of nonverbal communication. During videoconferencing, you have to pay a lot more attention to catch the nonverbal communication that you naturally can attend to in face-to-face meetings with your peripheral vision and auditory signals.
  2. What if the kids run in? We feel anxious about our home, our space, our cat, or our kids being a distraction. All of that makes us on edge during the meetings.
  3. No water-cooler catchups. We don't get to catch up, talk shop, or even small-talk between or around the meetings. It's all work and all on, all the time.
  4. Looking at our own face is stressful. As pleasant as our faces might be, looking at oneself and being one's own worst critic makes us hyperaware of our own physical failings (that no one, by the way, cares about for the most part!).
  5. Are you listening or are you frozen? Yeah, the tech can get you and/or trick you and plant seeds of doubt.

Excerpted with the permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Suddenly Virtual by Karin M. Reed and Joseph A. Allen. Copyright © 2021 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold.

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