The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Virtual Meetings

As it appeared in the Daily Nation on April 22nd 2020
Dr. Lucy Kiruthu

The world has gone virtual courtesy of COVID-19. Virtual meetings and events are the new normal. In the last 5 weeks, I have had more virtual meetings than I ever did in the past 10 years. Last week, I felt the fatigue from back-to-back virtual meetings setting in. This made me skip an important associates meeting. After having had a busy day, I just did not feel like showing up on the screen in another corner of the world. Their day was just starting while ours was getting closer to bedtime. I was exhausted after hours of screen time. Maybe I should just have shown up, turned off the video, and allowed myself to rest on the couch. On the contrary, I consider turning on the video during virtual meetings a good business etiquette.

In the last 5 weeks, I have realized that many past meetings could have been held virtually. This would have resulted in savings in both time and money. But then again, interacting with people face-to-face and interacting via the screen is not comparable. When interacting on the screen, it is difficult to read the body language; it is impossible to establish eye contact, a smile is not always obvious and one may miss out on a nod. Maybe soon, virtual meeting platforms will have an additional capability to read non-verbal cues. Even if this happens, I still believe face-to-face interactions will remain valuable post COVID-19.

Why are virtual meetings starting to become draining? Could it be that some of us are having too many of them? Could it be that we are not doing it right? Every virtual meeting requires structure. The person leading the meeting must take charge from start to end and effectively manage the meeting. This requires extra effort in the preparation stage and familiarity with the virtual meeting platform is necessary. Before or at the start of the meeting, ground rules should be made clear. For example, one cannot stay silent or simply walk out of a physical boardroom meeting. Unfortunately, some choose to stay unengaged or simply leave a virtual meeting. It is easy to blame the quality of the internet during a virtual meeting.

The mute and unmute button seems to confuse or maybe excite many meeting attendants. For those attending a virtual meeting for the first time, it is important to get familiar with the platform controls, virtual meeting etiquette and set-ups including camera positioning and lighting. We do not need to unmute when we have nothing to say. The interference from the surroundings can be a major distraction. I have also noticed those happy to be on mute all through. The meeting leader must always encourage participation.

Screen time can be exhausting. Before scheduling the next virtual meeting, determine whether it is necessary. Choose attendees carefully and have a reason for their presence. For some, we need to learn how to switch off our screens and take a walk. For others, we need to learn how to start establishing relationships virtually. It is evident that virtual meetings are here to stay!

Dr. Lucy Kiruthu is a Management Consultant and Trainer. Connect via twitter @KiruthuLucy

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