Surviving remote meetings in business


Having to participate in meetings remotely via Teams, Skype, Zoom, or any other online platform, is not relatively new. Even before the current crisis we are all facing, for many companies and their employees, this was quite often normal practice especially when people were in different locations that made face-to-face meetings impractical, costly, or even impossible. For decades before we were establishing telephone conference calls especially for international meetings.

However, the main difference we are seeing today due to the Corona crisis, is that so many more businesses and individuals are being forced to turn to online (remote) meetings and seminars. Added to this, some businesses have turned to offering streaming services online through webinars or online instruction and classes, for example gyms and exercise classes. We also need to factor in the increased take-up of streaming media services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, or online gaming, to replace the loss of access to entertainment venues due to the pandemic.

All of this has meant a vast surge in the numbers of users participating in online activities whether for work or leisure time. If we consider the typical problems associated with our leisure time use of the Internet such as poor Internet connections, Wi-Fi dropouts, demands of other users, restricted bandwidth, etc., we get frustrated but continue to persevere as it is in our interests, i.e. we need it to work as we have nothing to do if it doesn’t. Also, as it might only affect ourselves and no-one else, then we sometimes give up and try again later, “that Netflix video can wait”.

Apply the same scenario to the workplace when dozens if not hundreds of people are all invited to a meeting or seminar online, where previously it had all been face-to-face, and suddenly you run into major challenges. One of the biggest hurdles I have experienced this year, is that many people have so little experience of using the meeting software. For many companies this forced activity of conducting meetings online, has meant that those with no experience of using such software, have had to learn how to use it by attending online meetings on how to use online meeting software, or put another way by “jumping into the deep end and learning how to swim”!

For some people, this “new way of working” can be simply too frustrating, with an attitude, rightly or wrongly, of “if my employer wants me to work in this way, they have to ensure that it does actually work”. These people often feel so frustrated that they will not put up with the constant disruptions in connections when many people are in a meeting together, resulting in poor quality voice or video interaction. If we include the fact that some people either cannot, or do not want to, start their camera to show themselves to others during the meeting, this adds to the feeling of “remoteness” and feeling somewhat disconnected from the situation. Add to this the feeling of having been forced to work in this way in the first place, and people can sometimes feel that they weren’t given a choice, therefore feeling resentful of the situation before giving it a chance.

We also have to factor in the locations where people have been participating in online meetings, usually at home with all of the distractions of home life, families, pets, partners and children, etc. As I wrote in a previous article, during this current crisis, many other family members are facing the same issues, such as online meetings, or education.

In my experience, I have noticed that online meetings that have disruptions due to the technology or even the user’s limited knowledge of the software they are using, usually go one of two ways. The first is that some participants get increasingly (and quite quickly) frustrated, to the point of dropping out of the meeting altogether citing it as a waste of time and effort – it is not their fault if they cannot then participate, it’s the software/other user. This is often the case when the meeting is not particularly important to that individual, i.e. it holds no specific value just for them, such as departmental or general meetings, even if their participation would be required if it was held face-to-face. This is synonymous with one-way communication, meaning the barriers to understanding cannot be broken down, even if the format of communication is meant to be two-way.

The second way is that despite any of the difficulties mentioned above, if the participant has a vested interest in the activity, i.e. it holds value for them, then they will continue and persevere to the end, as from experience, they know that the technical issues will eventually be sorted and that the message will finally get through. This second attitude is much more in line with circular communication, which most of us try to use in our daily lives, breaking down any barriers to understanding until the message becomes clear

Having recently experienced the above scenarios in both terms of frustration in private and business life, with family and friends, colleagues and students, I can say that there has slowly been an increase in the patience of online communication and an upturn towards a positive attitude when things don’t work as planned. Online meeting participants are slowly taking a “this is just something that happens in online meetings, especially when we invite guests”, so become well-adjusted to the technical issues, and accepting them for what they are and understanding that they cannot easily solve the issue themselves.

However, not everyone has a positive attitude, and for those I can say that we need to accept that we are living in an age where change is the new normal, and that change at the moment is fluid. Let’s concentrate more on the message that we want to communicate rather than blaming the technology when it doesn’t work. Let’s be more social than anti-social, embrace the things that work and give us a positive feeling, let the negative issues get lost in the technology that sometimes causes them. You will feel better for it – and if all else fails and you are still annoyed when your meetings don’t go as planned, take a calm, relaxing walk in the forest – you will also feel a lot better for that!