Many of us wonder whether the exponential growth in virtual meetings seen during the pandemic will continue beyond it. A ‘shift-to-virtual’ seems highly likely for many types of workplace meetings and events.
This shift can save time, reduce costs, and be better for the planet*. It can play a role in helping companies achieve their Net Zero ambition. This article is about what companies need to do to make this happen.
* Car or plane travel to in-person meetings emits more greenhouse gases and demands more energy than virtual meetings, even when the energy and environmental costs of virtual meeting technology (e.g. screen manufacture, electricity and internet use) are taken into account. See research by Borggren, C. et al., (2013) Business meetings at a distance – decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and cumulative energy demand? Journal of Cleaner Production Vol. 41, 126-139
But first – what makes face-to-face meetings special?
Is it possible to replicate the buzz of a good face-to-face meeting using only a screen and webcam? Studies suggest four reasons why this proves so difficult:
- The role of ‘co-presence’. We rely on multiple forms of communication to build trusting relationships. These include non-verbal signals that are more easily given and received face-to-face. Face-to-face meetings have been described as “a multi-sensory experience of encounter and exchange”*, a phrase that captures the richness and subtlety of connection that even the snazziest virtual communication software struggles to convey.
- The significance of ‘showing up’. A salesperson making the effort to travel to a customer is seen to be conveying their commitment to the relationship. Just dialling into a video conference loses this symbolic intent.
- The fear of missing out: Virtual meeting participants fear their presence or contribution will be overlooked. We’ve all been there: our colleagues sitting in the room, while we’re stuck on a small screen on a far wall trying to get someone to notice us.
- Face-to-face is better for brainstorming, or for handling situations that are sensitive or complex. Castells writes that the “generation of initiatives, ideas and innovation [is] a micro network operated by face-to-face communication.”**
* Lyons, G., 2013. Business travel – The social practices surrounding meetings. Research in Transportation Business & Management Vol 9, 50–57
** Castells, M., 2010. Globalisation, networking, urbanisation: reflections on the spatial dynamics of the information age. Urban Studies. 47 (13), 2737–2745.
Making the shift-to-virtual ‘stick’
We can’t move every meeting online. We won’t slash greenhouse gas emissions from business travel overnight. Let’s face it, we are creatures of habit: McKinsey predicts a full recovery of business travel to pre-pandemic levels by 2024*. If we want to make virtual meetings the norm for almost all of our meetings, whether for cost, time or net zero reasons, we need to act now.
Here are seven steps that employees and employers can take, starting today:
- Keep the video on. Adding the visual element makes use of the powerful non-verbal communication channel I mentioned earlier. Sorry – I know many people prefer to stay hidden behind the smiling photo when on Zoom or Teams calls. But video reveals ourselves in ways that foster trust and strengthen interpersonal relationships. Be brave. Whatever happens, it can’t get any worse than this…
- Challenge the assumption that ‘showing up means I care’. We live in a digital age. Do we still need to meet in person to demonstrate the importance we attach to a business relationship? Think instead of a meticulously-prepared and well-rehearsed virtual pitch for new business. This can be just as compelling as a face-to-face one. And the meticulous preparation is ample evidence of your commitment to the customer, without having to travel to prove it.
- Learn how to facilitate great virtual meetings. The quality of the facilitator can make or break any meeting, face-to-face or virtual. Lockdown taught us some simple groundrules for virtual meetings: staying on mute when not speaking, seeking the contribution of all participants, and ensuring equal airtime for virtual as well as in-person attendees. Many people have told me that well-run virtual meetings during lockdown were far more focused and productive than face-to-face meetings were previously. Do you know who the good virtual facilitators are in your organisation? You need to recognise and develop this increasingly vital skill.
- Effective virtual meeting technology is a must. Through lockdown we have all seen frozen screens and heard garbled speech. Poor virtual meeting technology or narrow bandwidth make us want nothing more than to sit down together again, screen-free. It doesn’t have to be this way… but it might mean investing in a better system.
- Develop clear criteria governing business travel. These criteria should include an assessment of the environmental impact of the journey. For companies on a net zero journey, this is a must. Could travel be restricted to situations that involve complex interaction – for example, meetings to address tensions within a team or changes to terms of employment. Getting together for longer periods to work through a complex business challenge could also qualify. Travel to meetings at which everyone sits in a room watching slide presentations must be consigned to (pre-lockdown) history.
- Do it less often, but value it more highly. We should expect to meet face-to-face less often in future. We must value our time together more highly than perhaps we have in the past. Meet-ups should be a cause for celebration and an opportunity for deeper connection. They should leave us energised. Let’s stop travelling halfway around the world at great business and environmental cost, only to sit staring at a screen or at our phones, catching up on emails.
- Create a ‘virtual meeting-friendly’ culture. It should be completely acceptable for employees to join meetings from home after dropping the kids at school. Or, employees wanting to reduce their carbon footprint should feel able to challenge their manager’s request for them to fly to a meeting, if they believe the meeting can be just as effective virtually. A NetZero culture is a virtual meeting-friendly culture.
Zoom and Net Zero
The experience of millions of employees during lockdown has given us a once in a (working) lifetime opportunity. We can make long-lasting changes to our meeting patterns. Let’s seize this opportunity, rather than returning to ‘meeting as usual’.
And if your company has a Net Zero ambition, making a shift-to-virtual is not only about saving travel time and cost. It also reflects your commitment to the planet.
For more information on how NetZero.Work can help you achieve your Net Zero ambition, click here, or contact us