Virtual meetings versus physical workshops

| Linda Hutchinson

As we all get used to life during the coronavirus crisis, many of us are switching to virtual meetings in order to keep working. Whilst we’re in lock down in the UK it is the only option for those of us who can work from home. But there is a sense that we should be doing more of this anyway in a bid to adopt flexible work practices and reduce travelling and the impacts on climate change.

Video calls are coming into their own during this crisis. Offering a closer connection that just a voice at the end of a phone, video calls are helping people feel less isolated and allowing friends, family and others stay in touch in a more intimate way. People are holding tea time over video calls, sharing meals, dance offs, watching movies, doing house tours, zoos are even video streaming animal enclosures.

On the work front, people are doing morning ‘rosters’, cup of tea meetings, seminars, training sessions, brainstorms and more on Zoom, Skype and other channels. As a company which has no office, we are very used to phone and video chats.

Yet I believe we should not be afraid to say that virtual work meetings, especially involving four or more people, are not that easy. They are a workable substitute but they are not the same as meeting face to face and I don’t think we should pretend they are.

Because physical presence matters.

How many times has the gem of an insight come, not from the main event but from a chance conversation as you are waiting to go in to the meeting room, queueing to get the coffee or in a corridor outside the loos?

As a facilitator and trainer, I have recently run two virtual introductory sessions on my specialist area of alliance contracting. Both involved me talking on Skype with a group of people I had not met before. Something about them just did not work. Both were unsatisfactory for me and the participants and so I have decided not to do any more.

Facilitation and training are more than just running through an agenda or lesson plan. When I studied, we learnt about adult learning theories and group dynamics. We practised small and large group techniques. It may not be visible on the day but the ambience, the arrangement of seating, even the heating and light are things we think about and, where possible, optimise.

We focus on how we greet people, tone of voice, formal and informal words we use. And importantly, we are constantly reading the room. Who is nodding, who looks confused, surprised or pleased? Is there someone dominating, is someone quiet, has anyone checked out and looking at their phone? During group tasks, what is the noise level, is there energy in the room? You are constantly trying to predict or react to these. It is not like an actor delivering lines from a stage. You are in a dynamic relationship with everyone in the room. And they with you.

I have delivered an Introduction to Alliances workshop many times and always enjoy it. I like meeting new groups who are wanting to try something different and are keen to hear about what it really means and how have others done it. The reactions and conversations are usually great. I learn a lot about the ambitions people have and am happy to share the experience and learning I have built up over the years.

The only two times I have not enjoyed delivering this workshop have been the two virtual ones. Maybe it is me and I need to feel much more connected to people than I can on a screen. Maybe I have not adapted my approach enough to cope with not being there in the room. Maybe I will get better if I stuck with it.

At Ideas Alliance, a lot of our project work is in co-design, storytelling and community led approaches to commissioning. Group events, even with small numbers, are vital parts of all of these. They help to connect people who may not have met before and from there you can build relationships and listen to different perspectives and views. We often get feedback that people from statutory and voluntary and community sector coming together with citizens to learn together is the turning point for really understanding co-production. Yes you can do the mechanics of this using an online platform, but the human connection and warmth will be missing.

I’ve heard many good things about teachers running online classes as the schools, colleges and universities were shut. I’d like to think my virtual meeting experience would have been better with groups that I know well. I am sure it is easier when you have already built up a rapport.

Yet even this is missing the other role of schools. So much of the life learning comes from being together in a class, in a playground or in the lunch hall. Virtual classes are important now but longer term would fundamentally change the experience of school.

Going forward, my rule of thumb for virtual meetings is going to be that I will do the following only:

  • Regular catch ups with people I work with
  • Client meetings where I have not met them before – up to three people
  • Client meetings with clients I know well – up to 10 people in a room

Anything else will have to wait.

What are your thoughts on virtual meetings? If you have any advice or tips for facilitating or participating in them, I would love to hear them.

Photo by Arlington Research

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