The downside of virtual meetings

The COVID lockdowns and travel restrictions have forced people to make more use of virtual meeting technologies.  People are organizing workshops, meetings and other kinds of interactions that in the past would have only happened by people traveling to meet face-to-face, or that would not have happened at all.  That’s good.  We were flying for meetings, workshops and conferences more than was really necessary, and the communications technologies were not being used to their full potential.

But this development also has a downside.  We’re making more use of virtual meeting technologies, but we’re not necessarily making better use of them.  Over the past ten months or so, I’ve experienced death-by-webinar several times.  If you’ve sat in on more than two or three webinars lately, I’m sure you know what I mean.  Typically, it’s a series of PowerPoint presentations, presented in the exact same way they would have been presented in a face-to-face meeting.  More than half of the participants have their cameras turned off and never comment.  As a facilitator or presenter it’s frustrating—you wonder if some participants are even listening.  Are they even sitting at their computer, or have they gone to the kitchen to wash dishes?

And for the people who are simply attending the webinar, it’s worse.  If a series of four PowerPoint presentations in a row in a face-to-face meeting acts as a mild sedative, in a virtual meeting it becomes a powerful anesthetic, turning the boredom dial in your brain up to eleven.  But you feel like you really should be in the meeting and so you stay and let the sedative keep dripping into your system:  death by webinar.

But the fact that I’ve experienced death-by-webinar several times raises the question:  how is it that I can die several times?  I keep going back for more webinar death.  Does this mean I’ve become a webinar zombie?… the fact that I’ve experienced death-by-webinar several times raises the question: how is it that I can die several times? I keep going back for more webinar death. Does this mean I’ve become a webinar zombie? Click To Tweet


Virtual meetings that work

The webinar zombie apocalypse can happen so gradually that you don’t notice.  But for me it came into stark relief because of a couple of virtual meetings that were not like that—meetings that engaged me, engaged the other participants, and involved real interaction.

For one of those meetings, I was one of the organizers (I’m not bragging… just hear me out).  In planning the meeting, our team decided to limit the number and length of presentations, and when we did need to include presentations we made sure to not always use PowerPoint.  We also tried to create various spaces for interaction and feedback, and when we used virtual breakout groups we tried to make sure those breakout groups had a purpose.  We used little tricks like, at certain points in the workshop, inviting all the participants to contribute ideas to the same shared Google doc so they could watch everyone’s inputs appear in the document in real time.  And that all helped.

However, what really made it work was that the participants cared about the topic.  Being part of a group of people who share a deep enthusiasm and concern for an issue and who are eagerly exchanging ideas is energizing.  When there was disagreement and critical comments, people were constructive.  They offered their ideas as contributions to the process rather than as arguments posed against someone else, and once the contributions were made those contributions became the property of the whole group, open to further reflection, addition and adjustment.


Preventing the webinar zombie apocalypse

For organizers of virtual workshops and other kinds of online meetings, ask yourself a few questions.  Do you really need to have this meeting?  If you do, does it really need to be filled with presentations?  If the presentations are needed, why not just record the presentations and put them on YouTube, and then let the real-time meeting be all about discussion and interaction?  Are you just making more use of the technologies, or are you making better use of those technologies?

But remember:  it’s not all about how the meetings are structured.  For my encounters with death-by-webinar, I have to be honest:  most of the blame rests on my own shoulders.  During some of these events, I have been multitasking—catching up on emails, balancing my chequebook, attending to other trivial tasks—and devoting far less than full, conscious attention to the presentations and discussions.  The typical PowerPoint presentation is bad enough as it is.  Paying half-hearted attention to a PowerPoint presentation in a virtual meeting is a guaranteed method for becoming disengaged and bored.

So, while there are many things that organizers and facilitators of virtual meetings can do to make them more useful and engaging, we the participants in such meetings also have a responsibility to help prevent the zombie apocalypse.  If you’re going to have your camera turned off and cover the meeting screen with other windows as you busy yourself with emails and assorted tasks, then better not to be in the meeting at all.  In the zombie movies, there is always at least one character who disregards the warning, who subjects himself to unnecessary danger, and then in a moment of distraction doesn’t see the zombie coming for him.  Well this is my warning to you:  don’t be that guy!  Don’t become one of the zombie hoard!  If you’re not going to be fully engaged in that webinar, just don’t go—it’s too dangerous.  Join fewer webinars, but when you do join, participate fully.