What is the future of meetings as we emerge from our COVID quarantine in the coming months? Has the world of meetings been forever transformed, or will we revert back to our old ways, with the last year a vague, unpleasant memory of talking boxes and “You’re muted” dimly ringing in our ears?

What Have We Learned?

We at CBI have been trying to distill what we have gained in the last year that can apply to our work going forward. Here are some lessons we have learned:

Online meetings can increase participation. We have been surprised by how online meetings have increased the number of people who can participate as long as they have bandwidth and a device. Online meetings have broken down a number of access barriers. For one regular community group meeting on a Superfund site in New York City, the attendance went from less than 20 community members per meeting to more than 60 on a regular basis. It’s been a lot easier for them to join from their kitchen then to traipse across Queens and Brooklyn. We’ve seen similar jumps in citizen participation in our work on offshore wind in Maine and on water management in Colorado. For groundwater planning meetings in a large valley in northern California, technical consultants working on planning efforts have begun to join online meetings to facilitate information sharing between neighboring groundwater basins. In most cases, these technical consultants wouldn’t be able to cover the costs of time and travel for in-person meetings in adjacent areas where they are not under contract. We expect that many meetings can continue to occur online because they reduce travel time for all, avoid adverse weather, can be accommodated in busy lives, and much of the work can get done.

Online meetings may not increase engagement. While participation is certainly up, it’s not always easy to gauge the actual engagement of people in online meetings. How distracted are people? Are they really grasping the details of complex materials? Do they feel their contributions are as meaningful online? As one colleague described, “I cannot remember exactly who said what in what meeting because all these Zoom meetings in my bedroom kind of drift and meld together. I have no spatial context or cues to place people and information in time.” While many of the same people continue to be active speakers online, as they were in person, we don’t know if the quieter ones with their vidoe off are actually listening, on Twitter, or trying to help their kids with homework. Others have noted that having multiple streams of information at once (someone presenting, someone speaking, someone entering points in chat, and so on) is overwhelming and makes it hard to concentrate and capture what is being shared by whom.

Multiple online tools increase ways to engage and amass information. To address these engagement problems, we are using numerous tools and strategies to help people stay engaged in meetings: polling and surveys, the chat, virtual whiteboards, and graphic recorders. Presenting different avenues for engagement can allow people to participate in ways they may find more comfortable than “raising” their virtual hand. The simultaneous translation of conversation and ability to project translated materials makes it easier to convene multi-lingual meetings. If we were gathered in-person, we would have to work harder to make the same tools accessible to people in the room. And yet, engaging fully online requires a level of access to and comfort with technology that may not be shared equally across participants. One step towards more comprehensive engagement is building in the time to train folks before meetings so they can use their time together to focus on the substance and not be distracted by the tool they’re being asked to use.

Presentations are almost as good online as in person. We have found that most presentations and efforts at information sharing are almost as good online as in person - slide decks, videos, and other presentation tools are readily visible and accessible. And, you can have greater access to experts - no one has to fly 6 hours to present for 1 hour at a densely packed meeting. Furthermore, you can easily record the presentations for later viewing and for those who could not attend live. While we still find live presentations most engaging because they allow real-time back and forth, short, pre-recorded presentations can serve as clear, concise, and polished ways to deliver background information, allowing groups to save their precious meeting time for discussion.

Online dampens emotion. On the one hand, online meetings tend to flatten affect and emotion, meaning it is harder for participants to “run hot” in meetings. This can, in turn, lower conflict and increase focus on the substance or issues at hand. On the other hand, emotion and intensity can be a way for parties to express strength of feeling and commitment, keep others engaged, and, if handled well, provide entrée into a deeper and richer conversation, getting more at the “rub” and “stakes” of key issues. Emotion is often conveyed through facial expressions, body language, and other subtle signals that are not obvious or just missing from online meetings. Active facilitation is needed to draw people – and their most honest perspectives – into the mix online, and even then, we are not convinced we can be as effective online as in-person.

Online limits personal connections. And of course, online meetings, despite our best efforts, don’t provide for the bonding and connection that conversation over a coffee break, going out to dinner, or sharing a drink engenders. Despite adorable children popping up, dogs barking, and cats slinking across the screen, the feeling of all meetings is somewhat homogenous. There is no easy way to create those informal spaces where people can talk in smaller groups, share a confidence, and explore a nascent idea safely with a few before tossing it to the full group. This also means that, when the conversation gets tough, taking a break doesn’t really allow for a short caucus – people cannot remember that they just had a conversation the night before at the bar about family, and the fragile threads of human connection may not be there to draw on to hold the group together through tough times. Sure, there are some tactics to try and mimic those encounters – quick informal breakouts, Zoom lunches and happy hours – but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that these online visits truly replace those unscripted in-person moments.

Online burns participants out. As the pandemic hit, we feared that convenings and meetings, the core of our work, would come to a screeching halt. But, after 4 to 6 weeks of adjustment, almost all our projects moved online and kept going. And, in fact, most of our participants are hopping from one Zoom to another all day long with none of the past breaks for travel or lunch. Many have more meetings than ever with the ease of instantly convening them. Our participants are feeling very burned out in this two-dimensional space.

What do these lessons suggest about the future of meetings?

Here are our predictions, all of which should be taken with a grain of salt given our fast-changing world:

  • Less travel (flying specifically), more meetings. Our many participants are mixed on the lack of travel in the last year, with some delighted they have not been stuck in airports and others sorely missing the bustle or personal time in transit. However, the deep attraction of lower costs, less time and wear on personal lives due to travel, lower carbon emissions, and the ease of participation for many (though not all) will strongly incentivize more long-distance meetings online. At the same time, many in-person meetings where people can drive within a reasonable distance or take public transportation will come back, maybe more than we think, because they bring people together and provide the kind of experience that is more energizing and less taxing than all online meetings all the time. And because the cost of meetings in many ways may be less, we might ironically be called to more meetings.
  • Face-to-face meetings will be chosen more strategically. We love (or at least feel compelled to have) meetings, so they will indeed continue. But because of our COVID acculturation to online meetings, organizers will be more judicious and strategic about face-to-face meetings. Do we need to establish, build, or cement relationships for the longer run? Do we need to address delicate issues that will require the care of in-person meetings? Are we sharing information, talking, or actually deliberating and negotiating? Can we get 90% or the value out of a meeting online versus in-person? Which kind of meeting is more accessible to the people we want there?
  • Hybrid processes will be the norm, hybrid meetings less so. The classroom has been the primary location for experimentation with hybrid interactions. Some kids are in the class, six feet apart, some kids are online, and the teacher may be in person or online. To make it work, investments in better audiovisual infrastructure usually have to be made. Nonetheless, these hybrid meetings seem to be unsatisfying, both to those in the room and those online. Despite best efforts, there is a risk that the online contingent feel like second-rate participants while those in the room often feel held back or slowed down by the need to ensure that their online colleagues are hearing well and have time to respond. We anticipate that meetings will drift toward mostly in-person or mostly online. That being said, over multiple meetings and a longer process, process design can now consider these different meeting venues and plan accordingly. For instance, groups could opt to start with a face-to-face meeting to build relationships, shift to online to share information and generate options, and then come back face-to-face as they seek to negotiate a final agreement.
  • Useful tools will proliferate. The days of a screen, projector, and flip chart are just about over. Working remotely has forced all of us to get more creative about our tools for brainstorming, prioritizing, and organizing information. More and more of these tools will be transferable to in-person meetings, and meeting goers will expect a more robust, engaging, diverse meeting environment in which to do their work.

We believe online meetings are here to stay; it’s simply too easy, too low cost, and too familiar and acculturated now not to continue them. At the same time, we expect a return to strategic, face-to-face meetings with much more time built in for social and informal action, and a cry to balance in-person and more “human” meetings with the efficiency and ease of online meetings (but not all day, every day). We believe COVID has accelerated, if not transformed, how we get work done. What it has not transformed is human nature – we need social contact, non-verbal cues, emotional connection, and informal, flexible time together to accomplish what we want and to be who we are.