‘It’s nice to see the back of your head’ – the role of online meetings during lockdown

This week’s blog is a bit different to normal, as it’s more a reflection on the role that online meetings have played for the ADS team during lockdown, rather than being about a specific project or event. Apologies if it’s not your thing.

(The following was written by Jennifer Bray to share her own personal thoughts, and is not necessarily representative of the views of ADS as a whole)

A couple of weeks ago a some of the ADS team met up for a socially distanced – yet still social – walk on the Malvern Hills, and it was the first chance most of us had had to see each other in person since early March. At the end of the walk a comment was made that really got me thinking about the impact online meetings have had on us during lockdown, and what we’ve been missing out on: “It’s nice to see the back of your head”

On the face of it, this is an odd comment because surely we should be enjoying seeing people in person, but when you think about it, in online meetings we spend all of our time staring at each other’s faces and never see anyone from a different angle. If we’d been in an office for a meeting we’d be seeing everyone a bit differently, and even just getting a glimpse of a colleague as we walk past their office provides a different perspective. With this in mind, here are a few of my thoughts (in no particular order) about some of the good and bad aspects of online meetings, including points that have been raised by colleagues during the past few months.

It’s odd seeing yourself

In online meetings there is an expectation that everyone has their camera on unless they are having connection issues. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find it weird and off-putting seeing myself on screen, even if it’s a smaller image in a corner. As much as I try to focus on other people, I keep noticing if my hair looks odd, I’m not sat up straight, or the angles make it look like I’ve got a double chin! There’s also a strange feeling that even if you’re not speaking and just one person in a large group, you’re always on show. As someone who prefers blending into a crowd, this can be disconcerting.

The lack of travel is both good and bad

As we don’t need to travel for online meetings, it’s cheaper and easier to arrange meetings and you can invite people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend. They can also feel less disruptive, as you don’t have to book a whole day in your diary to attend a meeting in London for example. However, I find train journeys can be quite productive and a good opportunity to focus on something like writing or reviewing an article without normal office distractions. Even ‘travel’ to a meeting on campus can be good as chats with colleagues during the five minute walk to a different building can spark ideas that wouldn’t otherwise have come up. Those chats can also mean that meetings start on time, whereas with online meetings you tend to have a quick catch up at the start as people arrive. To balance that out, should you join earlier to get that out of the way before the meeting starts?

The lack of travel means that it is easier to end up with multiple online meetings on the same day, sometimes back-to-back, which is not ideal for anyone. If you’ve been in the same meeting as me when it’s my third meeting of the day, you’ll know that I’m not necessarily at my best! It’s been an important learning point to realise that it’s ok to decline a meeting or suggest an alternative time that fits better. Just because someone’s got a gap in their diary doesn’t mean you can fill it with yet another meeting!

Spontaneity tends to end up being planned

When you’re in the office, it’s easy to stick your head round the door to ask a colleague a question or check something out with them. While online meetings give you the opportunity to have quick catch ups, they don’t quite have the same level of spontaneity. Instead, you generally have to email to arrange a time for a meeting and set one up, and having a five minute meeting can feel odd so there seems to be a tendency to catch up on other work or ideas at the same time to make it worthwhile. Ok, so I admit that sometimes when you ‘pop’ into an office a two minute question can turn into a half hour discussion as well, but it almost feels easier (and less awkward?) to end a face-to-face meeting than an online one.

They’ve definitely got their time and place

As good as online meetings have been for us, it’s worth acknowledging that they aren’t the answer in every situation. At the moment we don’t really have an option, but when face-to-face become possible again, it will be important to decide which format is preferable for which meeting. Although online meetings have enabled us to be very productive over the past few months, sometimes our best work happened when we’re in the same room around a piece of flip chart paper bouncing ideas off each other. As a colleague on a recent project commented:

“I really felt that our meetings in London were creative and each one propelled the shaping of our work. In this age of internet (wonderful and critical as it is), it really stood out to me that the moments that were most important to producing high quality work were probably those of getting good people in a room together.”

Multi-tasking is an option, within reason

When you’re in an online meeting you’re (obviously) still at your computer, which can be both annoying and useful. During a face-to-face meeting you wouldn’t know every time a new email arrived and be distracted wondering if it’s something that you should deal with. It’s a break from the normal work rhythm where you can focus on what’s being discussed. However, this doesn’t mean that online meetings are bad. Not that I’ve ever done it of course, but if you’re part of a meeting where you’re not integral to the discussions, it can be useful to be able to do other work in the background as a one off, especially if you’ve got deadlines approaching. As long as you aren’t disrespectful to the meeting and the other attendees, being able to multi-task like this can be beneficial to individuals who may otherwise spend the meeting worrying that they were falling behind with other work. You’ve got to be careful though not to overwork yourself or treat this as a ‘normal’ way of working.

It’s a level playing field

One important point that has arisen as part of relying on online meetings is recognising that (connection permitting) it means everyone is in the same situation, and no one is disadvantaged by not being ‘in the room’. In face-to-face meetings where you may have one or two people joining online, it’s very easy to forget that they are part of the meeting. You can get caught up in conversations between people sat at the same table, not realising that what you’re saying might not be loud enough for those online, and it can be difficult for them to interject and get their point across. When everyone is online, people are less likely to be accidentally overlooked.

A few members of the ADS team work remotely most of the time, and have found that they’ve felt more included with everyone taking part in online meetings as we’re all on an equal footing. Something for us to be aware of when we can return to our offices and meet face-to-face in the future…

You can still be social online

During lockdown we’ve all been part of online meetings with people that we don’t know very well or have never even met before. Whether it’s because of the situation or because we’re essentially social people (even if we might not always feel like it!), this hasn’t stopped us being able to get to know each other and build good working relationships. Maybe when you’re sat staring at each other you’ve got to make the best of it to stop it becoming awkward!

The social use of online meetings has also been really important for ADS, and we’ve been having social get together online at the end of the working week. They’re a good chance to do a non-work activity as a group such as quizzes, sharing favourite music, writing poetry and much more. I think I’ve actually found out more about my colleagues during those sessions than I would do in the office. We’ve also been able to make sure that special occasions are still celebrated, with not one but two PhDs been awarded during lockdown!

They can quickly lose their novelty value

Back at the start of lockdown, online meetings had a bit of a novelty factor to them. Although we’d already been using them in our work, they were the exception rather than the rule, and in most cases the majority of the people in a meeting would physically be in the same room with only a couple online. For those of us used to being ‘in the room’, the switch to online was a bit odd. While it gives everyone the chance to have a bit of a nose around everyone else’s house and there’s always the chance of being interrupted by someone’s children or pets, it’s surprising how quickly they end up being very ‘samey’. We use four different platforms for our meetings, but they’re all pretty similar. With face-to-face meetings at least you get a bit of variety as they don’t always take place in the same room – trying to find the right room is half the fun! – but online you’re options might be limited to the dining room or a spare bedroom. Maybe even the garden on a nice day…

Just to be clear, I’m not knocking online meetings, and I think they’ve been invaluable over the past few months to help us continue to function as a team. I’m just saying that over time it’s important to learn and respect what works and what doesn’t for everyone involved. We’ve managed to do that and reach a happy balance that works most of the time. I’ve no doubt that online meetings will figure massively in our work in the future, and as long as we’re smart about when and how we use them, they will be a real asset for us.

Connect with ADS on twitter @DementiaStudies and on Facebook @adsuow

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