Since the lock-down started, it seems everyone is video-conferencing. The Zoom app in particular has seen a huge uptake – even by the Prime Minister, who uses it for cabinet meetings. Since the law was updated on 4 April, councils are now be able to use video-conferencing for committee meetings.
There are lingering security and privacy concerns about Zoom, which is stopping some organisations using it. Other options include Microsoft Teams and Skype (which are less good for larger meetings – Zoom can stream twenty-five people’s faces simultaneously), Houseparty and Jitsi. All will improve over time.
Most people’s home broadband is adequate, though sometimes a WiFi range extender is needed to get good coverage in the ‘home office’. If your broadband isn’t up to the job, Google “Connecting Cambridgeshire” to learn about the county council’s project to get “superfast” broadband to 99% of homes by the end of 2020.
So, technology is getting there, but can it really replace in-person meetings?
When everyone’s contribution is broadcast to everyone else, there’s no opportunity for the private conversations that normally take place before and after a meeting: sharing information, bonding, asking for and offering advice and support. Often this ‘networking’ is more valuable than the meeting itself.
Zoom allows administrators to assign people to ‘breakout rooms’, but participants need to be able to take themselves into private discussions – a feature that will no doubt come. Then, we’ll need to learn how to make ourselves approachable by people whom we don’t already know. To be a good manager, leader or educator also means being a good mentor, and that requires giving time and attention to people who ask (within reason).
We are all learning a new etiquette for online meetings, starting with when to turn the camera and microphone on and off. Meetings can be short, frequent and focused, as there is no travel time cost in holding them.
There is no reason why, post lock-down, remote meetings cannot continue to be an efficient replacement for many in-person meetings. That will mean wasting less time travelling, making us more productive and reducing our carbon footprints.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 8 April 2020.