Digital conferencing is a must in these times: it is just how it has to be for now. But when is digital conferencing suitable, and when is it better to meet physically?
The pandemic measures have forced many of us to use digital conferencing. It works; you get to see each other, exchange information and make practical decisions, but it is just not ideal for some situations. Based on my observations and experience in group dynamics, I would like to give you something to think about.
In this article, I explain the advantages and disadvantages of digital conferencing. I will also tell you when to conduct digital meetings and when not. In short: this article contains a collection of tips and attention points.
people need trust
Humans are social beings; we need interaction, and we need each other. Trust in our fellow human beings is essential. In the workplace, this means that you should trust your boss not to fire you, trust that others will do what you have agreed on, etc.
To trust others, you can write things down and have the agreement signed. But even then, you need to trust that it will all happen as agreed (and signed) and that everyone is committed to it.
We gain that trust by communicating with each other. Our mutual communication goes much further than just verbal communication (talking to each other) and visual communication (seeing each other).
The remaining forms of communication are what we call ‘non-verbal communication’. These include the whole range of small, almost imperceivable movements/facial expressions (micro-expressions in face and body posture). These cannot be picked up during digital conferencing.
Another very elusive part of our non-verbal communication is what we often call ‘gut feeling’ or ‘intuition’ or ‘energy’. This is also something that cannot be picked up on during digital conferencing. A combination of things we hear, see, smell, perceive… and all of them together provide us with a certain trust (or the lack of it). Read more in this Harvard Business Review article on scientific research into the importance of trust in organisations.
trust as a basis for meetings
Each meeting or consultation is based on a certain degree of trust. That trust can be very minimal, in the form of “I have to be careful what I say, or they’ll fire me”, or maximum, as in “I believe him when he says that, I know it is going to be alright”. But when someone asks how you know that, you can’t really answer that question (with facts).
“Yes, the way we’ve agreed it here, that is how I will do it.” Someone can tell you that. And you will get a feeling. Either you get the feeling that the other person is serious and is actually going to do it. Or that the other person’s heart isn’t in it and will not do it. You can feel that. That’s your intuition. That is trust.
If there is no trust, (increasingly) more information and facts are requested to become convinced of the decision’s appropriateness. This information deals not so much with the facts, but with the sense of trust they create. In other words: The greater the trust, the shorter the consultation, and the sooner agreement and a decision can be reached. If there is a lot of trust, there is not much need to discuss or document things.
digital conferencing: not enough ‘contact’
We are social beings who need interpersonal contact. It is a true necessity. That is one of the reasons that many of us feel so incredibly alone during this lockdown. We need physical contact (’touch deprivation’), and just being together in the same space and sharing (similar) experiences. We need to ‘feel’ and ‘be in touch with’ each other, in all kinds of ways.
Digital conferencing only gives us image and sound. That is just not enough to gain each other’s trust. We assume that it will work because it is very similar, rationally speaking. We often forget the importance of non-verbal communication.
But precisely because of the lack of many elements of non-verbal communication (read: trust), digital meetings are increasingly leading to (false) assumptions that in turn lead to misunderstandings. The other way around: if you (or one of the other participants) are used to using your physical presence to convey your message, that is not possible in a digital meeting. (Many people don’t use non-verbal communication, even if they are invited to do so at the beginning of a meeting). You can’t bend forward to emphasise the point you want to make, you can’t use your physical presence to be heard (whether you’re a large person or a small person), you cannot use gestures to emphasise your anger, etc.
By the way, it does make a difference whether you knew each other (reasonably well) before the digital meeting. In that case, the digital meeting is the continuation of the physical meeting. If you’ve met these people in real life before, you can fill in some of the things you miss in the interaction(s) based on what you see and hear during the digital meeting. However, there are also limits to this trust.
If you don’t know each other or have only known each other for a short while, you need (more) facts and information to trust each other. The lack of familiarity also increases the need to document, record and sign what you discuss and agree on.
digital conferencing: limiting habits
People are creatures of habit. For instance, there are certain similarities between digital conferencing and watching TV. Most of us are experienced TV watchers. And so, we’re going to behave as if we are watching TV: motionlessly watching the screen, doing other things while we’re watching.
What we see during digital meetings looks like a TV presenter presenting a show, and when we watch a presenter, we look at the screen inactively. We are watching as if we were consumers. And on top of that: when we start talking, we behave as if we were talking to the TV presenter: without a lot of facial expressions or hand gestures.
In addition, we are usually conducting these meetings from our own home. Unlike when we (have to) go somewhere for our appointment or meeting, we are not as motivated to be critical about how we look. The effect of our clothing (formal/informal), how we present ourselves (lighting), what is behind and around us (the layout of the room) does not seem to play a conscious role for many meeting participants, despite all the tips that are being shared on many websites.
These habits do not make digital conferencing easier but rather complicate it.
digital conferencing: perfect for facts
If you are aware of the above challenges for digital meetings, it is easier to determine when a digital meeting is appropriate or not.
For example, a digital meeting is very suitable for sharing facts, about the status of a project, an update about an assignment, or giving a presentation. To be blunt: all kinds of information that you could have shared in a written text or a video. The meeting is finished when everyone has received all the information.
The question is whether this is ‘conferencing’. It is, in fact, a one-way information transfer (which could even be shared much more effectively via email)?
digital conferencing: perfect for information
Digital conferencing is also very suitable to ensure that everyone is at the same level of information, when they are in a meeting. You can verify this by asking ‘verification questions’ by listening to the group members’ questions. This way, you can quickly determine if and where there is a lack of information. This looks more like teaching a lecture.
And you can let that meeting go on until everyone has the same information, has received the same amount of information and understands all the information.
But the question is whether this is ‘conferencing’; is it not just convincing every one of the questions, the information and whether you are all on the same wavelength?
digital conferencing: not suitable in unfamiliar terrain
Trust is an essential factor in human interaction and more challenging to create through digital conferencing. As soon as you start exploring ‘unfamiliar terrain’, digital conferencing is actually unsuitable.
These are the more fundamental questions that form the basis of the group. These must ensure that the group is more than just a casual gathering. For instance, when dealing with the reformulation of the group/organisation’s foundational principles, or when a significant change is required, such as a reorganisation or (physical) relocation. Or when you have to negotiate about important issues, with the result of the negotiations having a major impact.
During such meetings, you need that one layer of communication that you don’t see or feel in a digital meeting: trust.
tips for effective digital conferencing
Countless books have been written about how we can conduct an effective physical meeting. But I would like to give you some practical tips from my own experience:
- organise multiple short digital meetings rather than one long meeting
- start each meeting by stating the objective of the meeting
- limit each meeting to a specific component or specific step
- plan multiple meetings ahead of time and determine the subject to be discussed for each meeting
- during the meeting, ask each individual participant your question
- regularly ask if anyone has any questions or needs more information
- make as many facts as possible available in writing before (each) meeting
- spend (much) time preparing for each meeting (don’t join the meeting without having read the facts/documents)
- at the end, discuss (as specific as possible) which agreements have been agreed upon; what everyone or some participants have to do
- conclude each meeting by discussing whether the objectives have been reached
- end each meeting by repeating what is planned for the next meeting and what is expected from the participants
Note: Please note that we are a Dutch organisation and that all our information is originally composed in Dutch. For the benefit of our English-speaking customers we have translated some of our online information. We are still in the process of translating even more of our information. It could therefore be that you will come across Dutch pages on CT2.nl. Please contact us if you would like more information.