As I sat with a few minutes between a flurry of Zoom meetings the other day, I was reflecting on just how far things have come in terms of remote meetings since the pandemic began. Back in the halcyon days of February 2020, I would do just about anything to avoid attending a meeting remotely. I always felt like I got more out of the meeting if I was physically present in the room, and that the meeting got more out of me, as well. I was more of a full participant, while the people on the screen often seemed to fade into the wallpaper. They were there, but rarely consulted.
Of course, now I’ve done so many Zoom meetings, it’s depressing to think about. And after all that experience, I thought back to see if I still have the same opinion of remote meetings as I did before.
These days, I really feel like you can get as much out of a Zoom meeting as you can out of an in-person meeting, if it’s done right. That isn’t to say it’s always done right, of course. Here are the elements I think are vital to have effective Zoom sessions:
- A fast internet connection. This is an absolute must. I upgraded my internet as soon as the quarantine began, mainly because I saw all my meetings through some sort of strobe effect. Having a bad picture or (even worse) bad audio makes it so that you can’t hear anything, and no one can hear you. I realize that’s not always possible in Maine. If I didn’t have a solid connection, I would probably drive somewhere I did. A college campus. Public library. Somewhere. Anywhere. I think I’d rather not attend a meeting than attend with a scattered connection.
- A general group proficiency with the platform. You want everyone participating, and that means people know how to mute (and unmute) themselves easily. It means you have someone in charge of the meeting who also knows how to mute people when the need arises. (Such as, say, when you hear someone flush a toilet in the background . . .) Most of the Zoom meetings I attend these days, I run, so that solves that problem, but it’s still an issue in some of the other ones. (And I really want to have a “mute” button available.)
- Have a small number of people. You can handle a group up to around 12 without too much of a problem, assuming everyone on the call knows what they’re doing. But even then, you’ll have some people who are participating much more than other. (But let’s be honest: that happens with in-person meetings as well.) Once you get too many people on, it can sometimes turn into this awkward thing where everyone seems to assume someone else will speak. And so you all sit around waiting for someone to speak, and no one does. This isn’t something I’ve seen happen in real world meetings. I will say that if the person running the meeting is up to it, it’s possible to keep things rolling even through those awkward pauses. But it involves literally calling on people to keep the conversation going.
- Have cameras on. This is another big one. If my camera is off, I’m much more likely to get distracted and do something else in the name of multi-tasking. This means I won’t be nearly as involved in the meeting as I should be. With a camera on, I pay better attention. I also can pick up on visual cues from people as they’re talking. I get that some people’s connection is slow enough that having a picture makes it even worse, but refer to my number one item in those cases.
Other than that, I think most elements are the same in Zoom or in person. Have an agenda. Start on time. End on time. And that comes down to just effective meetings in general. The one area where Zoom is still weak is for building relationships among a group. You can’t have a side conversation in Zoom. You can’t have chit chat with one or two people before or after the meeting. You can’t talk over lunch about non-work things. So building a rapport is much more difficult.
In the end, I think I’d probably do a mixture of Zoom and in-person with a group I intended to work with a lot. Start out in person at least once, and then switch to Zoom every other, or maybe even most of the time. It depends on the group dynamic. I’ve been in a ton of very awkward Zooms, and in lots of ones that were completely natural. Talking one on one to a person over Zoom feels almost like being in the room with them at this point, and I didn’t think I’d ever feel that.
How about you? What’s your current take on remote meetings?
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