I was recently invited to a guest lecture series. Not part of my regular day job, the invitation came from an old college professor and upon receiving an invitation to the lecture I felt some nostalgia for this person, for their positive outlook on life, and wanted to hear what they had to say. I made sure that I could attend this lecture on the side for about an hour, as it was in the evening and a few of the speakers were in different time zones.
The guest lecture took place over a Zoom conference, with many students and other career academics in the lobby. First, the host of the meeting, whose audio quality was fine and introduced the speaker very clearly, shared her screen and went over some of the preliminary things that were to be discussed, and then talked about some housekeeping duties and how students should respond if they have questions in the Messenger function.
Then the screen jumped from hers to another academic who was in a different time zone, who wasn’t the best videoconference user, as he didn’t make good eye contact with the audience and wasn’t aware of the ambient noise coming from his home. This noise eventually became distracting, taking away from whatever credentials he had in life, and I peered off making myself busy checking my daily email and social media feeds until the main speaker, the professor who gave me the invitation and whom I already knew, was up for the remainder of the conference.
I tuned back in, adjusted the lighting in my own setting, and made myself present for what was sure to be a long speech. This academic likes to talk for long periods of time in almost one breath, going off on tangents whenever he pleases, but usually delivering a comprehensive and moving lecture. His audio was perfect, although he was too close to his screen and I eventually had to look away and focus on what he was saying instead of staring at his face. The experience, and listening to him for the better part of 30 minutes, was enlightening, but it took some real patience to get used to the virtual setting of the call. I never really felt settled in until the very end when students and others were asking questions in the Messenger function, which I peered over at, wondering if they would ask the same questions in real-time.
The Pros and Cons of Virtual
While not a workplace event, the above example alludes to the fact that the experience of virtual meetings and lectures has both positive and negative side effects. On the positive side of things, listening in to somebody’s narrative during a virtual event is pleasing, and if you’ve already met the speaker in real life prior to the online engagement, it makes the event more memorable and persuasive. This is something managers should acknowledge if they plan on running their own virtual work events with new employees.
Likewise, if you’ve never engaged with the speaker (likely before the coronavirus), it can be more difficult to stay engaged during meetings because there is less of a personal connection. This is exactly what happened with the first speaker who had ambient noise coming from their screen. Had I known them before the virtual event, I might have been able to fight through the ambient noise, but my indifference was largely a result of just seeing a face on a screen, and not really having a personal connection that I had with the main speaker.
For this reason, virtual workplace events are worth attending for employees who have been part of teams for a long time, and don’t mind the transition to virtual now that it’s a necessity to stop infecting others. But what some of the analysis has missed in terms of virtual is that virtual webinars, and human interaction, needs to be followed up by something. Co-workers or not, people need that feeling of a follow-up, that way they know that there is something to look forward to besides the next videoconference.
In the world before coronavirus, public speaking events were followed up by lunches, meet and greets, and in general gossip in some common area. This was a rewarding, and constantly evolving experience that made each workplace event somewhat memorable (or at least that was the point). Now that these environments are gone, managers and executives everywhere should maintain their focus on the minutia of videoconference details and muting speakers when it’s not their turn, but should also focus on how virtual meetings will lead to something else. This has been the main challenge during Covid-19 because there is still no vaccine and too many health precautions that need to be taken.
In the long run, it seems that the virtual workplace event will be a testament for co-workers everywhere to be willing to stay part of the virtual team and show their resilience, but as for content and the best engagement strategy, something else will eventually have to take the podium.