Remote Work

Can Science Prove That Remote Meetings Are Actually Better?

February 1, 2022

Many companies have moved their business meetings online. The COVID-19 pandemic changed the face of the meeting, with most companies opting for keeping meetings remote to protect staff. Several things occurred when these meetings started to happen. The initial teething problems (especially with older staff members) were expected. However, businesses started seeing a boom in productivity when they started requiring their employees to work from home. Even meetings became more efficient, lasting only as long as a free Zoom or Microsoft Teams meeting room allowed (usually between forty-five minutes to an hour). With the world now moving past the pandemic, some employers are asking workers to come back to the office. Many of these bosses believe that in-person meetings can accomplish more than those done over a virtual client. How right are they? The science might have something to say about that.

In-Person Meetings and Their Benefits

Before we can appreciate why virtual meetings are such a godsend, we need to look at what science says about in-person meetings. At the core of an in-person meeting are engagement and understanding. Discussion happens on an open forum, and people can voice their complaints and concerns openly. Because everyone is there in person, there's little chance of someone not paying attention or zoning out. Wired mentions that people multitask more frequently in virtual meetings the longer these meetings go for. They force the participants to be present in the moment, and for many people, it can help them fix the issue they have with short attention spans.

In-person meetings also encourage more interpersonal interaction than virtual ones. Time Magazine states that many historical innovations were due to chance human encounters - the type one would never have in a virtual-only environment. Yet these benefits focus on how the company can capitalize on the human element of their employees. It doesn't appreciate what the employees think. While there is a place for in-person meetings, it may not be the type that requires people to sit in a conference room for hours on end to discuss something. Science has a lot to say about virtual meetings and how they impact employees.

Taking Breaks Is Essential

Microsoft notes that continual, back-to-back virtual meetings can be stressful. Yet the same research also found that taking breaks in between them can make an attendee more alert and responsive. Breaks between meetings allow a person's brain to "reset" to retain more information. While one can easily do something else that takes one away from the computer for a few moments as a break, it's vastly different in an in-person setting. Being inside a conference room usually means hanging around there even when there is a break.

Additionally, many meetings may go on for hours without respite, depending on how critical the meeting is. Many online meeting clients have a setting that stops sessions when they go past a particular timestamp. This setting can force breaks that will help the attendee's mental state and make the meeting itself more bearable.

Save The Environment By Traveling Less

When people consider the benefits of virtual meetings, they rarely ever think about the environment. Yet climate change is a clear and present danger facing all of us. Traveling from home to work each day creates a massive carbon dump that could contribute significantly to the greenhouse effect and global warming. However, if a person can attend a meeting virtually, there's no need to spend the time inside a bus (or a plane) traversing miles of terrain just to be physically present.

The scientific journal Nature mentions that the 2019 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) saw 25,000 attendees come to San Francisco, producing the equivalent of 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide due to their travel. There has been a significant push in the scientific community to keep their meetings and conferences virtual. This approach is partially because of the environmental impact, but there's another underlying reason. Scientists (and all employees, for that matter) get more done when they don't have to spend hours traveling from one location to another.

A Change In Paradigm Is Needed

Many innovations come from brainstorming in meetings. Yet there's a distinct shortcoming when trying to brainstorm in a virtual meeting. The discussion is much more muted, and, as mentioned before, many people are distracted. Brainstorming only works when everyone's attention in the room is focused on the task. Innovation comes from two sources, idea synergy and social facilitation. Idea synergy comes from when one or more people work on the same idea, promoting innovation as a result. Social facilitation is the motivational aspect that helps all the parties push themselves towards finding a solution. According to Scientific American, behavioral science has noticed that this method of innovation only works for one subset of the population - the extroverts. Introverts are far more comfortable formulating their ideas in a closed and quiet environment, like a home office, for example.

With more and more employees behaving like introverts, shifting to an online meeting system is likely to provide better innovation potential for the business over the long term. There's no need for an introverted innovator to play by the rules of the extroverts. This approach also tends to aid those who are more mechanically pessimistic than optimistic. Optimists prefer bouncing ideas off others and coming up with new ones based on those ideas. Pessimists much rather formulate their ideas in detail before presenting them to others. Their internal processing (as opposed to the external process preferred by optimists) is more suited to a virtual meeting space than a crowded conference room. Innovation can happen, but only if businesses stop thinking about it in a particular way.

Virtual Meetings vs. In-Person Meetings

While both have pros and cons, science can safely say that some people benefit from virtual meetings far more than in-person ones. Many employees feel the same way, as thousands of workers across the country are quitting instead of returning to the office. Part of this "great resignation" stems from how used they got to their working situation. However, a more significant part may be due to their view of in-person meetings. The science is there, confirming what many employees already know. Virtual meetings are objectively better than in-person ones.

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