Stop blaming technology! Exposing the seams in the ‘seamless’ world of virtual meetings

 

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Who is in the meeting? Who is behind the curtain, listening in? I have been brought in myself several times [and asked to] “listen to this, you need to hear this”

 

Virtual meetings can be defined as any meeting mediated through communication technologies such as Skype or Zoom allowing remote participants to interact. They are a prevalent feature of contemporary working life for millions of workers and are used by many organizations to run a range of meetings bringing together teams, steering committees and project groups in both planned and reactive formats.

This blog discusses the new reality of virtual meetings in the workplace. When technologies to allow such meetings to happen were introduced, it was assumed the transition would be seamless. Our research suggest this is not quite the case and that ‘seams’ (i.e. unforeseen and unintended process and outcomes) are emerging that organizations and participants must understand.

Considering their widespread deployment in everyday working life, surprisingly little attention, both within academia and among practitioners, is given to the human-nonhuman interaction taking place in such meetings or to the consequences of social-material entanglement inherent in such interaction. Where a meeting doesn’t go to plan participants will typically blame technology and perhaps expect all to go well next time. While the technology may at times fail, the joint venture of social and material remains un-scrutinized.

The introductory quote (above) originates from an observation during field work conducted as part of the DigMa-program. A group of managers were observed discussing, amongst other subjects, virtual meetings. They suggested that at times they were acutely aware of what can be best described as situational ‘blindness’ during such meetings. This phenomenon, illustrated by the quote, indicates that a virtual meeting does not simply correspond to a face-to-face-meeting, mediated through technology, but is something rather more complex with unpredictable and unintended preconditions and consequences for all participants.

In virtual meetings, participants experience different forms of visual and auditory exposures when compared to traditional face to face situations and each can have an impact on participants potentially leading to sub-optimal outcomes.

The inherent complications of visual exposure include the consequences of participant interaction with cameras and screens, a feature of many virtual meetings. Research shows that participant knowledge of being projected on a large screen at a distant location, brings with it an understandable level of heightened self-awareness and possible discomfort. Scenarios may arise where, for example, an unmuted cough into the microphone results in the participant becoming the centre of everyone’s attention as Skype reacts to the sound and expands their image to full screen on every screen linked to the meeting. In this unguarded, unplanned and potentially unaware moment, an individual is scrutinized by all. Whereas in face-to-face meetings, social norms regulate the appropriate time to look at other participants, in the virtual environment you can watch others, and be watched, without the same social norms telling you when you should change focus.  

Auditory exposure encompasses people hearing and being heard. In this case microphones and speakers bring complications that did not exist in the traditional meeting. The virtual meeting brings with it the potential for background sounds and private conversations to be both present and transmitted to all in equal volume. This exposure differs from face-to-face encounters in that being overheard by someone you can see sitting close to you is different to having your whispering voice unintentionally broadcasted at a geographical distance.

At the same time, auditory in-exposure is another possible feature of the virtual meeting, as exemplified by the occasions when connections fail or mute buttons are activated. In a face to face meeting, all can see who is in attendance, who is hearing meeting content and who is perhaps making whispered comments to a co-worker. In the virtual world participants may not be fully aware of all who are listening (as exemplified by our introductory quote) and the quality and content of input may be modified as a result.

We can view these visual and auditory exposures not as isolated moments that could have been avoided by humans doing a better job or technology (nonhumans) being more advanced, but as the unintended consequences of humans and nonhuman components together creating a meeting. The anticipated seamless transfer of face-to-face into virtual is not that seamless after all. The ‘seams’ appear, among others, as complications arising from these unanticipated visual and auditory exposures. Such exposures are the product of the entanglement of the social and material components that create the so-called virtual meeting.

How then should managers and employees take this into account when running virtual meetings?  There are two important points to be understood, acknowledged and communicated:

·       Acknowledge the inherent uncertainty and loss of privacy that the virtual meeting format brings. There is no door in the virtual meeting room and participants never know who is behind the virtual curtain. As such, the meeting participants in general and the chairperson in particular must acknowledge and normalize this unpredictability rather than trying to control it.

·       Acknowledge that using cameras, microphones and multiple screens demands a different approach. Although at first assumed to be unproblematic, in both our and others’ research we see that the use of cameras, microphones, screens and software is experienced as rather problematic, demanding a new level of energy, focus and awareness. Participants do experience self-awareness, they are uncomfortable not knowing how they appear on the large screens at distant locations and consequently they are channeling energy into understanding who is talking and listening.

The virtual meeting format undoubtedly brings with it a myriad of benefits through cost saving and flexibility for participants. But it is important organizations and meeting participants understand the emerging new reality – the ‘seams’ in the supposed seamless transition. Socio-material interactions create a level of uncertainty and unpredictability not experienced in face to face meetings. This undoubtedly impacts on the nature of what can be accomplished during virtual meetings and if inclusion and equal participation are to be achieved, it is important managers and participants explicitly acknowledge and, to some extent, accept this new reality.  

Main references for further reading

De Paoli, D., Ropo, A., & Sauer, E. (2014). Disappearing Bodies in Virtual Leadership? In D. Ladkin & S. S. Taylor (Eds.), The Physicality of Leadership: Gesture, Entanglement, Taboo, Possibilities (Vol. 6, pp. 59-79): Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

MacLeod, A., Cameron, P., Kits, O., & Tummons, J. (2019). Technologies of exposure: videoconferenced distributed medical education as a sociomaterial practice. Academic Medicine, 94(3), 412-418