Has Zoom killed in-person meetings?

In the age of the Zoom call is there any benefit to returning to face  to face meeting?

During the pandemic we pivoted to online interactions through necessity.  We made the most of the less-than-ideal situation to ensure we continued to promote global health equity.

Non Identified people collaborate together in office. Double exposure effectsThe ReLAB-HS project to improve access to rehabilitation services and assistive technologies (AT) across health systems, was underway before the pandemic hit.  It is such a crucial program that delaying progress was not an option, we had to make remote meetings work. The project is a big collaboration. More than 100 people are involved across six countries. The program had been in ‘set up’ stage for a year, lots of zoom calls, lots of emails and direct messaging. We all knew each other. Sort of.

In February, we launched the program in Uganda, in real life - with representatives from our global team. Understanding and amplifying what works while identifying and adapting  areas for improvement are key to  a program’s success.  We have a monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning (MEAL) team to make sure that we are accountable and adaptable throughout this five-year project.

The MEAL team surveyed the launch participants to see what they valued the most from the launch week activities. We suspected that networking would be a useful aspect of the launch but were surprised to see that 85% of participants felt that networking and meeting each other face to face was one of the most useful parts of the launch. Why this is the case, given that we felt that we had good relationships across the project? There may be several reasons:

  • The public launch provided an opportunity for “bystanders” who would not normally have the opportunity to attend a zoom meeting, to make themselves known. The way Zoom is used by our project, doesn’t encourage drop-ins who have noticed something interesting going on. Face-to-face events makes curiosity almost inevitable!
  • Live events provide more scope for ‘side conversations’ whereas zoom text ‘chat’ for side conversations disadvantages participants who are:
    • not comfortable with written English
    • not comfortable listening and having a text conversation at the same time
    • have technology or connectivity issues
  • Face-to-face events allow us to show more of our true selves, it is easier to laugh at ourselves, exchange hospitality, ask na├»ve questions and make connections with the person with the quirky fashion sense when we can see the whole person, laugh with each other and generally be more ourselves.

While Zoom has been essential for enabling our work through COVID-19, meeting in-person unquestionably allows for more nuanced communication and rich in-person discussions especially when led by those who live and work in the setting. Beyond more effectively advancing projects goals, it is also more enjoyable and professionally and personally affirming.

Daniel Strachan, ReLAB -HS Senior Technical Advisor (Workforce Development)

The other aspect of the launch that was really useful, again with 85% of respondents, was learning more about the program and how the different aspects of the program fit with different countries and contexts. After more than a year of working together remotely, the survey showed that meeting each other created better, stronger networks and accelerated program understanding.

We think this is due to having more time, not just the standard one-hour meeting, to work together. But also because of all the reasons above – face to face meetings make human connections work, and human connections make projects work.

The meetings (formal and informal) were also opportunities for us to put faces to the deep and soft voices that we had heard during the virtual meetings, and also to see the actual heights of the persons that we had only seen seated in their virtual meeting rooms.

Abraham Omaren, Uganda ReLAB-HS MEAL officer

As the new world normal evolves, how do we balance the logistics of in person activities and online connections? Online meeting and file sharing technologies have allowed us to have more frequent facetime at lower cost, including lower environmental impacts. But online meetings don’t give us the space for more personal connections and ‘corridor’ conversations. And online meetings can be ‘middle of the night meetings’ that take their toll in other ways. For projects that are new, large or complicated, we still benefit from meeting in-person. Now we are all working out what the critical times are for those in-person meetings, so that when we do meet up in-person we can make the most of it!

Kate Neely is the MEAL Interim Advisor ReLAB-HS. Kate is an evaluation and monitoring practitioner and a strong advocate for equity and inclusion

More Information

Kate Neely

kate.neely@unimelb.edu.au