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Can organizations adapt to large virtual meetings?


Given the substantial restrictions on travel and social interaction necessitated by the spread of COVID-19, 2020 will see the first ever all-virtual Spring Meetings and Annual Meeting of Members for Engineers Canada. Originally scheduled to take place in Winnipeg, from May 23 to 25, 2020, the meetings will now be conducted using GoToWebinar, a virtual platform that can simultaneously accommodate dozens of participants. Along with the navigation of unique technical challenges, this shift is also enabling new possibilities, both at Engineers Canada and beyond.

Engineers Canada is obviously not alone in needing to convert to an online format to conduct large meetings right now. Much news coverage has been given to the Canadian House of Commons’ recent move to a partially online format, which has brought increased attention both to technical issues and questions of etiquette.

Parliament’s use of virtual platform Zoom to conduct meetings has sparked security concerns from some, but the fact that the meetings are public regardless, and have been enhanced by recent encryption patches from Zoom, has mitigated the issue to a degree. In both the public and private sectors, Zoom’s rise and security issues suggest that organizations face key questions of how best to balance usability with privacy. A spokesperson for Zoom says that while it has been an exciting time for those who have build the platform, the company has had to ramp up its support quickly because of its burgeoning popularity, “working around the clock to add network capacity and provide support to everyone new to Zoom.”

While some organizations have long made use of virtual meetings to conduct international business reliably, the hugely increased scale and volume of virtual meetings in recent months has meant, for many, a rapid, sometimes chaotic adoption of available technologies. Some of the more humorous outcomes from the first session of virtual Parliament included a hard-hitting National Post review of parliamentarians’ virtual meeting backgrounds (Navdeep Bains won), as well as comments from Parliamentary staff about the noticeable lack of heckling, due the fact that Members were required to remain muted when not speaking.

While a certain amount of levity has been helpful in adapting to what can sometimes be frustrating circumstances, a very real issue in conducting virtual meetings has been the disruption of certain social cues and rhythms that people have come to rely on from meetings. Muted microphones, unreliable internet, distracting platform features, and challenges with eye contact make up just a few of the many possible scenarios where the usual flow of a conversation can suffer.

Such challenges aside, this massive shift to virtual meetings has also, at least for some, presented an interesting opportunity to rethink the way we share information and ideas. Students at the University of British Columbia, for instance, recently participated in the UBC/Rogers Smart Cities Ideation Challenge, which invited participants to imagine how 5G and other technologies could be used to address real-world municipal problems identified by the City of Kelowna. In a press release from the event, one participant noted how “amazing” it was to work with a team that had never met in person. Such moments of innovation indicate the possibility of entirely new forms of collaboration emerging long-term.

While the timelines for a return to the life we had before COVID-19 are uncertain, one thing is clear: those organizations and individuals focusing new potential, rather than nostalgia for life from before, may end up leading in what comes after.