Human Nature vs. Virtual Meetings: How to Maximize Value Attending Online Meetings

By Meagan McGuire, CDME, Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority & Judy Frankel, Tourism Richmond

Cedarbrook Lodge Hotel meeting and event space promo photo

Virtual meeting platforms have been around for years, but not until recently have they been utilized to such a degree. While we mourn the loss of our in-person meetings, we are becoming more adept at these platforms and more comfortable with meeting virtually. Despite this, 83% still report that they miss live meetings (Fazio 2020).

The utilization of virtual platforms offers more convenience and a lower price point, but live meetings will return and with abundance. One simple reason explains why; it is human nature to come together in person.

The nature of live meetings provides us with something we cannot get virtually. Yet we cannot avoid this cybernetic substitute right now because of our continual need to connect and learn; business cannot progress without collaboration and professional development is always a worthwhile pursuit. But how to accomplish both these objectives and get the same level of value from the effort? In this article, we will analyze the characteristics of human nature that contrast with virtual engagement and suggest ways for attendees to mitigate these issues, make the best of the hand we are dealt at the moment until we are able to meet again like we once did.

Pull up a Chair

In order to feel that comfort level necessary to interject ideas or discuss topics openly, trust must be established between the participating members of a group. For that reason, some people find that virtual meetings with people they already know are much more productive than virtual meetings where they do not have a relationship already established with meeting attendees.

Research has shown that sitting down to a meal together, ‘breaking bread’, develops trust. Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago researched how food connects people, especially when eating the same meal much like what occurs many times at live conventions.

“Food is about bringing something into the body. And to eat the same food suggests that we are both willing to bring the same thing into our bodies. People just feel closer to people who are eating the same food as they do. And then trust, cooperation, these are just consequences of feeling close to someone.”

(Fishbach 2017)

And, when eating from shared plates (certainly not the current catering recommendation), research has demonstrated that people exhibited more cooperative behavior in negotiations. This, in turn, led to more collaboration and less competitiveness away from the table. (Wooley et al. 2019)

Salespeople get it; relationship-building is essential for progress in most business activities. Many people attend conventions not only for the official scheduled meetings and sessions, but also to reestablish bonds with people they know and meet new colleagues and potential clients. More headway is often made in business dealings and with creative initiatives outside of the conference room than within, often over drinks at the bar. It is the bonds that develop from small talk occurring in social settings that lead to more concrete and naturally evolved connections and relationships.

Awkward….

“Oh, sorry, you go ahead…” “No, I interrupted, you go first.” How many awkward starts have you experienced virtually? Contrast with how often this happens in person?

Our subconscious mind uses cues to understand the nuances of conversation; when to speak, when others are finished speaking. This is not as easily translated on screen. If someone pauses or doesn’t react on screen, it may be deliberate, or it could just be their screen froze. Regardless, it can be interpreted by the speaker or other attendees in many different ways. Virtual communication lends itself to misunderstanding a myriad of social cues.

It is interesting to think about our subconscious ‘reading’ of others. Virtual meetings have demonstrated that it takes more than just viewing someone’s facial expressions to be able to understand them. It is called ‘body language’ for a reason; it is the language of the entire body. How someone is standing or leaning or sitting, how their feet are pointed, what their arms and hands are doing, how close they are to you, all signals to your subconscious a multitude of data.

The conscious mind can only hold 40 bits of information per second, while the unconscious mind can hold 11 million bits of information a second (DiSalvo 2013). The unconscious mind is just that, unconscious, and so much is going on in there that we are able to do everyday things without even thinking about it. Reading other people is one.

For some people, it is especially hard to internalize social cues through the multiple Brady Bunch squares on the computer screen. The constant alertness in an attempt at analyzing participants and the self-consciousness of your own image on the screen leads to Zoom fatigue.

On screen, no one can see you nervously tapping your foot. They can’t see you scrolling social media feeds on your phone. You might be thankful for that, but it also means that there are many aspects to what you are doing that are not incorporated into the total assessment of the space. Not being able to completely read a room can create discomfort for everyone involved.

Being Present

Outside of the controlled environment of the meeting room, participants are left to manage their own surroundings. Environmental stimuli can cause distractions that other meeting participants may not necessarily be privy to, which can lead to confusion.

Distractions are aplenty from your smart phone to your kids at home, it can be hard to focus with the same degree of intensity virtually as compared to attending an in-person conference. There is not that social reprimand of turning the phone off like in a live event, especially when attendees are muted. 

And as a meeting facilitator, it is difficult to read the room and adjust content, flow, and engagement accordingly. Just what are attendees looking at when they drop their heads? Are they reading a novel or taking notes? How can a speaker properly “read the room” if the room is a screen of little squares? How do they know if the audience is engaged if their cameras are off? And if the attendee is left with a less than engrossing experience, minds will wonder. When the mind is not fully engaged by the speaker, it is more difficult to remember content and generate new ideas.

And how often do you just put on a nice shirt and leave your pajama pants on? Just asking.

Make the Best of It

As an attendee of an online meeting or conference, we sometimes feel like an insignificant participant or even a simple observer. However, regardless of the number of virtual attendees, the live nature of the conference means that you are a component to its success. Realizing your role as an attendee is the important first step in the group effort that is a productive virtual meeting.

Commit to learning.

Just like you invest in the time and travel expense to attend an in-person event, applying just a fraction of the same energy into your virtual attendance will yield great results from an online experience. Make the commitment (on the calendar and mentally) to the event.

Dress the Part.

From comfy clothes to working at home, there is nothing normal about the “new” normal. Professional development and ongoing learning are critical skills that can’t be pushed aside during a pandemic. Are there steps to take that help to prepare for success? Some experts suggest “dressing the part” meaning forgoing those pajama pants and putting on a real life “work outfit”.

Limit Distractions.

Turn off your smart phone. Try to create a quiet zone in your work area. Even have your coffee and snacks ready nearby so hunger or thirst won’t take you away from the content.

Don’t be intimidated by technology.

Familiarize yourself with the application and navigation tools of the conference application so that you can have the best online experience.

Get next level in your video conferencing skills.

Go beyond learning how to mute your microphone to knowing how to host a meeting, share your screen and other cool tools available on most video conferencing apps. 

Prepare your Engagement.

Engage with the content beforehand. Many virtual conferences offer attendees to pre-submit questions beforehand. Do your research and encourage yourself to submit something you are curious about.

Until we meet again…

REFERENCES

Deng, Wei. “The Future of the Event Industry.” Event Manager Blog, Event Manager Blog, 12 Aug. 2020, www.eventmanagerblog.com/future-of-the-event-industry-report.

DiSalvo, David. “Your Brain Sees Even When You Don't.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 23 June 2013, www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2013/06/22/your-brain-sees-even-when-you-dont/.

“Face-to-Face Meeting Advantages: Benchmark Meetings.” Benchmark Meetings Blog, Benchmark Hospitality, 29 July 2019, www.benchmarkmeetings.com/face-to-face-meeting-advantages/.

Fazio, Allison. “83% Of US Remote Workers Miss In-Person Meetings.” Smart Meetings, 16 Apr. 2020, www.smartmeetings.com/meeting-planning/reports-surveys/125840/us-remote-workers-miss-in-person-meetings.

Fishbach, A. (2017, February 2). Why Eating The Same Food Increases People's Trust And Cooperation: Expert [Radio broadcast]. Morning Edition. https://www.npr.org/2017/02/02/512998465/why-eating-the-same-food-increases-peoples-trust-and-cooperation

“Humanizing Digital Events with Interactive Moments, 'Experience Boxes'.” PCMA, 31 July 2020, www.pcma.org/humanizing-digital-events-symphony-talent/.

Kingham, Trace, “5 Ways to Raise the Bar on Virtual Events.” MeetingsNet, 10 Aug. 2020, www.meetingsnet.com/event-tech-virtual-meetings/5-ways-raise-bar-virtual-events.

Morgan, Nick. “5 Fatal Flaws With Virtual Meetings.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 17 May 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorgan/2012/10/02/5-fatal-flaws-with-virtual-meetings/.

“When Face-to-Face Meetings Trump Virtual Meetings Software: PGi.” Web Conferencing, Online Meetings & Webcasting Solutions, 18 May 2017, www.pgi.com/resources/articles/when-face-to-face-meetings-trump-virtual-meetings/.

Woolley, Kaitlin, and Ayelet Fishbach. “A Recipe for Friendship: Similar Food Consumption Promotes Trust and Cooperation.” Journal of Consumer Psychology, vol. 27, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1–10., doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2016.06.003.

Woolley, Kaitlin, and Ayelet Fishbach. “Shared Plates, Shared Minds: Consuming From a Shared Plate Promotes Cooperation.” Psychological Science, vol. 30, no. 4, 2019, pp. 541–552., doi:10.1177/0956797619830633.

About the Authors:

Judy Frankel headshotJudy Frankel is the Business Development Manager for Tourism Richmond.  A graduate of Western University with a MA in Political Science, Judy spent the majority of her career as a journalist. She has spent the last decade dedicated to tourism working for the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau and Tourism Richmond. An avid and intrepid traveler, Judy is waiting patiently until we can meet (face to face) again.

Meagan McGuire headshotMeagan is the Vice President of Sales and Services for Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority, the official regional destination marketing organization for the cities of Des Moines, SeaTac and Tukwila in Washington State.

With a Master of Arts degree in Anthropology from Washington State University and 15 years’ experience in the tourism industry, Meagan approaches her work through a social science lens. From psychographics to storytelling, tourism marketing is best delivered by studying people and culture. She leads an exceptional team to ensure business growth and expand the organization’s long-term growth strategy through group sales and marketing activities.

In 2019, Meagan was accredited with a CDME (Certified Destination Management Executive) from Destinations International.

About the Authors

Judy Frankel headshot
Judy Frankel
Business Development Manager
Tourism Richmond
A graduate of Western University with a MA in Political Science, Judy spent the majority of her career as a journalist. She has spent the last decade dedicated to tourism working for the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau and Tourism Richmond. An avid and intrepid traveler, Judy is waiting patiently until we can meet (face to face) again.
Meagan McGuire headshot
Megan McGuire
Vice President of Sales and Services
Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority
With a Master of Arts degree in Anthropology from Washington State University and 15 years’ experience in the tourism industry, Meagan approaches her work through a social science lens. From psychographics to storytelling, tourism marketing is best delivered by studying people and culture. She leads an exceptional team to ensure business growth and expand the organization’s long-term growth strategy through group sales and marketing activities.