The Economic Theory that Tells Us Shifting to Live Virtual Meetings is Probably a Mistake

As a young (and obviously nerdy) economics student, I had a favorite economic theory. The theory of second-best states: if you cannot do something in the optimal way, the most similar option is unlikely to be the next best.  It might be something completely different.

Here we are 30 years later and I’ve forgotten just about all of my economics lessons, but the response of community engagement professionals everywhere to the COVID-19 crisis has reminded me of this theory.  I think we are seeing it demonstrated in practice.

As the preferred engagement medium of face to face has been temporarily taken away, there has been a rush to implement ‘live virtual meetings’, typically a zoom feed and some online discussion, as the online nearest equivalent to normal. This is understandable.  It’s comfortable, does not require real change, fits the skill sets and comfort zones of our facilitators. It also meets legislative requirements more easily than something different. But, is it the next best thing after getting people together in person? I doubt it.

There is a growing backlash against zoom style video conference meetings. I’ve attended a live conference that moved to online (I lasted about 25 minutes before my attention drifted away). I do multiple video conferences with individuals and groups every day and I can vouch for the impact of zoom fatigue first-hand. Meeting people in person is invigorating and often inspiring. Video conferencing is not.

Actually, the video conference & text chat approach to decision-making risks injecting stress and conflict into the process. We’ve all had the live feed freeze on us. This can be really stressful when you are trying to make a point or communicate something you are passionate about. And so much of what we convey is through body language, the source of empathy. None of it is available in the world of zoom.

When we move to these live, virtual events, we lose a wonderful opportunity to do things better. Barriers to change are down right now, out of necessity. What exactly will we have achieved if our response to losing face to face events is a year of video conferencing?

Let’s put aside the barriers for the moment, what are the benefits of ditching the ‘live meeting’ model of engagement completely, at least until we can gather together again?  Here are 3 big benefits, off the top of my head.

1. Making community engagement more accessible

Throughout my entire career, engagement has been beset by the issue of inconvenient timing. We’ve asked people to be at a place and time of our choosing in order to get involved in their community. Now that the place of our choosing is no longer relevant, we are stubbornly hanging on to the idea of a time of our choosing. Why? What earthly benefit is there to demanding that everyone tune in all at the same time?  How many of our decision processes won’t allow us a couple of weeks at least? How many of our experts can’t check into a site and answer questions a couple of times during a week?

2. Making Engagement less stressful

If we remove the time element, we also remove a lot of the stress. As a result, a lot of the conflict is also minimized. Think of the live format — it belongs to the quick thinkers, those who can mobilize a clever sound bite to win the day. Those of us who think of a clever retort or a real argument on our way home as we replay the meeting in our heads, we don’t win (it’s not just me right?). We also remove the attention-seeking, the drowning out of other voices, and a thousand other undesirable behaviors.

3. Giving time for the word to get out

If we take some time, the chances are more people will come and join in. We know this from more than a decade of online engagement.  Word spreads, social media works this way.  “Come to our meeting at 6 PM on Thursday to discuss the main street revitalization” gets much less attention than “look at this comment from the main street program, click here to have your say.”  Do we want more of our community to join in?  If so, it’s hard to argue for the live format.

group of people at a table

How to Facilitate Nonlive Meetings

So, how do we do these ‘nonlive’ meetings?  Well, it is incredibly easy. We’ve been doing them for a long time.

  1.  Set a time period that meets your project requirements for a decision, but also gives the community ample time to participate.
  2. Provide all the relevant information on an easy-to-access website, ideally using video, audio, documents, graphics, and other information that is easy to digest.
  3. Allow for questions to be asked of your experts and arrange for them to go online to answer questions a couple of times a week or more often if they can (it won’t take long).
  4. Decide on a medium for participation that suits the project – perhaps ideation or a discussion forum.
  5. Get the word out through your networks just like you would for a live event.  Encourage social sharing to maximize the audience.
  6. Monitor the process and, if you can, facilitate any discussion forums with supplementary questions.
  7. Report and email participants with the results and next steps.

It’s not hard. There are lots of software options that can achieve this for you. I think your community will appreciate it if you give it a go and save them from the dreaded zoom call.

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