By Astrid Zeppenfeld
What was decades ago an unimaginable concept has become just the way we do business these days. I am talking about virtual meetings. In the “good old days”, business executives and associates got together every-so-often for a face-to-face meeting in a dedicated space. When it was available for the particular sized group to attend the event, a company would often use its conference room. If the group of participants exceeded the space, one would look at renting a venue – usually a larger conference room at a hotel or a restaurant that was specifically set up to accommodate meetings and events. This had the added benefit of food being available on site, rather than having to order takeout to be delivered to the company’s conference room and passed out among attendees. “Hold that thought, John! Now, who ordered the turkey bacon cheddar sandwich and who got the ham and swiss?”
In recent years, many companies have started looking to virtual meetings. They are convenient and cost a lot less than the conventional interactive events we are used to from the past. For large corporations with multiple locations across the country, or across the world, it is easy to bring everyone together without much trouble. In virtual meetings, every participant is in front of a shared computer screen. The person hosting the event acts as a moderator. Each attendee can hear the meeting host, but can only hear the other participants if the host invites someone else to speak. Some online platforms allow for a signal that everyone can see if a particular attendee wishes to contribute to the meeting. Online platforms where you can host virtual meetings often allow you to see up to a certain number of participants at the same time, whether those are speakers or not. In addition to speaking at such a virtual conference call, there is also a chat option, where one can choose to direct a written message to the audience, just the host, or another selected person.
Virtual meetings happen in real time, but can easily be recorded and sent out to anyone who was unable to attend at that time. This is particularly helpful for international corporations who may want to share their meeting with colleagues in different time zones. During the Bayer takeover of Monsanto in 2018, one of Monsanto’s HR Managers told me, “We do video conference calls with the office in Germany in the mornings, because the German employees leave right around the time we start our day, with the 7-hour time difference.”
But this is the year 2020. Enter a global pandemic that hit the United States presumably right around the start of the new year and, by now, virtual meetings have invariably become the norm. As we are trying to protect ourselves and others from what seems to be a rather deadly virus, so many of us rely on technology to conduct business from the comfort of our homes. If we need to go into the office, we try to stay away from big gatherings; not share a conference room with tens of hundreds of people. Invitations to “Zoom-Meetings” on one of the various online meeting platforms out there, get dispensed like they come out of the office candy bowl. And we are all getting just a tad bit tired of it.
The fact is: We are all human. And humans crave personal interaction. Unless you are, by nature, a person who is introverted enough to be able to easily imagine a hermit life, you do not do well in complete isolation. Going out on a limb here… I am guessing you are not an introvert who could imagine being a hermit. Otherwise, you would not be reading Missouri Meetings & Events.
Anyone even the least bit social by nature is itching to get back among people. This is what we live for – meeting planners and suppliers alike! While virtual meetings were the cool thing to do when they first became available, they quickly became just another business tool. And currently they are, unfortunately, essential. Kind of like a meeting planner to a successful business large-scale business event. When we go back to business as usual in a couple of months, face-to-face meetings will quickly re-establish themselves as the norm. After all, there is more to being able to look your customer in the eye than just to give your product pitch. There is body language, a facial expression, tone of voice, and mimicking the other person’s gestures. None of this comes across as perfectly clear as in person, if you’re relegated to conducting your meeting through the screen.
We can appreciate the convenience of virtual meetings; we might even relish the fact that we are able to join our Monday Morning Staff Huddle while still in our pajamas. Nobody can force us to turn on our cameras, so who is to know? But it is getting old quickly. We have been challenging the boundaries of virtual meetings for too long, challenging assumptions of what the colleague, the client, the boss actually meant when he or she said something, due to the lack of face-to-face interaction. If you have ever had the chance to observe body language – even a handshake in the beginning of a meeting can differ vastly from the handshake in the end. At the start, the customer may be apprehensive. The handshake may therefore feel weaker than in the end, after you have convinced your new client that you can take his business to a whole new level. Conversely, the customer’s handshake good-bye can signal that this is the last time you have ever made contact, namely when it is much weaker than her handshake when you said hello.
Think of the new era after COVID-19 as whole new chance of meeting your clients, in some cases even your co-workers. It will be like you have never met before. Someday, we will use the phrase, “Yeah, but meeting online didn’t count. Now, we really know each other.”
As so many states are re-opening their businesses, look beyond re-opening just your own company. Many hotels and resorts have spent this quarantine time wisely and made numerous upgrades to their already great accommodations for your next corporate event. And, what better way to re-pay your employees who did everything they could during this time, than to organize that company retreat at a leisurely location, such as the Lake of the Ozarks, so that you are off to a great start in this new economy… with refreshed colleagues, rearing to do business?
Astrid Zeppenfeld is a writer and MM&E’s editor/business development manager from St. Louis.