[NOTE: This article follows-up Lessons Learned from Large Virtual Conventions, Representative Assemblies, and House of Delegate Meetings, which examined the practical and procedural aspects of large online meetings.]
At this point, the genie of virtual meetings is out of the bottle. And likely not to go back in. While it was inevitable that electronic meetings would become more commonplace, the pandemic has instantly made everyone fairly expert at Zoom, GotoMeeting, Microsoft Teams, and other virtual platforms.
There is clear benefit to online collaboration, particularly with smaller meetings. Boards of 10 to 25 (or possibly more) can sometimes meet online much like in person. Everyone can see each other, make oral motions, debate, and vote instantaneously by voice, hands or electronic means. (If permitted: see The Coronavirus, Flu, and HOA/Condo Association Meetings)
Large electronic meetings, however, take on a different flavor. Not everyone can be seen. Usually, just the speaker and possibly the presiding officer are on the screen at the same time. Recognition becomes more complicated because the number of participants means that everyone must be muted. So the process for seeking recognition and being seen and heard onscreen requires greater technology and more time. Votes are more complex because voice and hand votes aren’t workable (and the raise-hands or polling features of some platforms won’t meet the legal requirements of some organizations). In addition, most platforms can’t generally handle situations where members have different or weighted votes or are carrying other’s proxy votes. These differences mean that very large meetings tend not to simply be able to use Zoom, but require different or additional technology.
I am by no means opposed to virtual meetings. Electronic platforms can save significant time in going to and from meetings. And getting ready a few moments before a meeting beats hours (or days) of travel. In additional to organizational savings (although there may be new technology expenses), members may benefit by saving money on travel, food and lodging.
At this point, I’ve likely given more procedural advice to very large virtual business meetings than anyone. That includes many hundreds of board and membership meetings, and serving as Parliamentarian at 30 virtual conventions or houses of delegates ranging from 500 to 8000 online delegates. While electronic meetings are preferable to no meetings, they have a different “feel” than in-person meetings. Despite what some may say, large virtual conventions do not replicate the in-person experience.
While the technology and our expertise with online meetings will continue to improve, here are some observations on how virtual and in-person large annual meetings or conventions differ.
THERE WILL BE TECHNOLOGY ISSUES
Electronic meetings have gotten much better over the last year. However, there are still regular, significant virtual issues in extremely large assemblies. At a recent large convention with excellent IT support, a coding conflict shut down the online system when more than 500 members joined the meeting. That’s a problem when you have several thousand delegates. Unfortunately, the problem could not be solved instantly and the organization completely lost its first day of convention. Due to different access to broadband around the country, instances where a user freezes or loses a connection altogether still occur. And even in perfectly working platforms, sometimes the technology requires a delay of 30 seconds to a minute from the time a member seeks recognition until they are granted “floor privileges” and can be seen and heard onscreen.
THERE IS A DIFFERENT DYNAMIC
While large in-person assemblies often fight over items of business, there is still a feeling that it is a meeting of one organization. (Good presiding officers will sometimes reinforce the point by reminding delegates of what unites them after particularly controversial votes.) That is not the feeling in a virtual convention. An electronic meeting feels like hundreds of individuals sitting somewhere else doing their own thing.
THERE IS GENERALLY LESS INDIVIDUAL ENGAGEMENT
It is hard not to pay attention in a large physical meeting or convention. You aren’t likely to fall asleep or have a telephone conversation with someone else surrounded by others. There is no such buffer with virtual meetings. The fall-off between who is logged-on for the meeting and who votes on issues is sometimes extreme. That’s likely a function of what we all do while on virtual meetings—other work, surf the Internet, complete other activities, etc. In other words, many members are likely only attending the meeting with half (or less) of eyes and ears. When delegates don’t have to be seen onscreen, it’s likely even more common.
VIRTUAL MEETINGS BRING OUT THE WORST IN SOME PEOPLE
I was surprised this past year by some of the things said by delegates during online debate, which tended to be more mean and “in your face” than would ever be said in person. Virtual discussion is impersonal and in some ways similar to online chats and comments. People tend to be far more negative in such settings than they would be in person. At a large meeting, you have to go to a microphone and make your comments directly in front of hundreds of other people, often friends or peers. That dynamic likely causes members to be more circumspect in what they say. In contrast, individuals talking to screens from their living rooms tend to be willing to say most anything—no matter how mean, confrontational or ugly.
VIRTUAL MEETINGS ALTER VOTING DYNAMICS
This year I have regularly seen votes go differently than they would have gone in person. Far more votes against things that were noncontroversial. Or more votes to take controversial stands, or to remove board members or officers, or to reject budgets that are usually easily approved. This is likely a feature of several aspects of virtual meetings. At a meeting, you generally vote by saying “aye” or “no” or standing in front of fellow members, often from your own organization. In other words, there are personality and group dynamics to the meeting. You are also somewhat forced to be engaged in the process—you had to come to the meeting and there is little to do during the proceedings but pay attention to the issues. At home, you are answerable to no one. You may also be paying less attention to the proceedings and voting with less information. Perhaps this difference in voting gets closer to what members actually think, but recognize it is different.
IT’S HARD TO WORK OUT DIFFERENCES
I’ve been to so many in-person meetings where controversial issues got compromised on the floor or outside the meeting room, possibly in hallways or after-hour events. For instance, maybe a motion to raise dues by “x” was going to fail, but members worked it out and agreed to a lower amount. Being physically AT the meeting allowed that to happen. It is very difficult to work out differences during virtual meetings, and most issues simply get an up or down vote as proposed.
IT IS DIFFICULT TO BUILD A SENSE OF COMMUNITY
There is more to meetings and conventions than simply voting on business items. Relationships get built. Friendships and trust are forged. All of that creates future leaders and builds a sense of community for the organization. Much of that happens elsewhere than on the floor—during social time or visits before, during and after meetings. We may get there with technology one day, but it is difficult at present to build such relationships and sense of community in a virtual meeting.
Don’t expect virtual meetings to go away. It’s clear that even after this pandemic, large gatherings will not go back to exactly what they were pre-COVID. People have gotten too used to the technology and cost and time savings. As online large meeting technology improves, virtual meetings may better replicate the in-person experience. At present, however, anyone planning a large virtual convention must be aware of the different dynamics between virtual and in-person meetings. Only by leadership actively addressing some of the concerns above can the organization hold an online meeting that both accomplishes its business and strengthens the organization.