Can online meetings ever surpass the face-to-face variety?
“What a ridiculous Silicon Valley question! Of course not. We are social animals, and the richness of our in-person interactions far surpasses the dryness of an online meeting!” That’s what I normally hear when I provocatively ask this rhetorical question about “the new normal.” And of course, I agree.
But over the last few weeks, it became a serious subject of exploration for the team at RealChange. As innovation consultants sharing the richness of Silicon Valley mindset and culture, COVID-19 has triggered an unwelcome side-effect for us: It stopped all international inbound travel and with it, the quality face-to-face time with executives in search of ingredients for their transformation.
How could we possibly continue to convey the innovative culture, the entrepreneurial atmosphere, the communicative energy, the spirit of openness and collaboration of Silicon Valley through existing video communication tools?
With my colleagues, we embarked on a journey to push the limits of distance-engagement tools. The first part of this article is a summary of my musings and discoveries. In the second part, I explore a few scenarios which could feel rather edgy today, but which might become mainstream soon, as everything digital seems to be happening faster at the present moment. I also include a list of existing tools and platforms that are worth knowing about at the end.
Video Killed the Audio Star
First, it’s remarkable how video communications have eclipsed audio conferencing since COVID-19. Why so? First, video allows for screen-sharing and real-time collaboration on documents, something which can no longer happen in the office. “Can you see my screen?” has become the second most-used sentence, after “You’re on mute.” But there is also a need to replace face-to-face meetings. Facial expressions and body language mean a lot when the stakes are high, and these cues also help maintain closer relationships over the long term. I suspect there is also some anxiety on the part of management, which may be wondering whether teams are actually mobilized and focused on the jobs to be done: Yes, Bob is at work in front of his laptop, not binging on Netflix on his TV all day!
Making Eye Contact is Suddenly a Challenge
A lot has been written regarding how exhausting video calls are because of the extra work our brains need to perform to decipher nonverbal cues without a break. But the one big thing which I miss most on video calls is quality eye contact. The gaze is often aimed at screens rather than cameras, and it is very rare to be able to look at people straight in the eye in such conversations. I personally make a conscious effort to look at the camera, especially when presenting to an audience, but it is challenging. I found myself wishing that manufacturers democratize the use of software to correct my gaze as if I was looking straight at the camera even when I read my slides in a presentation. Of course, I might not want that to happen systematically, so it would have to be optional. And then I will start doubting if I am really getting the attention of my correspondent. Deep fake attention! Gulp!
Not having to travel has made every invitation more difficult to decline. Both as a speaker and an attendee, I have to consider every event on its merits, rather than on the ease (or challenges) of transporting myself to a given place on a given date.
Are We Actually Getting Closer to Each Other in Spite of Distance?
Not having to travel has made every invitation more difficult to decline. Both as a speaker and an attendee, I have to consider every event on its merits, rather than on the ease (or challenges) of transporting myself to a given place on a given date. (Admittedly, time zones are still a not-so-minor issue when deciding to attend an interesting Singapore event scheduled at 3 AM in my local time.) So, deleting distance has an immediate impact on our lives. But I’ve heard some people say that they have never felt closer to their co-workers in spite of the inability to meet face-to-face. By seeing their colleagues in their private and personal environment, surrounded by their pictures and souvenirs, their pets, their children — and sometimes other uninvited family members — they get a better appreciation of the human being behind the co-worker. In some cases, people on our team became even more appreciative of the impressive output of their colleagues, given the many tasks they are juggling at home.
In this context, green screens and personal backgrounds have become a side phenomenon. On video calls, people appear in a variety of virtual backgrounds, from sports venues to idyllic beaches, but by and large, the most popular background is a magnificent library of books, a subliminal clue of the speaker’s erudition and credibility. Snapchat-type filters have also become popular, and it’s debatable whether having a budget discussion with the CFO in a virtual Winnie-the-Pooh outfit is a good or a bad thing. But more seriously, for professional interactions, choosing your background has become a new subject of brand communication. And new tools are emerging which will unleash creativity on video in a way that was only possible with professional equipment before.
Smile, You’re on Camera!
More amazing evidence of human ingenuity is reflected in the tricks used to multitask while still looking perfectly absorbed by the conversation, a sport widely practiced during audio conferences, but at a lower degree of difficulty! Smartphones judiciously placed close to the line of gaze but out of camera while texting is a classic trick. I have often found myself viewing multiple webinars simultaneously on multiple screens and using captions to decide dynamically which one to listen to. This requires a partitioned brain and is perhaps the real reason for the above-mentioned video exhaustion! On reflection, I’m not certain whether maturing these new skills should be considered an asset or a liability in “the new normal.”
A second-by-second “engagement score” would help improve a lot of boring presentations. One could even imagine receiving a registration discount for attending as a “measurable audience member.”
Reading the Room
One major problem I have faced as a webinar speaker is relative isolation and a lessened ability to “read the room.” When doing a normal face-to-face lecture, I have a threshold in my mind of how many people I am willing to accept will be more absorbed by their smartphone than by my talk before I press the speaker-panic button, step up my energy level, and pull those most captivating anecdotes out of my emergency repertoire! But now, I have virtually no feedback, as people rarely use thumbs-up or clapping engagement buttons that are provided on some video communications platforms.
As a presenter, I would also value a discreet “speed up/slow down” indicator, which could aggregate anonymous pace suggestions, e.g. using + or - keys while watching a live stream. One could go much further and make good use of facial recognition software to provide an anonymized “engagement score” based on facial expression and gaze, the digital equivalent of my “number of people looking at their smartphones.” Clearly, there would be privacy concerns with the idea of being analyzed when watching a webinar, but with necessary privacy guardrails, such anonymized and aggregated data compiled into a second-by-second “engagement score” would help improve a lot of boring presentations. One could even imagine receiving a registration discount for attending as a “measurable audience member.”
Getting People to Participate
In traditional presentations, being able to ask an open question or request a quick show-of-hands vote from the audience is very valuable. Polls, quizzes, and smart interaction tools1 do exist, and they are progressively getting better integrated with the major video communications tools. But many still require a second login on a smartphone or on a second browser window to interact with prepared polls, something widely used in remote education. In classroom-style settings, there is the classic problem of ensuring everybody participates, not just the more outspoken individuals. We could all use a “digital moderation assistant,” tracking the engagement levels of each participant for the facilitator, in order to gently prompt those who have been quiet. For those shy contributors, the ability to contribute (sometimes anonymously) in the chat window is one of the undeniable advantages of virtual interactions over real life.
Collaborative creation tools have existed for a long time for software engineers, architects, graphic designers, and other professions. What we are witnessing now is the democratization of such tools for many types of co-creation: a brainstorm, a storyboard, a paper outline, or co-production of a document or slide presentation. A larger population of users is rapidly becoming familiar with such tools2, and this is perhaps the single most important digital steroid injection we are receiving at present. Some of these tools have a “follow me” feature, which allows users to watch as a design leader integrates changes and upgrades the draft in real-time, which is excellent for fast learning and is reminiscent of e-sports spectating. Timers and voting can make these group sessions truly dynamic, interactive, and enjoyable. It’s not hard to predict that they will survive the pandemic and allow teams to work together more productively from a distance.
Running breakout sessions online or in-person is never a walk in the park. During real-life events, I often pick which breakout room to enter based largely on my affinity with participants already in the room! In the virtual world3, new tools make this even easier, especially if you can enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the virtual rooms or tables displaying the names of participants, and sometimes their avatar. Sitting at a table or entering a room automatically propels you into a video call. High-end solutions propose fully-immersive rooms using VR headsets, but navigation on a laptop is easy enough and does not require extra equipment. Here again, auto-timers help facilitators control the duration of the exercise and bring everyone back automatically into the plenary discussion. It’s easy to forget break times, so physical movement has to be encouraged during marathon online sessions, and some smart virtual event organizers are already adding mini-Pilates stretches or mindfulness sessions into their agendas.
It takes a lot of imagination for me to picture how a virtual Consumer Electronic Show could take place next year, instead of the mega 180,000-attendee January mass I have religiously attended in Las Vegas for the last 10 years.
Major Events and Trade Shows
This brings us to major events such as industry conferences. It takes a lot of imagination for me to picture how a virtual Consumer Electronic Show could take place next year, instead of the mega 180,000-attendee mass I have religiously attended in Las Vegas for the last 10 years!
However, there is hope that new 3D immersive environments4 could allow your avatar to navigate such events and save you the inevitable foot blisters! It is not unthinkable that as an exhibitor, you could “lease a portion” of such a 3D virtual convention center and populate it with product demos, scheduled executive meetings (via video), and keynote appearances in extensible amphitheaters. No need to stand in long lines for registration or schedule 45-minute transit buffer time between your important meetings. Even dinners could be simulated, as some event organizers have already experimented with delivering dishes made by renowned chefs simultaneously to attendees’ homes, at the time of the “virtual business dinner.” Admittedly, this last part wouldn’t be as enjoyable as the real-life equivalent, but there is a lot to be said about the value of virtual industry events. Associations with large membership can also use such economical virtual venues: the French Entrepreneur Federation (MEDEF) invited regional members to an event in VirBELA on July 1.
It is worth noting that music events and concerts5 could also use similar virtual venues, where the psychedelic environment and light show could be custom-designed to suit the artist and the music being played; a version of this was pioneered recently by Travis Scott inside the videogame Fortnite (see below).
Worshiping the AI God — Virtually, Of Course!
It’s impossible to talk about a topic in Silicon Valley without asking ourselves what artificial intelligence could add to the picture. In the case of virtual interactions, the digital footprint is very valuable. I’ve already mentioned that computer vision could help improve a pitch with a second-by-second measure of audience attentiveness, assuming the audience volunteers to be measured. But video sessions can also be transcribed, summarized, and analyzed. Years later, auditors could search to find out what discussion led to what decision, with appropriate semantic analysis automatically indexing key decision-making moments in a meeting. Advice could be given to participants regarding their level of empathy during customer interactions. Training could be recommended based on what was said or omitted.
Admittedly, this is somewhat scary, but it is already partially feasible, and some startups6 are thriving in this voice analytics field. However, it isn’t quite common practice yet and privacy protections will also have to evolve as we leave more (and larger) digital footprints.
The incredible kick we are presently receiving on our digital backsides is projecting us towards a world of mixed interactions — part live, part online — with smarter tools and digitally-proficient workers.
A Hybrid Future?
This was a tour of what we have discovered, what already exists across a variety of fragmented tools, and what tomorrow could look like. In summary, there is some upside to the situation that is being forced upon us. Please feel free to add your own experience and share your own tips in the comments section of this article. Like most of us, I will rejoice when we can shake hands again and have rich face-to-face interactions. But the incredible kick we are presently receiving on our digital backsides is projecting us towards a world of mixed interactions — part live, part online — with smarter tools and digitally-proficient workers. When the ugly virus is finally eradicated, I hope the tsunami wave will regress gently and reveal a beautiful hybrid future for us social animals.
Jean-Marc Frangos is an Executive Fellow at INSEAD, an Innovation Sherpa with RealChange, and the former Senior Vice President of External Innovation at British Telecom, where he worked for more than 20 years.