For the first two months after we locked down, my delivery of training programmes for the FT’s business education arm stopped. Companies cancelled their courses, along with the associated travel. Then, as people realised Covid-19 would drag on, the orders for online programmes trickled and then flooded in. I delivered several a week, sometimes two a day, to participants on every continent. Instead of flying to Peru or Bangladesh, I marshalled panels and took questions from our spare room.
What have I learnt from this year of travelling virtually? How did it differ from being there?
First, you know the panic that sets in when, immersed in your phone or a newspaper, you wonder why the airport gate is so quiet, only to discover everyone else has already boarded? The virtual equivalent is holding forth to your laptop and realising that the only person moving is you. Everyone else seems to have frozen. They haven’t. You’re the one who’s frozen. After a few occurrences, I now anxiously check that others on the screen are moving. Blinkers and scratchers are useful.
Second, on screen you can’t read the room. After one programme, the company’s head of training emailed to say I had kept the discussion moving. The problem was that wasn’t what the participants had wanted. They wanted to talk more about their leadership difficulties. Perhaps I’m flattering myself, but I think if we’d been together I would have picked up the uneasiness and given them more time.
The third, related, difference is the lack of feedback. After a face-to-face session, you watch while people fill in the evaluation forms. As they file out, they thank you enthusiastically, or not. You run into them in the coffee room afterwards, or inadvertently hear comments from other parts of the toilets. It’s the same with every in-person business engagement: you often learn more from the chit-chat afterwards than from anything said in the meeting. At the end of an online session, I encourage everyone to click on the link to the feedback form in the chat section, but most don’t bother. They sign off and get a coffee from their kitchens at home.
Fourth, not having been on a plane for many months, I have started to rate the online video platforms the way I used to rank airlines. No video conference set-up matches Zoom when it comes to seeing everyone’s faces, fielding their questions and finding one’s way around the site. I like the way everyone’s names are always at the bottom of their screens — you don’t have to hover your cursor over their on-screen picture to see who they are. Not everything about Zoom is great; they’ve recently made the toggle between the grid of everyone present and just the speaker more fiddly. So there’s no video platform I could liken to Emirates or Singapore Airlines. Instead Zoom is my Cathay Pacific.
Microsoft Teams has its admirers. Which?, the UK consumer organisation, named it the best video conferencing app for work. I agree Teams looks good, but I find it less intuitive to use than Zoom. It may be my ineptitude, but I find it harder to manage features such as the grid view. To me, it promises more than it delivers. I regard it as the online equivalent of British Airways.
Google Meet is fine when there are only a few people on it, but seems chaotic when it is crowded. So Google Meet is my Ryanair. You will have your own views, which I’d be happy to hear, especially if you’ve done enough time on these platforms to deserve the online equivalent of a gold card.
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