Project and consultancy work requires meetings. One simply can´t do without. To plan, to discuss, to organize, it is necessary to talk to people in other ways than one-to-one on the phone, or via e-mail.
But when projects, as most of ours at ACTA do, involve people who live and work all over Europe, and sometimes also much farther away, meeting them in person generally means hundreds of kilometers by train, bus, car or plane, and often in places which do not manage their activities as sustainably as we would do at home.
Does that mean we should abolish meetings, conferences, seminars and workshops at all? And hold them only virtually, on line?
Sometimes Skype, or more recently, Google + hangouts, are a great solution when you have to talk to several colleagues at once. Webinars and other online conference facilities have been for some time now our medium of choice when the item to be discussed was not too complex, and the participants not too many. For longer meetings, and issues which required intense cooperation, usually we too prefer to join with the project team or other group in one, physical, place.
Last week I should have attended such a longer meeting, in occasion of the second stage of revision of the Travelife criteria. The group of expert involved in this process was to meet in Manchester, UK, in a hotel near the airport. After consulting my own calendar and flight schedules, I realized I would have to spend more than 1000 € and flying over half of Europe to reach Manchester from Munich in the time frame at my disposal. This was neither sustainable from an economical point of view, for a two-day meeting, nor from an environmental one, as the flights involved detours to places such as Paris, Belgrade and Brussels.
I decided therefore that I would participate at the meeting virtually, connecting via Skype. Having all the necessary equipment, including a fast internet connection, this has never been a problem for the many and regular meetings I take part in every week online, for an hour or two usually. A two day meeting though was a first also for me.
And a last too, hopefully. There are many aspects of sustainability, and for me personally, this meeting was not sustainable at all. Even organized with the best intentions in mind, there were a lot of issues which at the end of these two days made me feel extremely exhausted and frustrated, and kept my utility to the scopes of the meeting itself a lot lower than I, and the project managers, had planned and hoped for.
To name just a few of them: first of all, the time difference from Manchester to Munich: one hour is of no consequence at all when you have a short project update sometimes during the morning or the afternoon. It is just a question of being clear at who´s 2 pm the meeting will take place.. that of the colleague in London, in Rome, in Bucharest or in Athens.
But when you have to organize two whole days around when to be unable to interact with anybody else in your office or your household because you are connected to about 20 other people sitting in a room, one hour can completely upset your life. The good part: the meeting in Manchester starts at 10.30 am? For me, it started at 11.30 am, meaning I could work on other things until it started, prepare myself reading through the criteria and the comments to them again and setting up the audio/video equipment. I forgot to think about lunch though. Because that, for me, would happen only at 2 pm. When you usually eat with other people, that means, you will probably have to grab some leftover or go without at that hour. In the evenings, it was 6 pm for the Manchester group, 7 pm for me. Again, interfering with other schedules based on the people I work/live with. Certainly nothing dramatic, but for two days in a row, uncomfortable. The second day at least I remember to grab some food while the UK crowd took their coffee break at 12 am (for me) so things were less complicated on the food front at least.
Now, let´s discuss the “real” problems other than my personal comfort and that of those around me. The work part. From moment one, the connection with the group in the room in Manchester did not “click”. I knew a lot of the participants personally from prior projects, so the “introduction round” at which I participated as a video image on a computer screen on the coordinator´s desk was not really complicated. But I soon realized that the microphone on the remote computer caught only some of the voices in the room, those nearer to it or more resounding. I could see people talking on the video, but heard only unintelligible sounds, even at highest audio volume.
Second problem, the document on which we all were working, the criteria. In the room, the document was projected on the screen, while one person was updating it with the results of the discussion. I could not see that screen though, and for some reason, the screen share on the computer I was connected to did not work. So, until the first break, I had to try to understand from the discussion what was changed, and why. Two of the people who commented most, were also two of those I could not hear at all. This resulted in me feeling completely left out and disoriented, and them basically forgetting that I existed, save for the moments where I tried to recapture something I thought I had understood (generally wrong). Later on, somebody managed to connect me to the document, which required though that I gave up on being connected via video to the group, so they didn´t see me any more, and I didn´t see them. I was able to work with them, mostly, after that, but in a very frustrating, inefficient way.
A lot of the connection problems probably could have been avoided by using Google + hangouts, with which the organizers weren´t familiar yet though. I will certainly make sure of that before I ever embark on a longer virtual meeting again. G+ gives you the possibility of sharing several things: documents, video, sound, even with several people at once. Skype is much more complicated at that, if you don´t have the same versions, or have subscribed to paid options. There is obviously other software, some of it very sophisticated, but also expensive, or not common enough to allow sharing with many people from different countries and backgrounds.
Concluding, I will probably avoid any more online meetings which last more than half a day in the future, if possible. What I realized in those two days also was the added value of in-person meetings, which happens, as we all know, often during breaks and after the end of the official part. I am not talking of the socializing and fun here (which can be nice too, without doubt) but the ideas and insights that happen when talking just to one or two colleagues, either about the issue of the meeting, or regarding networking for other, or possible projects. Quite a lot of initiatives had their origin during meeting breaks, or working lunches or dinner. (This is also the idea behind one of the participation techniques we like to use, the Open Space Technology, originally born during a coffee break, or so goes the legend).
There is obviously always the question of the emissions caused by traveling. And the not always sustainable meeting locations and practices. Perfection is hard to come by in our field…