How online meetings level the playing field in the office | Work & career



Before the pandemic, Francesca missed a lot of meetings because she had to drop her children off at school before heading to the office. If she did, she rarely spoke.

While many workers suffer from Zoom fatigue, for workers like Francesca, online meetings have presented an opportunity – and she fears it will soon be withdrawn.

“I was able to get involved, I had additional opportunities and still managed to choose my son from school, so for me working from home was really great,” she says. “I know a lot of people don’t like them, but I find I am more confident online. I am really worried that things will change.

As a civil servant, this fear is not unfounded. Boris Johnson missed no opportunity to urge workers to return to the office; Rishi Sunak warned that young people would miss out on opportunities if they worked from home, while former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith singled out these snowflake homeworkers, noting that even during the second world war people went to the office.

But their exhortations can fall on closed ears. While many companies use a hybrid working model, many organizations are considering keeping large meetings online, arguing that it improves productivity, saves time and money, and strengthens gender equality.

Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Permanent Secretary Sarah Healey recently told staff she will keep the meetings online because they are more efficient and also help women participate.

She’s right, says Ann Francke, CEO of the Chartered Management Institute, which has also decided to move all large meetings online, even when people are in the office. “They’ve been great levelers because everyone’s in the same size box,” she says. Features like the chat box and the raised hand button mean that the person chairing the meeting can invite people to speak.

“In face-to-face meetings, there can be a very dominant presence waving its arms all the time – and that is eliminated,” she says.

Women, historically and today, suffer from a historic and intractable “authority gap”, says Mary Ann Sieghart. Her book, The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Takes Less Serious Than Men, And What We Can Do About It, suggests that even the most authoritarian women do not escape deprecation – a 2017 US study found that although women made up one-third of US Supreme Court justices, they suffered two-thirds of all interruptions – 96% of the time by men.

“Being interrupted and chatted dissuades women from speaking out in meetings – it silences them,” she says. “On Zoom the interruptions are very messy, if people just try to yell at other people it kind of hangs up.”

Amy Butterworth, head of consulting at social enterprise Timewise, agrees that “being good, digital meetings can level the playing field.” But chairs need to insist on digital hand raising, making sure those outside the office contribute equally, and stifle any “mute cuts” – where one participant revives and blows his or her point off – firmly in the bud.

Dr Heejung Chung, a flexible working expert and reader in sociology at the University of Kent, argues that quite simply, the fact that meetings are now physically accessible for many people who previously might not have been able to attend at the office – potentially miles away – is a good start.

She also reports new research which shows that people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and LGBT + workers may find that not having to be present in physical work environments that “others” makes work more accessible.

Research by Slack’s Future Forum think tank based on American workers found that only 3% of black workers wanted to return full time in person work against 21% of white workers.

“In physical offices we have what sociologists call a hegemonic male organizational culture, where the characteristics of white men are considered virtues, ”she said. “To think that online spaces can completely suppress this culture is a little too naive, but maybe some of these ingrained habits can change – if people are thoughtful.”

Some research suggests that online meetings are not necessarily more democratic. Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, says imbalances seen in “normal” meetings are magnified online, while a June poll found that nearly half (45%) of female business leaders American company said it was difficult for women to express themselves in virtual meetings on platforms like Zoom, and one in five women feel they have been ignored on calls.

It’s no surprise, says Professor Jacqueline O’Reilly, co-director of the Digital Futures at Work Research Center. If management believes that young workers or people of different ethnicities or women should be heard, then they will be. If leaders are oblivious to these issues, they won’t, ”she said. “Technology itself is not what makes it inclusive, or exclusive and discriminating. It’s the way people use it.

Sieghart warns that while Zoom meetings could allow women, like Francesca, to participate more fully at work – they are likely to find other barriers that remain. “Workers with family responsibilities – who are thrilled to be able to work flexibly – might find that it’s the guys who are back in the office, chatting with their bosses, who are more likely to be promoted,” she says. .


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