Culture

Zoom meetings are actually good, cruel scientists say

Virtual meetings are cheaper, more accessible, and better for the planet.

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In 2020, the annual committee meeting of the journal we edit was a bit of a mess. It took place in March, just days before the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, so some attendees canceled their travel even as others were arriving at the meeting site.

At the last minute, we pivoted to a hybrid meeting, with half the attendees in-person and the other half virtual. While the meeting was successful in terms of editorial decisions, the mixed format hampered our normally free-flowing discussions.

The 2021 meeting of the journal, the Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, was entirely virtual. And it went much more smoothly.

By then, we all had a year’s experience working in an online environment. Everyone was remote, which made the means of communication equitable, and we made sure each member had a chance to participate.

We included breaks to reduce video fatigue and breakout rooms for parallel small-group discussions that helped increase efficiency. We developed a more scripted schedule that we followed closely to ensure that everyone knew what to expect.

In many professions, business travel is part of the job. This is particularly true in science, where international collaborations are the norm. But as we look ahead to a post-Covid world, we’re not sure that we want to go back to spending so much of our professional lives in planes, hotels, restaurants, and rental cars.

There are obvious benefits to in-person meet-ups, but they don’t always outweigh the costs: time, money, and the effects of travel on the climate. More professions — especially within science — should explicitly consider those costs and the benefits of virtual meetings.

We’re not the only ones who don’t want a return to “normal”:

The benefits are obvious. A 2019 analysis from Runzheimer — part of the tech company Motus, which sells products for mobile workers — found that every business trip costs $1,300 per traveler.

To US companies, that translated to roughly $112 billion in expenses in 2019 alone. Those costs render in-person meetings off-limits to many companies and individuals, effectively widening existing gaps.

Even if people can afford to buy a plane ticket, they may have other limitations that make the trip impossible, such as illness or challenges with securing childcare. Some online accessibility features, such as real-time captioning, are not always available at in-person meetings.

Virtual meetings can eliminate some of those barriers, and they may be more accessible: When the European Geosciences Union made its 2020 meeting virtual, attendance rose from a typical 16,000 to 26,000.

Travel also has an enormous impact on climate. In one estimate published in Nature, air travel to a single scientific meeting — the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, attended by 28,000 people from around the world — generated the equivalent of 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide, the average amount emitted by the entire city of Edinburgh over the course of a week.

We can’t just flip a switch to virtual meetings without working out some kinks. Our 2021 virtual editorial committee meeting started at 8 a.m. California time, which was midnight for a colleague in Japan — who then had to stay awake for a further eight hours.

It will be near impossible to pick a time that is convenient for everyone around the world, but we need to make sure that benefits outweigh inconveniences for each participant.

Virtual meetings also must provide ways for people to interact socially, particularly newcomers. Dinners and receptions at in-person events can help attendees new to the scene get to know other board members and make invaluable work connections, but these are difficult to replicate over a screen.

Work discussions (let alone socializing) can be particularly tricky during hybrid meetings, so ways must be found to ensure that remote participants — including those from underrepresented communities — can network as fully and freely as people who are able to attend in person.

Small group meetings ahead of time can ensure that each individual’s insights are clearly heard, and breakout rooms designated for specific topics can help to constructively focus discussions.

Of course, virtual or hybrid meetings can’t replicate everything about the in-person experience. Attendees may lose the opportunities for exquisite restaurant meals with colleagues, or the excuse for a family trip. And there are intangible benefits to gathering experts in a room to mutually educate each other, where you can easily interject or pull someone aside.

But given the potential benefits of virtual meetings to improve access, cut expenses, and help the planet, we want to see more of them in the future. Let’s not go back to the way things were before.

This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.

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