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Virtual / Electronic Meetings - Differences from In-Person Meetings
The following Q&A on electronic meetings is from Notes and Comments on Robert's Rules, Fifth Edition, from Southern Illinois University Press (to be published 2022).
Differences Between In-Person and Electronic Meetings
Without question, there are advantages and disadvantages to meeting virtually instead of in-person. Electronic meetings save travel time. Who wouldn’t like to finish dinner at home and be at a member meeting online three minutes later? Electronic meetings also permit members with work or family conflicts to participate virtually. A downside to virtual meetings is the learning curve and (possible) new costs associated with online meetings or voting platforms. Such concerns might not exist for small boards or membership meetings that can meet through straightforward online platforms (such as Zoom or GoToMeeting or Microsoft Teams) to discuss and vote on issues like at in-person meetings. In contrast, there can be significant differences between in-person and electronic meetings of large conventions or annual member meetings. The current distinctions might lessen as technology improves and online deliberation becomes more familiar, but here are some instances where virtual meetings differ from in-person meetings:
- Technology issues, whether big or small. At in-person meetings where the power goes out, meetings and voting often continue uninterrupted through light from windows. Not so at a virtual meeting. Electronic meeting technology keeps getting better, but connection issues, outages, or coverage issues will occur. At a recent large convention with excellent IT support, a software coding issue caused the online system to shut down when more than 500 members joined the meeting (which was a problem because there were several thousand delegates). The convention lost its first day of business. And regardless of how perfect the virtual platform, access to state-of-the art technology and Internet connection speeds will vary greatly based on members’ locations and resources, meaning that members might experience the same electronic meeting very differently.
- Different meeting dynamic. While large in-person assemblies often fight over certain proposals, there is still a feeling that it is a meeting of one organization. (Good presiding officers will sometimes reinforce the point by reminding delegates of what unites the members after particularly controversial votes.) Electronic meetings tend to feel like hundreds of individuals sitting somewhere doing their own thing.
- Less transparency. Everything happens real-time at in-person meetings. If a member feels that a rule has been violated and raises a Point of Order, other members see that. In a virtual meeting, most things occur behind a curtain. Delegates don’t really know who’s “next in line” to speak, and a member might not be called on in the order they should be recognized, or at all. If a member is unruly, there will be temptation to simply mute or disconnect the member.
- Less individual engagement. It’s hard not to pay attention in a large physical meeting or convention. You aren’t likely to fall asleep or have a telephone conversation in the middle of delegates. There is no such buffer with virtual meetings. The fall-off between who is logged-on for the meeting and who votes on motions can be extreme. That’s likely a function of what we do while on virtual meetings—other work, surf the Internet, make a sandwich, complete other activities, etc. In other words, members might be present online, but with half (or less) of their eyes and ears. If delegates are not visible on a screen, it’s likely even more common.
- Different tone. Virtual meetings bring out the worst in some people. Members can be meaner and “in your face” than they would likely be in person. Virtual discussion is impersonal and, in some ways, similar to online chats and comments, where participants can be more negative. At an in-person convention, you must go to a microphone and make your comments directly in front of other delegates, often friends or peers. That dynamic likely causes members to be more circumspect. In contrast, individuals talking to screens from their living rooms tend to be willing to say most anything—no matter how ugly or confrontational.
- Altered voting dynamics. Electronic votes often go differently than they would in person. Most often, noncontroversial proposals tend to have more votes against them. Or there might be more votes to take controversial positions, remove board members or officers, or reject items that in person would have been easily approved. At a physical meeting, you tend to vote by saying “aye” or “no” or rising in front of fellow members, often colleagues from your own organization. In other words, there are personality and group dynamics involved. You are also somewhat forced to be engaged in the process—you are present at the meeting, and there is little to do during proceedings but pay attention to the issues. In an online meeting, you are answerable to no one. You might also be paying less attention to the proceedings and voting with less information. Perhaps online voting gets closer to what individual members think, but recognize it is different from in-person voting.
- Difficulty in “working out” things out. At in-person meetings, controversial proposals are often compromised on the floor or outside the meeting hall during discussions, possibly in hallways or after-hour events. For instance, maybe a motion to raise dues by “x” was doomed to fail, but members discussed the proposal and agreed to a compromise amount. Being physically present AT the meeting allowed that to happen. It is difficult to work out differences during virtual meetings, and most proposals simply get an up or down vote as proposed.
- Little sense of community. There is more to meetings and conventions than simply voting on motions. Relationships get built. Friendships and trust are forged. All of that creates future leaders and builds a sense of community for the organization. Much of that happens elsewhere than on the floor, such as during social events or during conversations outside the meeting. Future technology may get there, but at present, it is difficult to build such relationships and a sense of community in virtual meetings.
Given the pandemic and new technologies, it has made sense to lean heavily into electronic meetings. And now that we’re familiar with online platforms, some hope we’ll never go back to physical meetings. Virtual meetings have many positive benefits, and with time, might become even more identical to in-person meetings. However, it’s currently worth weighing the benefits and disadvantages of meeting in-person versus virtually when deciding how to convene a particular meeting or resolve a specific issue.
Jim Slaughter is an attorney, Certified Professional Parliamentarian, Professional Registered Parliamentarian, and past President of the American College of Parliamentary Lawyers. He is author of four books on meeting procedure, including Robert's Rules of Order Fast Track and Notes and Comments on Robert’s Rules, Fifth Edition. Jim is a partner in Law Firm Carolinas. For more information, visit www.jimslaughter.com.
Charts and articles are intended to provide general information on parliamentary procedure and are not legal advice or a legal opinion.