The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted society on several levels, and it is clear that certain changes will remain rooted in our daily lives, such as the use of videoconferencing platforms (Teams, Zoom and others).
Videoconferencing has integrated the world of work, medicine and even public consultation activities, whether for major infrastructure projectsgovernment consultations (e.g. for the mobile traceability application for Covid-19), or consultations of the Office of Public Hearings on the Environment.
Beyond the technical considerations and the technological difficulties, there is a human, in front of the camera, who wishes to express himself – which brings its share of challenges. Our research has enabled us to identify severalwhich must be taken into consideration during virtual meetings.
There “Zoom fatigue” which stems from an overflow of virtual meetings and which presents itself in the form of mental heaviness or numbness, is more and more frequent. We suggest taking a break in order to understand why it is more difficult to consult, to be consulted, and more generally, to communicate online on these exchange platforms.
As a participation professional, professor and researcher in the Department of Social and Public Communication at the University of Quebec in Montreal, we are particularly interested in the communicational dimensions of public participation and its implications in society.
Read more: Why FaceTime can’t replace in-person meetings
Relearning to decode the “non-verbal”
Decoding non-verbal online is much more difficult, if not impossible. This is indeed an observation shared by many researchers during the pandemic.
As pointed out François Richer, professor of neuropsychology at UQAMthe incomplete presence of others “creates a lack of sensory data, a lack of immersion. Discussions are less fluid. We guess less who wants to speak. We cannot clearly distinguish looks or facial expressions, we can less decode the discreet signs of non-verbal language”.
Note for example the vagueness that exists in higher education institutions regarding the obligation for students to open their camera during a lesson. Difficult for teachers to know if the course is really followed, if the students are attentive or if they understand the material. This certainly contributes to the feeling of discouragement and a drop in interactions in the courses.
Decoding non-verbal online dramatically increases cognitive load and is one of the root causes of “Zoom fatigue”. If we think we are suffering from this fatigue, it is better to reduce our Zoom meetings as much as possible. We prefer to close the camera, make phone calls, emails, or better, make dating while walking when possible!
Read more: Walking together to improve creativity and work relationships
The difficulties of socializing
Meetings in person have the benefit of allowing socialization. Whether on the sidelines of a public consultation on a project or a hot issue, in a waiting room or at the café, for many it is an opportunity to see people again, to discuss neighborhood life, to get news.
During its experience of virtual public consultations, the BAPE noted two major drawbacksnamely the absence of social dynamics in the rooms, during work and during breaks, and the lack of rooting of the commission in the dynamics of the community.
But how do you recreate this opportunity online?
To fill this need for socialization, some public participation practitioners have found that participants connected earlier to simply exchange during the connection period preceding the start of the meetings. A great way to socialize informally in a context of citizen participation.
Find solutions to the needs of kinesthetic people
In recent years, many innovations in public consultation have enabled kinesthetic people (who often need to touch, beyond seeing and hearing) to actively participate in public consultation processes, whether either for energy, transport or health projects.
For example, the Réseau de transport de Longueuil, during its public consultations in 2019, offered participants interactive activitieswhere they were asked to create their ideal transport network, by drawing on a map the desired routes, the location of the stops, the frequencies of passage, while respecting certain constraints in terms of budgets and human resources. By diversifying the ways of consulting, it goes without saying that we reach a greater diversity of people.
However, the pandemic and the holding of remote consultations have once again limited the possibilities of active participation for kinesthetic people. Unfortunately, few examples are documented in order to explore the possible avenues for these people, in the context of online or remote consultation.
Aligning the personal and family environment with the professional context
Finally, a major challenge that has been exacerbated during the pandemic has been adapt their work environment and agenda according to professional, personal or family constraints.
By disclosing their private life to the camera, some fear some form of invasion, or may be subject to discrimination. Also, introverted people seem particularly at risk of exhaustion in the context of online meetings and participatory exchanges.
Let’s not forget that the good old ways still work, especially since they avoid creating a digital divide with those who are less comfortable with technology. Whether through telephone discussions, informational emails, or better still, by sending explanatory videos that you have prepared to replace Zoom meetings.
Let’s take a time out to review our online communication and consultation practices. Recognize that we may need to integrate different solutions – that sometimes a screen break is needed, but other times our need to socialize is greater. But let’s remember above all that we must adapt technology to humans, and not the other way around.
These main challenges were identified thanks to the research work of Hugo Mimee and Stéphanie Yates, within the framework of a report for the International Association for Public Participation, Canada Section.