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Considerations of Online and Offline Meetings

With the current stay-at-home order, a lot of people who have not done so before are working from home. Under these circumstances, many of us have to rely on online conferencing software such as Zoom, and for almost as many of us, this is a new experience. There are great things to be said about Zoom in particular – for one, it is completely accessible. At LCI, we just held a team tutorial today, and screen reader users had little if any more difficulty accessing any feature than did sighted participants. Nevertheless, many Zoom meetings, especially to the novice, are awkward. There is a lot of unintended cross talk, and on the other end of the spectrum, there is a lot of silence in which no one knows what to say, or who should speak next. We all want to make sure we don’t cut others off, but we also want to make sure we seize our cue when we have something to say. This proves to be a delicate balancing act.

One question that comes to mind is whether blind and visually impaired people have an easier time adjusting to Zoom meetings – after all, these participants are used to partaking in meetings solely on the basis of non-visual input. In the sense to which Zoom amounts to cutting out that layer of communication, blind and visually impaired workers have been attending Zoom meetings all along. I put this question to the team, and the feedback was mixed. Some blind co-workers said that they never had a problem with Zoom meetings – especially with people with whom they are comfortable and familiar – in the first place. The individuals in question put this down to being a “people person” – and consequently being able to read and react to the ebb and flow of a conversation better than most. Others said that they did indeed find Zoom meetings less comfortable, and indicated that although this cannot be because they themselves are not able to pick up on visual cue regardless of the setting, it might still be the case that in the context of Zoom as opposed to in-person meetings, others are not able to pick up on the visual cues the blind or visually impaired person might send out. In an audio-only Zoom meeting, for example, sighted co-workers cannot see when a blind colleague sends out visual signals of being on the verge of speaking, or of showing signs of disagreement, etc. In an in-person meeting, sighted co-workers might direct attention to the blind co-worker in such situations. In audio-only meetings, they cannot do this. Thus, even the communication skills of blind participants might be compromised by audio-only meeting platforms.

It might be pointed out that Zoom, as do most other conferencing platforms, includes a video feature. This allows sighted all participants to turn on their video cameras. In this way, visual cues can be shared, and sighted co-workers can use these cues to steer the conversation. But even so, there is a general sense that even among sighted participants, there is a measure of awkwardness and remove to Zoom meetings that is not present in in-person meetings. Part of this is, no doubt, due to web instabilities – oftentimes, web lag is an unwelcome participant in web-based conferences. Participants might not get a chance to finish their thoughts before their feed cuts out, and cut outs mean that not everyone can hear the latest contributions, and might thus jump in prematurely with their own. But there might be more to this – and this circles back to the above reference to being a “people person”. It might well be that in-person meetings are just easier to read. Apart from overt visual cues, it is well possible that when we are seated around a table in a room together, there are some hard-to-define ways in which we “pick up” on the trajectory of a conversation – in which we become aware of openings and pivots in a conversation in ways that cannot be attributed to visual cues alone, but rather to a general sense of the discourse taking place. Being separated and isolated in space might make it harder to execute this intuitive engagement with the dialogue because it adds a layer of separation that simply does not apply to in-person meetings.

All this is vague speculation, and honestly a flight of fancy. What I am proposing would have to be formally studied by experts in psychology and communications to gain any kind of authority. But it is a thought that has arisen from our increased exposure to online meetings, and seems worthy of further study. If you have any experiences and thoughts to share, please do leave a comment. Hopefully all your Zoom meetings will be fruitful and enjoyable!