Virtual meetings, though not perfect, provides continuity of operations

PETALING JAYA: One could say it is fortunate that Covid-19, however devastating it has been, occurred in this time.

If it had been just a generation ago, most activities would have come to a standstill. Businesses would not have been able to operate and learning would have stopped in its tracks.

Technology such as online communication has helped bring about some semblance of normalcy, provided users are able to ignore the imperfections that come with it.

But for users and communications experts alike it will be an alternative at best, never good enough to replace face-to-face meetings.

Marc Chua, founder and chief executive officer of homegrown sportswear brand Ultron, is one big proponent of online video meetings.

“It improves efficiency. It does not require travelling, cuts down unnecessary small talk and forces people to communicate more effectively,” he said.

There are many who share Chua’s view.

In fact, the number of Zoom users – one of the bigger online meeting platforms – has risen from just 10 million in December last year to more than 300 million in April.

People are turning to Zoom not just for business but also weddings, funerals, conferences, classes and many more activities that involve groups of people. But even the big proponents concede this magic of modern technology is not perfect.

There are worries that online meetings may be less effective in getting a message across and may affect the way meeting participants relate to each other.

Chua’s main complaint is that it is difficult to build rapport at virtual meetings. He said a mix of physical and virtual would be the way to go.

“There are occasions when physical presence is essential for impact,” he said. All the same, he believes online meetings are here to stay, even after the Covid-19 pandemic has been fully and permanently addressed.

For Dr Faizahani Abdul Rahman, a senior lecturer at the School of Education and Modern Languages at Universiti Utara Malaysia, there are limits to what one can achieve at online meetings.

“It does serve its purpose, which is to connect people, but it can only do so much. On the surface, it serves as a conduit to get a message from one party to another, but it has its limits as a tool to help in discussions, that must be dynamic and healthy enough for people to interject. But on Zoom, everyone has to wait for his turn to speak,” she added.

On a personal level, Faizahani believes her work has been affected since she began to depend heavily on Zoom for teaching, supervising and meetings.

“Online classes are less effective. Students do not participate unless their names are called. Some do not even attend often because of poor connectivity that may be caused by bad weather,” she said.

The bottom line for her, is that Zoom meetings feel like “fake communication”. Interaction is limited. Nonetheless, she expects it to become a norm at her varsity.

“Covid-19 has opened many possibilities and we will find ways to innovate. However, online meetings will never replace face-to-face meetings. We need to socialise. The physical interaction is what makes us human,” she added.