At first they probably seemed like a novelty, but now, months into the COVID-19 pandemic, online meetings have lost much of their initial charm.
The Sankei Shimbun rattled off a few common themes that have been posted on various social media platforms over the past six months:
“I can’t stand the sight of all those faces on the screen in front of me — there’s my own and then there’s everyone else’s,” one user says.
“More often than not, two people start speaking at the same time and the conversation immediately breaks down,” says another.
“There’s no point calling a meeting in which people just state their opinions one by one,” says a third.
With businesses now counting down to all the deadlines associated with the end of the year, many employees are expected to be more productive, and that, in short, requires more online meetings.
Not only are such meetings becoming more frequent, they’re also getting longer.
“I had to spend the whole day in front of my laptop,” one Twitter user recalls. “I experienced headaches and nausea and had to turn the camera off. I hope I don’t get into any trouble as a result.”
In an article published in June, Diamond.jp examines the reasons behind the negativity, concluding that much has to do with accepted cultural norms. Many managers in Japan are ill-equipped to communicate online, the article suggests, as Japan has traditionally relied on communication “without words.”
On the other hand, a number of social experts have pointed out that the absence of daily commutes has freed up everyone’s time, helping to make Japanese society more flexible.
“By not having to go all the way to my client’s company, I can spend more time on real work,” a man in his 30s says in a Withnews.jp article about remote work.
At least one other man quoted in the same article said that online meetings can sometimes work in his favor.
“Online meetings are great for spontaneity” the man says. “I can just get on the computer and talk to someone as the need pops up, without having to schedule an in-person meeting that takes up everyone’s time.”
Even Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, has urged government workers to shift to remote work, and, to this end, has pledged in a post on his Facebook page to create a new digital ministry.
Such a ministry would aim to centralize ministerial functions, enable mass COVID-19 testing and track the movement of anyone who tests positive. Ultimately, Suga hopes that many government officials will be able to work in a remote capacity, although he hasn’t specified whether this would apply to Diet members.
Even so, most rank-and-file employees claim that online meetings are stressful.
“When we communicate with people face to face, we gather various data from facial expressions, gazes, postures and so forth,” Kanako Otsui, an assistant professor at Kindai University, tells the Sankei Shimbun. “In online meetings, we can’t even look another person in the eye but our faces are always exposed, and we feel the pressure of being watched.”
Others go so far as to describe online meetings as being terrifying.
Salespeople, for instance, say that making an online pitch to a prospective client can be a nightmare, especially if the other party has their camera turned off.
“I don’t know what the client is doing, much less thinking,” one salesperson says. “When I get no reaction, it feels like I’m talking to a black hole.”
All is not lost, however, and companies across the country are trying to make online meetings work. Experts such as Otsui of Kindai University encourage people to get involved in online conversations, “otherwise, they won’t feel as if they have achieved anything, let alone been part of the meeting to begin with.”
Several sites, including Manager-life.net, have also put together some incredibly helpful tips.
The first rule, apparently, is to invest in a decent headset and microphone.
“Don’t expect your laptop to be perfect, as the sound quality will always be less than excellent,” the website says. “Once you are able to ensure the audio is clear, the stress of online meetings will be massively reduced.”
Keeping your camera on also goes a long way to reducing stress levels.
“It’s important that other meeting participants know you are there,” one user says. “When someone else is talking, respond by nodding or saying things like, ‘I see.’ This may not sound like much, but responses will always be noted and appreciated.”
And, at the end of the day, common courtesy will save all participants, whether they’re meeting online or face to face.
“If you are facilitating the meeting, be sure to start with a greeting and end with a short closing speech about the points that were covered and what the meeting has achieved,” a final person suggests. “And don’t forget to thank everyone for their time.”