Sunday, August 23, 2020

Your sudden enthusiasm for virtual meetings is beginning to worry me

Screenshot from Zoom meting. Image Source: Reshape.

I live about 100 kilometers away from my workplace. A round trip takes at least 2 hours, up to 4 by public transport. That’s why, for the past 5 years, I’ve had a home-office contract which allows me to do part of my job remotely.

My husband works for a company that has sections in several other countries, including India, the USA, and Great Britain. He, too, is used to teleconferences with participants from several time-zones.

This makes me think my family was probably better prepared for the covid lockdown than many others. For the same reason though, we also had more time to contemplate the pros and cons of remote collaboration.

The pros are clear: Less time wasted in transit. Less carbon dioxide emitted. Less germs circulated.

And with more people in the same situation, the pros have proliferated. I have, for example, been thrilled to see the spike in online seminars. Suddenly, even I am able to find seminars that are actually interesting for my research! Better still, if it turns out they’re not as interesting as anticipated, no one notices if I virtually sneak out. Also, asking for a virtual meeting has become routine. Everyone is now familiar with screen sharing and prepared to tolerate the hassle of lagging vids or chopped audios.

These have been positive developments, and many of them deserve to be carried forward. Traveling for seminars or colloquia has long been absurdly out-of-date. We all know that a lot of speakers will give the same seminar dozens of times to largely disinterested audiences, when those who actually wanted to hear it could as well have called into the same online meeting, or watched a recording.

Or consider this. I have frequently gotten invitations from overseas institutions that were prepared to fly me in and out for giving a one-hour talk. This isn’t only ecologically insane, it’s also a bad use of researchers’ time. A lot of my colleagues work while on planes and in airports, and of course I do, too, but let’s be honest: It’s not quality time. Traveling is disruptive, both mentally and metabolically. And that’s leaving aside that it screws up the work-life balance.

So, yes, scientists could certainly slim down those seminar series and cut back traveling quite a bit. But as researchers are becoming more familiar with virtual meetings and teleconferences, I fear some of them are getting carried away.

I’ve seen scientists on social media seriously discussing that seminar series should remain online-only even post-pandemic. Virtual conferences are supposedly better than the real thing. And if you listen to them, there’s nothing, it seems, you can’t get done on Zoom.

Let us therefore talk about the cons.

Virtual collaborations work well as long as you know the people in real life already. Even with both audio and video, a lot of information that humans draw on to efficiently communicate is missing. Through a screen, you neither get body language nor the context from chatter in the hallway or just from physically being in the same room. These cues are important for deliberation and argumentation to work properly.

I know this sounds somewhat Neanderthal, but fact is that evolution didn’t prepare us to communicate  through webcams.

This has long been known to sociologists who therefore recommend that teams which collaborate remotely meet in person at least a few times a year, a recommendation that my husband’s employer strictly follows. The occasional in-person meeting, so the idea, provides team members with the required information to understand where the others are coming from. It is especially important to introduce new members to a group.

A good starting point to get a sense of the troubles that remote collaboration can bring is the 2005 report by the (US-American) National Defense Research Institute on “Challenges in Virtual Collaboration”. Summarizing the published literature, they find that during video- and audio-conferences “local coalitions can form in which participants tend to agree more with those in the same room than with those on the other end of the line” and that computer-mediated communication has “shown to increase polarization, deindividuation, and disinhibition. That is, individuals may become more extreme in their thinking, less sensitive to interpersonal aspects of their messages, and more honest and candid.”

Online-only scientific collaboration and conferences would therefore most likely work well for some time, but eventually communication would suffer. Especially those who currently praise the zoomiverse for its supposed inclusivity, as this recent piece in SciAm, simply have not thought it through.

You see, regardless of how much effort we put into online conferencing and meeting, there will still be people who know each other in real life. These will be those who just happen to work or live near each other, or who have the funds to travel. Unless you actually want to forbid everyone to meet in real life, this will create a two-class community. Those who can meet. And those who can’t.

At present, most funding agencies acknowledge the need to occasionally see each other in person to collaborate effectively. If that would no longer be the case, then it would be especially the already disadvantaged people who would suffer because they would become remote-only participants. The Ivy League, I am sure, would find a way to continue having drinks together one way or the other.

None of this is to say that I am against virtual conferences or remote collaboration. But international collaboration has been a boon to science. And abstract ideas, like the ones we deal with in the foundations of physics, are hard to get across; having to pipe them through glass fiber cables doesn’t help. As we discuss how to reduce traveling, let us not forget that communication is absolutely essential to science. 


  1. And then there are all those informal side conversations at meetings, seminars etc.

    1. At least these days, those are the main reasons for attending.

  2. I work at a smaller hardware technology company (IC design & engineering). Our pre-covid local office typically had about about 20 people present, and now it's about 5-6.
    The loss of impromptu collaborations & spontaneous technical interactions has reduced productivity by at least 20%-25%.
    What used to be 10 minutes in front of a lab bench with instrumentation, now can drag on for days.

    Remote work can operate ok in businesses that are routine, process-oriented, and have little deep creativity ... like processing loan documents.
    Work that is inherently solitary, like writing, is also ok.

    But collaborative technical work -- which most engineering is -- suffers.

    Wall Street Journal had a July24 article on this problem (behind a paywall),
    "Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All
    Projects take longer. Collaboration is harder"

  3. I agree, nothing is better for meeting new collaborators, than personal contact, but virtual congress is one of the best things that have happened to science, as you described in the beginning.

  4. > And with more people in the same situation, the pros have proliferated.

    This has been my experience too. I'm very glad that my work hasn't gone to some hybrid nonsense while the situation is still what it is. I think everyone being in the same boat also makes the potential cons more visible, so people have been more proactive about reaching.

  5. I've been doing work virtually. I frankly prefer the old fashioned approach.

  6. Finally, someone says it! Thanks. I have been having exactly same concerns seeing the sudden proliferation of online conferences boasting of big names and what not. There is an obvious danger this poses to the culture of blackboard/back-of-the-napkin discussions during non-virtual conferences and meetings. Worse, since academic promotions/perks often include a "workshops/conferences organized" box, and it does not cost too much to organize online meets, this might set a precedent for organizing meets/conferences etc with no focus on research theme, but instead on how glamorous the list of speakers you have been able to convice to talk. Does not leave a good feeling!

    1. Indeed. Note that there is an entire industry of fake conferences, which are intentionally designed to look like real conferences. Some actually take place, but only a few attend, and no-one of note.

  7. The Talking Heads sang "Stop making sense". As long as all nowadays talking heads make sense I think there is nothing to worry about.

  8. Wait a minute, I'm not sure your inference in the 2 paragraphs "You see, regardless of how much effort we put into online conferencing and meeting, ...... the already disadvantaged people who would suffer because they would become remote-only participants. The Ivy League, I am sure, would find a way to continue having drinks together one way or the other." makes sense. Surely having live conferences discriminates against those who can't afford to attend. Remote meeting allows those people to take part more often when they wouldn't otherwise be able.

    1. It may make sense if you'd read the text between the pieces that you quote.

  9. I think a step in the right direction is to ask: will an online seminar increase or reduce the exchange and flow of information compared to other methods?

    For online forums such as Physics Stack Exchange, the flow of information is pretty extraordinary in a way that I doubt could be achieved in any real world face to face meeting or seminar. Yet I very much doubt the mathematician John Conway would have come up with his surreal numbers if he hadn't been allowed to play countless games of Go with the students in the Cambridge mathematics department's common room.

  10. I've done mostly remote work for decades; both as a contractor and (currently) as a full time employee, for the last three years. I live and work in one State, for a university across the country. I'm a research scientist.

    There is definitely something about in-person collaboration and communication that is not covered by Zoom or screen sharing. I believe there is a doubling of misunderstanding, and at times socially offensive behavior. I try to recognize when that is happening (to me, or by me) and intentionally deescalate, but I believe that is a skill that needs training, and I haven't seen training for it. (It can be far worse in email or online forums; not quite as severe on Zoom but still a danger.)

    I think what is missing is something that would be difficult to replicate remotely, randomly stumbling into conversations in the hallway or break room that are interesting, sometimes about work, but also about non-work: Pets, family, adventures, accidents, shows, vacations, experiences. The kind of stuff that makes colleagues people and builds personal understanding. It is also a setting where spontaneous creative suggestions may arise.

    That's missing from Zoom, there just isn't any good way to take a break, physically get up and take a walk, go to the restroom or break room for a drink, and bump into other people doing the same thing.

  11. Too many people seem to think there is a choice between virtual meetings and "real" meetings. Even when the pandemic is over that choice will not be there. Saying that the amount of travel, both to and from meetings and just to commute, has to be cut down is not enough. The climate situation is too serious for that. The norm from now on must be virtual meetings with, at most, the occasional meetup for socialisation if there is not too much travel involved. If the virtual experience is lacking something then we need to spend less time bemoaning that and longing for the "good old days" and more time thinking how it can be improved.

    1. Very good point! Sabine is rightly worried that virtual meetings are not always good for science, but worrying about that is quickly becoming an unaffordable luxury.

    2. I agree too, that the cons of (esp international real meetings) far outweigh the pros.

      many of the quoted cons, i see as purely technical. there has been little demand for tools like zoom to evolve in the past. Now these tools will surely become better in conveying more of the real feeling.

      If you read a forum occasionally or play an online game occasionally, you find the same unforced meeting culture as in hallways of conferences. and sometimes you get sidetracked and chat about different things than planned, just as in a real coffee room.

      many of these aspects arent covered in todays Zoom etc, but future VR meeting places could certainly improve on this a lot. Without the need of burning many times my body volume in fuel.

  12. Virtual meetings have their place, but there is something about seeing people in person. I remember a Russian mathematician describing his first international conference as being like the first day of nursery school where there are all these other kids with their own mommies and daddies. It's easy to get caught up in the world of ideas and forget that ideas need people.


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