At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as much as half of the world's population was under lockdown. Social distancing measures kept people confined to their homes, unable to go to work, see their loved ones, or meet their friends.
Businesses were scrambling to manage an abrupt transition to distributed workforces. Team members found themselves facing the challenge of setting up a home office and maintaining productivity.
In all of this, virtual meetings have been a saving grace.
Whether it was a quarterly sales meeting, a high school reunion, university classes, an industry conference, or a birthday check-in with your grandmother, video calls provided an opportunity to connect in the midst of mayhem.
But what will the post-pandemic future hold for virtual meetings?
Many countries are slowly reopening, and things are inching back towards normal in the foreseeable future. So, will video calls be gladly abandoned in favor of personal interactions? Or have the advantages of online meetings tipped the scales in favor of sticking to the digital hello?
Remote Work - An Unavoidable Trend
Remote work is here to stay.
Before the pandemic, 38% of businesses had team members working from home on a part-time or full-time basis. During COVID-19, this number surged.
The initial transition to distributed workforces posed a challenge to businesses and employees alike. Now, however, the necessary infrastructures, including remote work tools and tech, are in place, and many employees have developed strategies for working effectively in their home offices.
To abandon these investments and developments would not make sense economically.
A recent survey among executives showed that 77% of them were looking to maintain the levels of remote work implemented during the pandemic and even expanding them.
And other surveys found that while many employees were looking forward to returning to their offices, craving interaction with colleagues after months of social isolation, a majority have found themselves to be effective and productive working from home.
That means virtual meetings will remain entrenched in the working lives of millions of employees and managers.
Cutting Costs, and Estimating Economic Impact
Holding virtual meetings saves money.
Rather than spending time and resources on traveling to meetings - especially long-distance affairs, such as business trips and conferences abroad - participants can assemble online, without leaving their living rooms. A face-to-face meeting with overseas partners that would have swallowed at least three days' worth of time, airfares, and hotel bills, takes up barely an afternoon when held online.
However, the corona-induced total shift to virtual events has had a severe economic impact. According to a recent analysis, business conferences generate an annual $1 trillion in direct spending, from transport to accommodation. For many businesses, tech expos and conventions are major sources of income and new clients. A lasting transition to virtual events entails a fundamental shift in these sectors.
Even with that economic impact to consider, the trend seems to be firmly in favor of virtual conferences. During the pandemic, experience showed that 86% of participants showed equal or higher engagement during virtual events compared with live ones.
And conference organizers can save upwards of 60% of their budget by cutting costs on venues, equipment, and catering, while expanding their audience to those who want to attend, but don't have the time or budget to travel.
Even now, many organizers are working to shift events online by default. Google is currently working on converting its Cloud Next conference to an entirely virtual event. Other tech giants are set to follow suit.
Future Directions - Hybrid Meetings, Holographic Conferences
The future of virtual meetings is not limited to Zoom calls.
One currently emerging trend is for hybrid conferences and meetings. Such events would take place face-to-face in one location, with key speakers being present, as well as those participants who are able and willing to come. At the same time, the event would be transmitted to satellite locations virtually, allowing for broader participation.
As tech catches up with science fiction, holographic events are on the horizon. While the technology is still relatively expensive, it exists and has been used for purposes varied as widely as business conferences and the French presidential elections.
From the current perspective, it seems that virtual meetings will remain firmly cemented in business life: Remote work is set to expand. Many conferences are being shifted online permanently. And businesses and employees alike appreciate the benefits of connecting online rather than in person.
In private interactions, however, it is more likely that face to face meetings will prevail once we've vanquished the virus. On grandma's birthday, at least, she'll prefer a personal visit - even if she has learned to Zoom out of necessity.