Social etiquette: A must even online


Online meets not forever: Hopefully, we will still remember to treat each other respectfully when we return to physical meetings. — Photo: 123rf

I AM not sure about the frequency of meetings in schools these days but to those whose jobs require that they attend a number of meetings daily, phrases like the following may sound all too familiar: “Sorry, I missed your call. I’ve been in back-to-back meetings since 8 am”, “I just jumped out of another meeting into this one” or “ I have to miss this meeting because another one just popped up in my calendar”.

I am referring to meetings that are held on the online platforms, of course. Am I the only one who feels this way, or has the frequency and the pressing need to call for online meetings suddenly accelerated over the past few months?

It seems like every other person I am speaking to has just moved from one virtual meeting only to enter another one. Lately, I have been wondering if this was also the case on the traditional, physical platform previously. Or am I only feeling it keener on the online space?

Back when things were the old normal – something which people tell me is a state we will never quite go back to – we did have a large number of meetings occasionally. But when people left one meeting to attend another, they physically walked out of the room.

They got up from their chairs, opened doors, climbed stairs, or took elevators and entered another space. Actual bodily movements albeit brief ones, took place.

Today though, we are moving through rooms and spaces without the extensive use of skeletal muscles. And the lack of this energy expenditure is doing something to us.

For one, we spend most of the day in various levels of the seated positions: crouched, straight-backed, hunched, bent over or stooped. We are in these positions and on the same chair throughout the working day and even long afterwards!

Unlike the 9-to-5 working hours in the physical office space where we usually clocked in and out to earn our keep, working from home has blurred boundaries between our working and non-working hours.

Time itself has become one long continuum without being broken up into smaller measures.

I like to move it, move it

“Weekend? What weekend?” said a colleague dryly, at my mild enquiry at how his weekend had been.

“You mean, the week still comes to an end?” he continued, sounding peeved. “And while we are at that, what are lunch breaks, holidays, months, years? No, those are unreal, non-existent, made-up things of the former world. For now, I measure time by the number of meetings I attend, my sitting down and standing up and my going to bed. Ah, and the washroom breaks, of course,” he adds.

Health experts prescribe that we incorporate movement during the day like some stretching exercises that encompass standing up and moving around or at the very least, wiggling our bottoms and flapping ours arms.

This is, of course, all very possible in between meetings when you don’t have to switch on the camera of your computer or when the meeting is not dominated by one monotonous person droning on about the same topic for the third time.

The washroom break is a respite for when you really have to go. Or when you just have to step away from that online meeting for a little perk-me-up like a snack or cup of coffee to endure the next three hours.

“Well, it does seem more acceptable to write ‘washroom break’ in the chat box rather than ‘gone to get a sandwich’ or ‘gone to stop your three-year-old from eating the cat food’,” said another colleague.

Then again, this would also depend on who chairs the meeting. There are a few who stay glued to the computer screen neurotically, afraid that the moment they leave the seat, the chief executive officer or principal would call out their names, asking for their opinions.

At times like these, there would be a sudden “hush” in the virtual room while everyone checks their participant list. Popular excuses which worked in the past (depending on how long you were away to begin with) are to lay blame on poor Internet connectivity or the faulty audio that has been acting up.

Virtual meeting etiquette is also a hot discussion topic these days. One needs to ensure the background is appropriate and the surrounding is free of sudden distractions.

You wouldn’t want your husband’s grandfather creeping up behind you asking, “Cu, mana gigi atuk?” (“Where are grandpa’s dentures?”) just as you are about to present that staff report. On one of your not-so-perfect days, your handy do-it-yourself neighbour miraculously finds the perfect time to drill holes to self-install cabinets on the shared wall where you have your virtual meetings.

Seared into memory

Dressing appropriately is important especially when you know it’s a ‘camera-on’ type of meeting. Always be very aware of what you’re wearing especially if you are the type who wears formal office attire waist up, paired with pyjama bottoms.

It’s a bit difficult to dispel visuals of hairy legs, paunchy tummies and other body parts we are unaccustomed to seeing when someone who is not quite properly dressed, decides to get up from his seat to adjust the position of his screen in the midst of the meeting.

Here is another almost fascinating thing about virtual meetings. In many cases, not only do they start on time (in comparison to physical ones), often they begin ahead of the scheduled time. I have always believed in punctuality. It is good to be present at least five to 10 minutes ahead of time. Perhaps it is about not having to leave the room to enter another physical space that makes people early rather than late for online meetings.

The thinking goes something like this: “So I have finished this meeting, the next one is in 15 minutes. Oh well, I’ll just enter the next virtual room.” And what do you know... there are already seven others there! Everyone is still waiting for the other five to link up and you still have time to kill. But since the majority of the group is here, everyone decides to start the meeting ahead of time. By the time the five join in 15 minutes later, a significant portion of the discussion is over.

Some people may not view this as a bad thing but those who have missed the first portion despite being on time, will wonder if their presence was somehow important in the first place.

“In that case, I don’t even see why I need to attend,” said one disgruntled colleague after he had logged in on the dot just to find out that they had started 10 minutes earlier just because most of them were already there.

Another annoying breach of virtual meeting etiquette is when private conversations between a few participants take place during the meeting. These anecdotes have nothing to do with the purpose of the meeting. Often the issues are totally irrelevant to the rest of the participants.

While these little inside jokes go on among a few higher-ups, the others have to wait silently, and often grudgingly, because they consider this to be a waste of their own time. And quite justifiably so. This is when the phrase ‘get a room’ is most apt. Don’t you wish they would disappear into a break-out room and not subject the rest to this unnecessary pain?

Mind your manners

I think the overriding thought that should guide all interactions on the virtual platforms – especially during meetings – is the consideration that we give others. It is sometimes easy to forget that just because we don’t have a physical presence during these meetings, we are excused from the social etiquette that would otherwise be needed of us.

One day in the future, we will return to physical meetings in boardrooms. Hopefully, we will still remember to value and treat each other respectfully.

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