Virtually International – How Virtual Meetings Can Help to Avoid Flights
novembre 3, 2020

Summary of the webinar “Virtually international – how virtual meetings can help to avoid flights”

On October 22nd 2020, Stay Grounded organised with Let’s Stay Grounded campaign partner Zeroing Flying a Webinar on how virtual communication can help us to avoid business flights. This webinar is part of Stay Grounded webinars and resources aimed specifically at organisations. See our website for organisations, including resources, webinars, a survey and best practice examples. One of our latest resources is a guide for organisations describing nine steps to implement a grounded travel policy.

More and more organisations are questioning the climate impact of their business travel, which has been generally on the rise for decades. Business travel is the “cash cow” for many airlines with business and first class travel producing 3-4 times more emissions than economy class.

Now is also a very good time to talk about business air travel: The COVID-19 crisis has shown us that it is possible to organise everyday international work and global events virtually without having to take a plane. This seems to have also fundamentally changed ideas about the need for frequent business travel. In a recent survey of the views of Fortune 500 chief executives, 91 % said business travel will become less frequent and replaced by video conferencing.

It is important to add that not all COVID-19-related measures are necessary to avoid air travel, e.g. home remote work for local teams. But remote work for international teams, as well as online events or conferences, have the potential to “ground” work practices. So, in recent months, many of us became experts in using virtual communication in our work contexts.  Even though not all of these experiences might have been positive, they surely are very valuable. It is really crucial to  build on them and at least partly institutionalise them, e.g. in the form of a new travel policy – so that business air travel can be reduced in the long term and beyond the current phase of travel restrictions.

 

Inputs

In the first half of the webinar, we invited experts to give us an overview of the topic.

Lorenz Hilty is professor at the Department of Informatics at the University of Zurich, and heads the Informatics and Sustainability Research Group. His research centers on the question of how the digital transformation can be leveraged for sustainable development. He also stays on the ground himself since 2017.

In his input he told us, based on a field study on an early multi-hub conference by the WTO (1), about the relevance of video for virtual meetings due to non-verbal cues between speakers and audiences, the importance of enabling informal communication and the huge amounts of carbon emissions that can be saved. In video meetings it is essential to place the cameras in a way that simulates physical face-to-face communication in the best way (on the height of the speaker’s eyes). Despite the importance of videos for cues, audio quality is actually more important than video quality. Especially background noise can be very disturbing – headsets can help here. Another factor is to make sure that the internet connection is good enough, so no delays of audio, video or mouse pointer take place. LAN connections are often more stable than WLAN. An  obstacle for virtual meetings are different time zones, which makes it necessary to carefully plan time slots during daytime for global meetings. The carbon footprint of streaming is not such a big problem as it is often reported. But there are differences in the energy intensity of internet access networks: while mobile networks consume most energy, followed by WLAN, LAN connections have the lowest energy demand, especially when connected to optical fiber (2).

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Stanislav Reimgen is Co-Founder & Design Lead of Big. An Impact Studio. His company is working nearly fully remote. In his input, which is based on this and this blog articles he recently published, he explored the question how teamwork and leadership have to change when “going remote”. It means to give individual team members more freedom to act on their own terms, to know when to request support and which goals and tasks have a priority. It also requires more intrinsic motivation from staff.

Another lesson learned is that not everything has to be discussed in a meeting. Remote work also offers opportunities to work asynchronously, e.g. in written form. This has the advantage that people can think about proposals thoroughly and at a convenient time. Like Lorenz Hilty, he emphasises the importance for informal meeting spaces also for virtual teams (e.g. weekly Slack lunches).

Stan points out to other companies that have successfully turned to remote work: Basecamp (see their book  “Remote” Office not required), InVision, Automattic and Buffer, a company that also looked at the sustainability of their remote work. Even though remote work is more about leadership than tools, Stan describes following types of tools that are useful for remote work: those that provide a shared project space (e.g. Notion, Google Suite, Microsoft Suite or Atlassian/Confluence); those that enable a shared communication via chat (e.g. Slack) and finally those that support project management of remote teams (Notion, Trello, Asana or JIRA).

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Nicole Aeschbach is a researcher at TdLab Geography at the Institute of Geography at Heidelberg University and presented in her input first results of a survey launched by ETH Zurich and Heidelberg University. In this survey (conducted by Caroline Merrem and launched in March 2020), university researchers and teachers were asked about their experiences with remote work during the COVID-19 crisis. It showed that the overwhelming majority of respondents (71) had positive experiences with online meetings (over 40% even very good ones). They voiced positive aspects of virtual meetings like time saving, no need to travel, the possibility of more people attending and the quality of interaction between speakers and audience. Negative aspects are the lack of personal interaction, social signals and coffee break discussions, followed by technical problems. All in all, 75% would approve of more virtual events. So virtual meetings do not only have ecological, but also social and economic benefits. The results also show that especially in virtual communication the choice of the appropriate virtual format has to be considered: Shall it enable one-to-one, one-to-many or many-to-many communication? Is the goal of the communication to transfer information or to conduct negotiations? There is a range of optimal conditions (3) for communication, avoiding its over-simplification (impersonal, no feedback) or over-complication (too much information conveyed).

Discussion

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Survey of registered participants of the webinar

In the second part of the webinar the participants exchanged personal experiences regarding remote work. Robin Müller told us Climate KIC could, due to the pandemic, reduce their flights drastically to now practically no flights. Their biggest learning is that they won’t go back to the same amount of flying again. For them it was also relatively easy to switch to virtual communication due to their organisational structure, since they are orchestrating partners on the ground. They started using Miro, Zoom, Teams and conducted an online all staff meeting for 280 people. Small things like music during breaks, breakout rooms for coffee breaks and offline elements that involve physical movement made the meetings more agreeable.

Leonhard Späth from ETH Zurich is involved in projects in Eastern Africa. While he tries to stay there for longer times and therefore can reduce flights, this is not so easy for staff with families. He made many good experiences with virtual meetings, but finds it hard to deal with complex interdisciplinary co-production only virtually. One participant added that blended approaches with asynchronous (e.g. Google Docs) and synchronous (virtual meetings) activities worked particularly well for interactions with busy people like politicians.

The topic of informal social interaction was also discussed: virtual coffee break sessions did not really work out for one participant and could not replace informal communication at the workplace. Chats, which can also be used for “light” and fun communication, could be a partial replacement. Social hierarchies (e.g. between students and professors) also work differently in virtual spaces, which are accessible to everyone and where directed communication to only a certain group of people is not as easily possible as in a physical setting.

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Survey of registered participants of the webinar

Another subject of discussion was the role of videos in online meetings. There is, on one hand, the experience that switching on one’s video heightens the attention to the meeting (or gives speakers the impression that people are paying attention). It is also useful for emotional issues or when checking in. On the other hand, there is also the experience of an “overload” of impressions if all videos are switched on, so it might not be the best idea for big meetings. Other negative aspects of using video are the high bandwidth it needs when the internet connection is bad, privacy issues connected with uploading e.g. webinars with videos to the internet, and the irritation it can cause to see oneself talking (which can actually be switched off in Zoom). It became clear that the need for videos varies very much with the team, the content or goal of the meeting and the dissemination of the video to a wider public via the internet. Another privacy issue is “Zoom bombing”, experienced by one participant – not posting the link to the call publicly and using video to see who is in the meeting might prevent such events.

A big advantage of virtual communication is its potential to be more inclusive: more people are able to attend meetings that would not have been accessible to them due to financial reasons, disabilities or caring responsibilities; and it is easier for shy or introverted people to share their views via chat or informally communicate in virtual after-meeting-parties. On the other hand, people that do not have access to the technology or lack the necessary skills to use it, might be excluded from this kind of communication.

Literature cited in the inputs:

(1) Coroama, V. C.; Hilty, L. M.; Birtel, M.: Effects of Internet-Based Multiple-Site Conferences on Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Telematics and Informatics 29 2012, 362-374

(2) Coroama, V. C.; Hilty, L. M.; Heiri, E.; Horn, F.: The Direct Energy Demand of Internet Data Flows. Journal of Industrial Ecology 17 (5) 2013, 680–688 DOI: 10.1111/jiec.12048

(3) Media richness / information richness theory by Daft and Lengel 1984, 1986

Some links participants shared in the chat (thanks! ;)):

  • Study about energy usage in video conferencing: Ong, Dennis & Moors, Tim & Sivaraman, Vijay. (2014). Comparison of the energy, carbon and time costs of videoconferencing and in-person meetings. Computer Communications. 50. 10.1016/j.comcom.2014.02.009.
  • Links to tools that use avatars in online meetings: gather.town; article about three other tools. Another option for physical meetings is to use moving robots with participants’ faces on the screen.
  • One in Five Challenge Campaign by WWF in 2014 encouraging companies to cut their flights

In German: