How online meetings are levelling the office playing field

Before the pandemic Francesca used to miss a lot of meetings because she had to drop off her kids at school before commuting into the office. If she did make them, she rarely spoke up.

While many workers are suffering from Zoom fatigue, for workers like Francesca online meetings have presented an opportunity – and one that she fears may soon be taken away.

“I’ve been able to get involved, have some extra opportunities and I’ve still managed to pick my son from school, so for me working from home has actually been brilliant,” she says. “I know a lot of people don’t like them, but I find I’m more confident online. I really worry about things changing.”

As a member of the civil service, that fear is not unfounded. Boris Johnson has missed no opportunity to urge workers back into the office; Rishi Sunak has warned that young people will miss out on opportunities if they work from home, while the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith has wagged his finger at those snowflake work-from-homers, by pointing out that even during the second world war people went to the office.

But their exhortations may be falling on closed ears. While many companies are using a hybrid model of working, many organisations are considering keeping large meetings online – arguing that it helps productivity, saves time and money, and boosts gender equality.

The permanent secretary for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Sarah Healey, recently told staff that she would keep online meetings, because they were more effective and also helped women participate.

She’s right, says Ann Francke, the chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, which has also decided to move all large meetings online, even when people are in the office. “They have been great levellers because everybody’s in the same size box,” she says. Functions like the chat box and raising hand button mean the person chairing the meeting can invite people to speak.

“In in-person meetings there can be a very dominant presence waving their arms around all the time – and that is eliminated,” she says.

Women, historically and presently, suffer from a historical and intractable “authority gap”, says Mary Ann Sieghart. Her book, The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It, suggests that even the most authoritative women do not escape belittlement – a 2017 US study found that, although women made up a third of US supreme court justices, they experienced two-thirds of all interruptions – 96% of the time by males.

“Being interrupted and talked over puts women off from speaking out in meetings – it silences them,” she says. “On Zoom, interruptions are very messy, if people just try and shout over others everything sort of seizes up.”

Amy Butterworth, the head of social enterprise Timewise’s consultancy service, agrees that “run well, digital meetings can level the playing field”. But chairs have to insist on the digital raising of hands, make sure those out of the office are contributing equally and nip any “mute-crashing” – where a participant unmutes and blurts out their point – firmly in the bud.

Dr Heejung Chung, an expert in flexible working and reader in sociology at the University of Kent, argues that very simply, the fact that meetings are now physically accessible for many who could not have attended before in the office – potentially miles away – is a good start.

She also points to new research that shows people from an ethnically diverse background and LGBT+ workers may find that not having to be present in physical work environments that “other” them makes work more accessible.

Research from Slack’s thinktank Future Forum based on American workers found that only 3% of black workers wanted to return to full-time in-person work compared with 21% of white workers.

“In physical offices we have what sociologists call a hegemonic masculine organisational culture, where white male characteristics are seen as virtues,” she says. “To think online spaces can completely remove that culture is a bit too naive but maybe some of those ingrained habits can change – if people are reflective.”

Some research suggests online meetings are not necessarily more democratic. Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, argues that imbalances found in “normal” meetings are amplified online, while a June survey found that almost half (45%) of US women business leaders said it was difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings on platforms like Zoom, and one in – five women felt they’d actually been ignored on calls.

That’s not surprising, says Prof Jacqueline O’Reilly, co-director for the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre. If the leadership feels that younger workers or people from different ethnic backgrounds, or women should be heard, then they will be. If the leadership are oblivious to these issues, they won’t,” she says. “The tech itself is not what makes it inclusive, or exclusive and discriminating. It’s how people use it.”

Sieghart warns that while Zoom meetings might enable women, like Francesca, to participate more fully in work – they are likely to find other barriers remain. “Workers with caring responsibilities – who are thrilled to be able to work flexibly – might find that it’s the guys who are back in the office, schmoozing their bosses, who are more likely to be promoted,” she says.

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