Rethinking Our Online Meetings

Much has changed since pre-COVID. And in my view, our monthly all-staff meetings are better now that everyone is on a separate screen. It used to be that everyone in the International Budget Partnership Washington DC office would be in one room, on one screen, while the rest of our staff working in country offices or from home on a permanent basis would join as small groups or individually. It seemed logical: those who can physically be together for meetings should be, while those who cannot remain on their own.

This was perhaps a mistake.

Don’t get me wrong – it was an adjustment. Moving everybody onto their own screen was not an easy task. It required preparation and flexibility on everyone’s part. However, the first staff meeting in this new setting worked very well, as have the following ones!

It seems to me that we are on more equal footing when we each join the call individually – everyone is seen and treated equally. The faces of IBP´s 71 staff members, joining from their corner of the world, turn the screen into a joyful puzzle of diverse backgrounds, colors, and noises. It is inspiring! And it says so much about connecting with each other as human beings – each one of us a person of value.

Let me tell you why I am convinced we should continue this new format:

  1. Everyone can see and hear everyone. We are reminded that each person is important to our collective work and to the organization. It also allows us to fully interact with each other, which is not possible when we are a large group in a room – there, faces and expressions get diluted or obscured and sounds become unclear. We can look each other in the eyes as we talk, as if to say, “I see.
  2. Each person has individual control of the technology available to them. While of course there can be problems caused by unstable connectivity, having to adjust our expectations in response to each of our colleagues´ realities adds to the sense that we are all in this together. As well, each individual uses the technology differently – the chat box, the features available, angle of the webcam, and so much more! Autonomy helps engagement and shows respect.
  3. Breakout rooms allow for more diverse interaction. The use of breakout rooms has not only been extremely helpful in managing the large group and allowing for more detailed discussions but has also contributed to increased interactions and dialogue between colleagues who would otherwise only see each other a couple of times a year. The “surprise” element of not knowing who you will join in the breakout room (when you use the random option), adds a level of excitement to the meeting.
  4. It is bringing more colleagues to the meetings! One obvious reason for this is that the topics of the meetings are relevant to everyone. However, I believe there is another, perhaps more subtle, reason: in the absence of seeing each other in the offices, we want to be able to connect, share, and listen to our colleagues. For example, the most recent meeting focused on the work carried out by three of the seven IBP offices. Internally, we call these meetings deep dives – as they focus on a programmatic topic. Attendance is voluntary but we had almost a full house – 64 of 71 colleagues joined! 
  5. It levels the playing field. In the past, team members in the Washington DC headquarters office would join as a group and we never questioned that. However, why not? All being on separate screens has allowed for a different dynamic and has given space to more interaction and dialogue. There is no longer “insider talk” with the large group that is together in person. This has resulted in more equality across the board.

Many lessons can (and should) be drawn from this pandemic and how the world is changing – not just at the political, economic, and social level. In our own small spaces this is an opportunity for us to consider why we do things the way we do and what impact it has on others and our work.

This is not to say that technology should replace in-person interaction, nor that we should reduce ourselves to beings behind a laptop. Quite the opposite, it is about taking advantage of technology and using it as a tool.

Personally, I’m thrilled to learn that it can help IBP on its journey toward more attention to dialogue, equity, and inclusion in our staff meetings.

What have you learned in these COVID-19 times?

María José Eva joined IBP in October 2016 and is based in Washington D.C. She is a Program Officer leading IBP´s work on the Open Budget Survey in Latin America and the Caribbean. Prior to joining IBP, María José worked extensively on human rights, development, and public policy as a researcher for Amnesty International in London and the Center for Economic and Social Rights in Madrid. María José also previously taught international human rights law, practiced private law, and worked as a researcher for the Center for Human Rights at the University of Chile. She has a law degree from the University of Chile and holds an MPA in Public and Economic Policy from the London School of Economics.

Here are other GLP blogs written by María José (Coté).

Below are GLP blogs written by other IBP staff.

Below are other resources for meetings: