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Reflections on Remote Communication in the Public Sector

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erin Mullenix
May 15, 2021

What an intriguing time to reflect on remote communications in the public sector over the last year. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly given us much to consider about how we think about talking, presenting or participating in public gatherings—remote or in-person.

Communities scrambled in early March 2020 to understand how they could accommodate meetings—especially required meetings—remotely, all while complying with legal rules. Most did a remarkable job under the circumstances. But, this article isn’t about the legal issues or the problems that popped up in this process; it is about reflecting upon some of the changes and effective styles of communication it brought about and how the future of remote work and communication may look.

How can we help make on-screen meetings fruitful and less stressful?

In listening to many community and organizational leaders over the past year, I’ve observed that many have adopted new and different routines and ways they are handling their remote operations.

Scheduling Remote Meetings Only When Necessary or Related to a Priority

For some, on-screen meetings now span almost all day. Many team members and managers are used to multiple meetings per day, talking with others. But, as many or all meetings went remote, the need to modify this and set limits was clear. Some individuals that may have been used to remote work prior to the pandemic are now experiencing a whole new deluge of remote requests. This, too, changes the need to prioritize and still be a team player or partner; it can be a fine line. When turning down a request or changing its context or structure, the tone of the message and communicating gracefully is key.

Leading meetings effectively helps everyone be more productive and helps retain engaged participants. A careful balance of gathering people’s thoughts, awareness of others’ needs and efficient use of time allowing for both networking and decisionmaking is imperative.

For example, over the last year, many organizers changed the scope of meetings to limit on-screen time. Some meetings that once were day-long, in-person gatherings can condense into perhaps a 3-hour discussion. In some cases, meetings held remotely may boost productivity because they encourage staff to prioritize discussions. We must acknowledge that at least some “social experience” is lost. In some cases, however, remote meetings still may allow for some social networking, and some time to simply brainstorm. Great managers hope to inspire thinking among their teams; the meeting format should be modified to reflect that intent. How might this be accomplished?

  • Hold team meetings semi-regularly. Hold these meetings often enough to stay connected and in-the-loop with team members, but not enough to meet-just-to-meet. Reserve part of the time to discuss topics not necessarily on the agenda, but that departments might have on their mind. This may uncover problems that need solving, form collaborations and partnerships that can create new solutions or may just be a time for team members to connect a bit and boost morale.
  • For presentations, communicate your expectations and the meeting plan before the meeting begins. Informing your audience about the time you expect to spend together online, what items will be needed, the general structure of the meeting (will you have breakouts, etc.,) and whether you hope to see them on camera will be helpful. Incorporating breaks from the screen for longer meetings is key to holding attention, as well as being realistic about length of meetings.

What about when government doors reopen?

As public buildings reopen, some remote meetings may continue. A new blend of onsite and on-screen meetings can be effective, as well as making remote a hybrid option.

In some cases, where participants traveled very regularly in the past, the option to hold meetings remotely may become the “new normal.” With more organizations technologically prepared to conduct remote meetings, that new level of comfort and familiarity may invite some of the future meetings to continue to work well remotely. When organizations and staff are comfortable going back to in-person meetings, they may consider a blend of in-person and remote meetings in order to take avail of the advantages either may offer and be most effective in terms of time and cost. This may also preserve morale and the social environment. Organizations may also infuse some of the time management and efficiencies they may have gained in remote settings into their in-person meetings.

About Remote Meeting Fatigue

When the daily calendar is full of back-to-back remote meetings, some “meeting fatigue” can occur. In-person meetings jammed together can likewise cause meeting fatigue, albeit sometimes related to different causes.

A recent Stanford University study indicates four main reasons why “Zoom fatigue” occurs: our pictures appear closer than normal; we dislike watching ourselves (which may lead to frequent self-critique or evaluation); we are physically limited in order to “fit” in the camera frame; and it can be more difficult to see body language unless exaggerated or assisted by using an emoticon.

However, researchers provided a range of suggestions on how “Zoom fatigue” or other stressors may be reduced. Some included upgrades in video technologies or types of cameras or lenses; but other simple suggestions included turning the camera off when possible and appropriate; and using the “hide self-view” button so that we need not constantly look at our own video.

Aside from wellness-related reasons, a recent environmental study conducted by Purdue University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claimed that leaving your camera off during a web call can reduce environmental footprints by up to 96%.

As cliché as the phrase “new normal” has become, undoubtedly remote communications and options will become part of the standard as organizations blend and modify their meeting structures and environments. Both remote and in-person networking have advantages, and new ways of doing business may emerge through this process that may leverage these. It may be that this brings new possibilities to the public sector that have not been as plausible as previously for private sector organizations.

Author: Erin Mullenix directs research at the Iowa League of Cities and provides community data analysis to the Community and Economic Development Program at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. In her role, she provides local government finance research and support to local communities. Her areas of study were in public administration, industrial engineering and Spanish. Erin can be reached at [email protected].

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