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The Virtue of Virtual: Lessons Learned from the Last 18 Months in a Global Pandemic

Connectivity issues. Sound problems. (“You’re on mute.”) Yet no travel time or cost, and a far healthier carbon footprint. The South West Clinical Senate has learned both the challenges and benefits of utilising virtual meetings and events over the past 18 months.

The role of the South West Clinical Senate has always been challenging and complex in working with commissioners to help ensure high quality, sustainable health care services for the South West of England. Yet the Senate and its members faced a completely different kind of obstacle with the coming of COVID-19 in March 2020. All previous Senate meetings and events had always been done face-to-face, but with an airborne pandemic the organisation soon found itself forced to conduct business in a very virtual world via Microsoft Teams.

“We had no real experience of using virtual technology prior to the pandemic,” Dr Sally Pearson, Chair of the South West Clinical Senate, said. “We did have a couple sessions where speakers dialled in virtually. That worked okay, but it was limited.”

“When the pandemic occurred, it was very important that business carried on,” Professor David Halpin, Vice Chair of the South West Clinical Senate, added. “So, in a way, we were incredibly lucky to have had this happen at a time when we had the technology to support that.”

Yet the transition to virtual meetings was not without its teething problems.

“The early problems were largely technical ones,” Pearson recalled. “We were learning how to best use the functions, and I was learning how chair on Teams. I had to learn to watch the chat and the raised hand function. I remember we initially had lots of background noise. We had to tell people to mute and turn the camera off when they weren’t speaking.”

Some of the challenges around virtual events include the limitations of available technology, along with connectivity and sound quality issues, and even potential security and privacy issues. Some meeting topics may be difficult to deliver in such a space, and virtual meetings also lack the subtle nuances of face-to-face meetings and make networking much more difficult.

“You lose the exchange of views,” Pearson said. “You can’t pick up the vibes of what’s going on in the room. You can’t see body language. You lose all of that on Teams. When you’re trying to build consensus and explore ideas, it’s quite constraining. You lose the quality of those discussions.”

“You definitely lose the subtlety of face-to-face conversations,” Halpin agreed. “Virtual meetings also tend to stop informal yet often very important chats.”

Virtual events can also lead to “Zoom fatigue” due to prolonged screen-eye contact. And they can also further blur the boundary between public and private life; something that’s already often been compromised due to pandemic lockdowns and home working.

Yet virtual meetings have a number of benefits as well, including eliminating travel time and costs for the organisation. The lack of travel not only reduces geographical boundaries in the South West, but is also a far greener option, supporting the NHS Net Zero agenda. Virtual events also offer considerable flexibility for all parties involved, and they tend to be more efficient.

“It’s great that you don’t have to travel to be there,” Halpin explained. “You can come right in. You can even do another meeting, or a clinic, minutes before. Presenting on a virtual platform is also much easier. For example, you don’t have the trouble and expense of flying someone down from Newcastle to give a 20-minute presentation.”

“It’s been good in that it’s increased the inclusivity of the work of the Senate,” Pearson agreed. ”Many council members often couldn’t attend face-to-face meetings due to geographic challenges or other commitments. In the South West it can take you four hours to get to a meeting.”

So far, the Senate has done seven council meetings and two clinical review panels remotely. At the 2021 South West Clinical Senate Assembly Annual Conference, delegates where asked whether future conferences should be virtual or face-to-face. 65% said they preferred for future conferences to be delivered in a virtual format.

And yet there may be a third option in a hybrid model for meetings and events. This is where some delegates are meeting in the same room while others are connecting via virtual platforms. The South West Clinical Senate is currently exploring such an option.

“I could see us using a hybrid model going forward,” Halpin said. “The challenge is making sure the people who attend virtually get the same experience. Who knows, we may decide the hybrid model is the worst of the three, and then we have to go back to face-to-face or virtual meetings.”

“If people are happy with it, my personal preference is that transactional meetings and conversations should continue to be done remotely,” Pearson concluded. “There are some clear benefits to work-life balance, climate change, inclusivity, and so forth. We shouldn’t squander what we’ve achieved there.

“However, sometimes we do need to have nuanced, face-to-face conversations and the technology unfortunately doesn’t always allow that. Of course, the technology may also improve.”