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Digital Stigma and our new working environments

I’ve not blogged for quite some time (for anyone with an interest in Social Value, our website blog has many and varied topics!). Life has been, and is, busy, and maintaining the balance between fee earning activity and ‘the rest of everything that you need and like to do’ can be challenging. And so this leads quite nicely to the topic of today’s conversation – digital stigma and the new working environment.

The past couple of years has necessitated lots of change, and remote and digital working became a vital element of maintaining productivity - also enabling networking and connectivity with others in a work environment.

In the past few months people have embraced the opportunity to return to in-person meetings and events, and none more so than me – for those of you who know me, I’m a natural extrovert and being trapped in 4 walls with little social interaction has been crucifying.

Many meetings and networks, including BECBC are now taking a ‘hybrid’ approach, where there are both people in the room, and people attending virtually. This enables access for both those keen (or at least prepared) to land up in person, and those who for various reasons prefer to continue to engage digitally.

A brilliant solution. Maximising the benefits for all. But in reality is it working?

As any self employed person will tell you, time really is money. When you’re an employee, you don’t (generally) have to worry overly about the cost of fuel to drive to a meeting, and unless you're absolutely to the wall with work, (generally) you just factor the travel time to get places into your schedule and don’t over think it.

And we all used to work like that, because that was what we did. But Covid has shown us another system, that does, (generally) work. It enables functional connectivity, eliminating travel time and cost. All positive things both economically and environmentally. But for a self-employed person like me, it also enables me to be super-efficient with my time. In my company, I’m the only income generator, which means travel time is time my business isn’t earning anything. In fact, networking time is the same, but at a meeting I’m building connections and my business. I (and those like me) now have the opportunity to make decisions about how we want to use those hours which previously were spent getting to and from places.

Creating long term, embedded structures for meetings which enable digital attendance seems sensible. We don’t need to go back to the old systems, and everyone will benefit from this.

But I worry about digital stigma. I worry that those people who are dialling in are seen to be less committed, lazy and in some way contributing less to a discussion. We have to recognise that business is done, largely, over a cup of coffee in the breaks – and there’s no great way for digital presence to engage with this. But while we ARE in a room together, how do we ensure parity of esteem for colleagues present both live and digitally?

The following suggestions are led by great working practices I’ve experienced (many at BECBC!) and the less positive ones I’ve also received. Adopting the following practices will make your meetings that much more inclusive, opening up access for as wide a range of people as possible and reducing any sense of ‘second class digital citizen’.

  1. Assign both a virtual and digital host for the event, and make sure these two hosts talk to each other and ensure that comments from a virtual feed (or chat) are shared with those in the room.
  2. Set the camera up so digital attendees can see as many people as possible – in an ideal world, a camera would pan to whoever is speaking, otherwise the host to say who is speaking (rather than guessing people’s voices!)
  3. Be on time – do try and start an event on time, as your digital attendees are hanging in cyberspace!
  4. Invite digital attendees into the conversation – formally and informally. Recognise that digital attendees are there, even if you can’t see them and help them feel included and valued.
  5. Be aware if a digital attendee has a raised hand – it’s very difficult to participate in a live conversation when you’re on a screen, as so much communication is non-verbal! Responding quickly to raised hands enables a digital participant engage with more ‘natural’ discussion.
  6. Enable informal networking digitally – structure digital breakout rooms whilst live participants are having coffee.
  7. Promote the accessibility of the event for a virtual audience, and highlight how digital attendees will be welcomed, valued and included.

The Shared Value Business is a specialist Social Value consultancy supporting organisations to understand and apply public sector Social Value methodology in contracting.

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