Less spontaneous interactions
We observed a reduction in the number of spontaneous positive interactions in the digital meetings. This could be observed as an increased silence before the meetings had officially started, a time in in-person meetings that is often used for spontaneous interactions between individuals. We observed an increase in the amount of direction from the meeting chair, indicating that they had to work harder to facilitate positive interactions. Additionally, interactions were often interrupted by new meeting participants joining the digital meeting. Previously, less structured elements of the research meeting, such as coffee breaks, offered observable insights to the PPI dynamics, whereas the digital meetings that have been observed so far have not included this aspect. Instead, breaks were taken individually away from the screen. This removes the possibility to observe these moments and is likely to offer less opportunities for spontaneous interactions. In addition, we saw a difference between groups that had met in-person extensively prior to working remotely and those that were formed shortly before the transition. This suggests that it might be an increased problem if the group does not have an established in-person relationship before starting to work remotely.
The lack of non-verbal cues
When observing digital meetings, non-verbal cues were more difficult to observe and interpret. This was both related to the limited view of other meeting participants in digital video meetings, which is limited to the face or upper body, with variations in video quality, and that meeting participants cannot turn towards each other as they would have in a room. In an in-person meeting, subtle gestures like making eye contact or turning in a person’s direction can signal an interest in their opinion and include them in the discussion. In a digital meeting, these discrete cues are more difficult to pick up on and we rely more on verbal communication. We observed less non-verbal invitations to including another meeting participant in the discussion, which we interpret as related to the digital format. Instead, more direct questions were asked and the meeting chair was more active in guiding the discussions, which was related to more structure and less dynamic discussions.
Increased linguistic barriers
Different forms of linguistic barriers to participation might increase in digital meetings. In the observed meetings, some contributors did not speak Swedish, the majority language of the context, thus interpreters were hired. Selecting suitable interpreters had required substantial considerations when organizing in-person meetings. When comparing observations of in-person meeting and digital meetings, the challenges with language interpretation seemed to be exacerbated in a digital meeting. Larger meetings, ten participants or more, in particular increased the obstacles for good language interpretation. This led one project team to opt for smaller meetings, in which one or two members of the research team met with PPI contributors. In another observed meeting, contributors were considered proficient enough in the majority language when meeting in person, but in the digital format we observed signs that communication was more challenging. For example, the contributors participated less in discussions and asked for questions to be repeated more often. In relation to this, in digital meetings it might be more difficult for the meeting chair to pick up if contributors miss out on information due to linguistic barriers or researchers’ jargon, and thus more difficult to solve potential linguistic issues.
Difficulties to claim space in a digital room
One important aspect for public contributors’ ability to contribute to a digital meeting is how comfortable they feel sharing their input in a meeting. We have observed that public contributors share less information in digital meetings, and this can be related to that it might be more difficult to claim your space in a digital room. When using video conferencing platforms, taking turns to speak is more pronounced, which means less spontaneity. Additionally, participants always need to speak to the entire group, which can be discouraging and might cause people to hesitate before speaking up. One project team opted for smaller meetings with the contributors and just a few researchers, which seemed to alleviate this issue.
The changing role of the meeting chair
The role of the meeting chair is always important to guide the meeting, facilitate discussion and make sure meeting participants are included. However, in digital meetings we have observed that the meeting chair tends to take on a more active and directive role, and appears to have an increased responsibility for the active inclusion of all meeting participants. Not only has the meeting chair had more speaking time in the observed digital meetings, they have more actively guided the discussion and invited meeting participants into the discussion more often. More specifically, the meeting chair, and sometimes other researchers in the meeting, has invited the public contributors to share their views more often.
In many video conferencing systems, it can be difficult to see all meeting participants at the same time, especially in larger meetings. When a person is quiet in a digital meeting, the other meeting participants do not necessarily notice their absence the same way they would have in a room. This leaves the meeting chair with larger responsibility to actively include all meetings participants in discussions.
We need to see each other’s faces
Opting for a video conference instead of a phone meeting provides more information sharing between meeting participants, as we can see each other’s faces. In the observed digital meetings, most meeting participants had their cameras turned on. When meeting participants instead had their camera turned off during a meeting, we observed that they were less likely to be asked for their opinion and actively included in the meeting.
However, even with cameras turned on we could observe challenges with the limited view of each other’s faces in digital meetings. One issue is screen sharing. This is a useful feature allowing all participants to look at the same view on the screen. However, when someone in the meeting is screen sharing, only a limited number of meeting participant faces are visible. In many of the observed meetings, screen sharing was used for an extensive part of the meeting, which limited participants’ possibility to see each other. A second issue is that the number of visible participants varies depending on the tool. For tools that displays very few faces at a time, the meeting participants who are not the most active speakers tend to disappear from the screen. We observed that this might lead to them being less likely to be invited into the discussion. Finally, a third issue is that many video conferencing platforms display the participants’ own camera image and we are not used to seeing our own faces in this way during meetings, which seemed to be distracting for some meeting participants.