What on Earth is the Difference Between Online and Offline meetings? – A REFLOW ESR Perspective
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to significant changes in the way people work and do activities. It requires stay-at-home orders in order to stop the virus spreading. One of these changes involves increased use of video conferencing as a means of communicating or holding work meetings. Zoom, Microsoft teams, and Google Meet are the most known online platforms recently which accommodate 300 million meetings daily. Currently, all sectors with no exceptions have been affected by COVID-19, including European projects, REFLOW for instance.
REFLOW is an interdisciplinary cross-sectoral European Training Network program under the Horizon 2020, aiming at the recovery of phosphorus from dairy waste and its recycling into fertilizer products, whilst at the same time enabling the sustainable expansion of the dairy industry in Europe. The project is coordinated by the University of Limerick, Ireland and involves 13 early stage researchers (ESRs), world-leading scientists with 10 beneficiaries, and 14 partner organizations from 11 EU countries.
Since the beginning of the project in 2019, almost all the communications, courses, and training have shifted to the online meeting platforms mentioned previously. The first summer school held was in March 2020 for a one-week training which was shifted to online group meeting platforms. For almost 2 years the project has been online practices rather than in-person interactions
This massive change from traditional in-person face to face gatherings to online meetings has subtle drawbacks. Online meetings are still considered useful in terms of saving the travel budget, as well as cutting the operational costs of meetings. Furthermore, online meetings have other advantages, and will specifically describe in the REFLOW Researcher perspectives.
Time Saved and Decreased Time-Wasting
REFLOW’s online meetings in fact save a lot of time and are extremely efficient time effective methods in today’s age. This refers to the time needed to be spent on booking the conference room, creating the planning, and synchronizing the location and presenters. In addition, non-presence meetings reduce the time-wasting moment for the late-comers which can delay the whole meetings. Furthermore, it saves the travelling time from your home to the meeting event (e.g office). Also, the attendees could access the meeting from anywhere in the world. This is showcased by the fact that the number of attendees for all the project meetings was at full capacity.
Discarded the National and International Boundaries
The REFLOW´s ESRs, beneficiaries, and partners are not all residing in the same country, even though they are all part of the same project. For example, in the beginning of the projects some ESRs resided in Indonesia and the host was the University of Limerick, based in Ireland. It can be said that online meetings eliminate the long-distance boundaries, in turn eliminating the extensive travel and visa costs associated with in-person meetings
Almost all the online meeting applications have a Recording button which can be used to record meetings. Thus, the repetitive topics can be eliminated and ensuring that any potential overlap from week to week can be mitigated via a simple review of the last recorded meeting.
REFLOW online meeting on March 2020 – The attendees were streamed from different countries and different time-zone
However, online meetings should be carefully considered against the benefits of in-person meetings. In the case of the REFLOW project, after 2 years of connecting online, the time has come for in-person meetings. This meeting was held in October 2021 in Vic, Barcelona – Spain. The 2 week meeting and training was full of joy, sparked laughter, and completed with closer human connections. In the first week of the meeting, all the ESRs presented their progress and research plans for upcoming years. Together with that, the full time lectures were presented by experts in the wastewater management sector. The following week of the in-person meeting was mainly to strengthen the interpersonal relations between ESRs and supervisors. Some key advantages of REFLOW presence-meeting will be elaborated below.
Interpersonal Interaction and Nonverbal Cues
Voice, expressions, and feelings are the ways which can hardly be described in online meetings. Facial expressions and body language convey a great deal of information, and unconscious communication cues help to facilitate discussion. These cues can be missed or lost entirely when a meeting is held virtually. Meeting with people face to face allows us to interpret micro-behaviours such as body language, facial expressions, and eye contact that can help to gauge how interested other people are in the conversation and give insight into how they may be feeling. Furthermore, the nonverbal cues can increase the intimacy and interpersonal relation between REFLOW researchers in particular. For example, when the ESRs need to make a mini proposal for the project, there is very little misunderstanding between the ESRs, because we can observe the voice, intonations, willingness, and body language, either this person gets mad or happy with the discussion. This makes offline meetings more favourable in terms of reducing communication gaps.
The ESRs discussed the potential collaborations through face-to-face meeting
Networking and Brainstorming
During the 2-week meeting, not only were the ESRs getting the technical aspects from the presenters, beneficiaries, and project partners, but also enhanced the networking ability. As said in the beginning, REFLOW has plenty of project partners from across Europe which also attended the face-to-face meeting. From then on, as an Early Stage Researcher, the network and connection with the beneficiaries and project partners is boosted. Furthermore, the ESRs also needed to brainstorm their project and present the works to all the attendees, meaning that the ability to see the challenges and opportunities increased.
Avoid Technical and Technological Limitations
While technology certainly has its benefits, being able to hold a meeting without experiencing camera or audio difficulties, internet connection issues or other technical challenges can save time and limit stress. Offline meetings hugely avoid the technical and technological limitations, in regards to the internet connection, unfamiliar meeting apps, and computer problems. During the online REFLOW Meeting, those technical limitations were occurring in almost every meeting. Thanks to the face-to-face discussions in Vic, allowing the researchers to eliminate those problems and surely everyone could clearly hear and see what was happening.
All in all, online meetings, like any other thing in life, have their advantages and disadvantages. Indeed, they are perhaps the most cost-effective, convenient, and time-saving mode of communication so far. But they also greatly reduce personal connection as well as eliminate networking opportunities. The writer, specifically, prefers to have face-to-face meetings with those advantages within it. But, online meetings are also a choice to truly help to stay informed, trained and updated, regardless of the time zone, location and financial situation.
The REFLOW´s Early Stage Researchers
From left to right (up) – Nidal Khalaf (ESR03), Yihuai Hu (ESR08), Angel Velasco (ESR07), Jaroslaw Chuzicki (ESR04), Pablo Binder (ESR01).
From left to right (down) – Marta Behjat (ESR11), Vishal Zende (ESR006), Ipan Hidayat (ESR02) and Claver Nimviyimana. We missed Olha Khomenko (ESR09), Wenxuan Xi (ESR10), Sergio Garmendia (ESR13) and Jan Philip (ESR14)