Virtual conferences are insufficient for networking and social interaction


Virtual conferences have become commonplace replacing in-person meetings that have been postponed or rescheduled due to social distancing and travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many meetings have recently started to return to in-person formats, and some still retain a virtual component for attendees who are still reluctant to travel.

In the new study, a multinational research team led by Dr. Gennaro D’Anna of ASST Ovest Milanese in Legnano, Italy, noted that virtual meetings that were once reserved for small groups were rapidly expanding to serve a large national and international audience. Even as in-person meetings begin to return to the conference calendar, many have proposed continuing with hybrid events that combine virtual and in-person components.

But what elements should we retain from hybrid events? To find out which parts of the virtual meetings attendees liked — and which parts they disliked — D’Anna et al conducted a 16-question survey that was circulated to members of the European Society for Neuroradiology, as well as to international radiologists on social networks like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. The researchers received 508 survey respondents out of a total of approximately 6,000 recipients.

Survey questions ranged from the preferred length of a virtual meeting to how fees for attendance should be structured. They also asked respondents whether they would prefer a virtual or in-person meeting if both formats were available, and which elements of a virtual meeting they found most useful. The survey also asked respondents to rate the negative elements of virtual meetings.

A total of 80% of respondents said they had attended at least one virtual meeting. Short meetings were preferred: 43% said they would prefer a meeting of half a day or less. Most respondents said they believe virtual meetings should be cheaper than in-person events.

When it comes to the elements of virtual meetings most valued by respondents, the researchers found that the educational aspect was highest on a five-point scale.

The best aspects of virtual meetings
Element Score on a 5-point scale
Ability to watch at own pace 4.54
No need to travel 4.44
Cost reduction 4.02
More efficiency over time 3.95
Possibility to follow lectures more easily 3.89
Ability to hear clearly 3.31
Better childcare logistics 3.08
Questions and answers 2.69
Ease of speaking 2.67

But there were also downsides to virtual meetings, chief among them the diminished networking opportunities and lack of human contact. Respondents also cited the lack of continuing medical education (CME) and difficulty in attending due to clinical duties as disadvantages.

The researchers said comments about the negative aspects of virtual meetings highlighted the challenges event organizers have faced in replicating the human touch that is prevalent at in-person events. Social media and chat functions did not step in to fill the void, they found.

“Feedback we’ve received shows that, despite meeting planners’ commitment to stimulating discussion through the use of chat platforms and social media, additional effort and new tools may be required to address this issue. “, wrote the authors.

In fact, the findings of the new study echo those of previous research by Beste et al in Preview imagery which revealed that Twitter activity actually plunged during virtual conferences, compared to in-person meetings. They proposed that a lack of social interaction and interpersonal communication in virtual meetings could have led to the decline – a decline that also reduced the viral nature of social media. The survey was conducted from June to August 2020.

D’Anna et al concluded that going forward, the optimal choice for respondents was a combination of in-person and virtual meetings. Although it may be more difficult to organize, such a hybrid format could make conference content more accessible to a wider audience and reduce geographic and economic barriers to participation.

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