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Zoom boom or Zoom doom?

Oliver Shaw, Associate Consultant at Mercer, discusses how effective virtual client and team meetings are in the actuarial profession. The views expressed in the blog are his own.

Oliver Shaw, Associate Consultant"Necessity is the mother of invention” so said…somebody…many years ago. Disappointingly, I was unable to source an author for the above proverb which is commonly misattributed to Plato. There was no “trace precedents” function that would lead me back to its origins. Even Wikipedia couldn’t help!

Inventions are becoming necessary now though, because of the Covid-19 landscape that we find ourselves thrust into. You may have seen the “cuddle curtain”, engineered by a 29 year old from Stratford-upon-Avon created so he could embrace his grandmother without actually touching her. Or the Hygienehook (google it). A gadget that transforms average Joe into a modern-day Captain Hook – with a fear of crocs replaced by locks.

But what of the actuarial profession? Well, we have been getting to grips with virtual client and team meetings. Not as innovative as cuddle curtains or plastic hooks perhaps, but I have a feeling they may be around a little longer.

The benefits of meeting virtually are becoming clear to even the most ardent critic. First of all it saves time. I recently attended a meeting for a client based near Plymouth. Historically we would only send the Scheme Actuary to these meetings owing to the 650 mile round trip and stopover required. That’s the best part of two days taken up for a 3 – 4 hour meeting.

In our virtual meeting I was able to attend and minute the meeting in around 4 hours. I avoided traffic jams / train delays and a night in Plymouth. Nothing personal here Plymothians, I just prefer my own bed!

Timesaving may be attractive to the travelling actuary, but the associated cost-savings will also appeal to many companies and institutions. A meeting that you can attend from almost anywhere is also significantly easier to fit into everyone’s diaries. The environmental benefits of virtual meetings should not be overlooked either, with carbon emissions falling off a cliff as a result of the dramatic reduction in travel.

So why have we only started taking advantage of this approach now? Zoom was around six months ago and virtual client meetings were just as much an option then. Well, as is often the case, instigating change is much easier when you are forced to consider alternatives. Change can be scary, different and uncomfortable.

Before we get carried away though, let’s consider some Zoom gloom for balance. Zoom fatigue is now officially ‘a thing’. The virtual meeting environment means our brains have to work harder to process non-verbal cues such as body language and facial expressions, leaving us mentally drained. How many virtual meetings have you attended when multiple people have tried to speak at once? It happens much more often than in a face-to-face meeting.

There is also a reliance on the technology set up of each attendee. An unstable internet connection can lead to sound and picture drop-outs. Software issues or crashes may also cause delays that will reduce the coherence of the meeting. The blurring of the line between work and home environments often brings about added distractions and can reduce the effectiveness of your virtual meeting.

So what is the solution?

For the short-term at least, virtual meetings are the new normal. We therefore need to think about how to make these effective and results oriented. Simply running a virtual meeting in the same way as a face-to-face meeting is unlikely to cut the mustard.

Shorter meetings, with a reduced scope, should help combat zoom fatigue and help us focus. A traditional 3-4 hour pensions trustee board meeting including investment, actuarial and administration segments could instead be separated into 3 x 1 hour meetings for example.

All attendees should be briefed on the functionality of the virtual meeting platform. We may meet virtually almost every day but some might not be as comfortable with the software and we should avoid assuming that everyone is a pro – as a profession we should be proudly inclusive so that everyone can participate.

Zoom etiquette should also be followed, including muting when not speaking, and unmuting when we have something to say. Dressing professionally (at least the top half) can help us getting into meeting mode and douse the distracting flames of the fight over mermaid Barbie next door. We must remember to stay seated, however, if we aren’t prepared to sacrifice our sweatpants for something more sartorial!

Finally it’s important we all learn from our experiences. Many of us will be relatively new to meeting virtually so reflecting on each meeting we attend and exchanging tips and pitfalls with colleagues is useful. We are likely to be attending a lot more of them over the coming months.