Powering Strong Communities

To Be In-person or Not to Be In-person, That Is the Question

I’ve thought a lot about this question since March 18, when I closed APPA’s office (except for essential functions) and as we have gradually begun to reopen over the last several weeks. I’ve also thought about it in the context of my kids and their schools. I’ve thought about it in terms of the in-person conferences and meetings we typically hold, and I’ve thought about it related to strategic discussions. I’ve thought about it when I’ve been on endless and ubiquitous Zoom or Microsoft Teams calls. Most recently, I thought about it last week when attending one of the few in-person meetings that APPA’s members have held this year. I thought about it on the plane to the meeting – the first flight that I’d taken in months.

Let me first say that I was impressed with my staff’s ability to do a majority of their work from home during the three months our office was closed. I’ve heard from my colleagues in the trade association world that they have had similar experiences with the majority of their staff during this time. We engaged with the federal government, provided platforms for our members to share information and best practices with each other, distributed COVID-19 resource guides, and pivoted to virtual events and conferences, among many other things. 

So why do I even care about being in-person? Why have I gradually reopened our office? What’s the point? As I realized on the plane last week and at the in-person event that I attended, it’s because we are blind to nuance when we are isolated from family, friends and colleagues. We are missing crucial non-verbal cues that we don’t even know we’re missing. In doing a bit of online research, there seems to be general agreement that close to 90% of communication is non-verbal. While teleconferencing platforms allow us to see people’s faces, we are not interacting in the same way (i.e., eye to eye). We usually don’t see the person’s whole body, and the interface is two-dimensional. Don’t get me wrong, it’s better than only voice communication, but it is not giving us even close to the whole picture of what is being communicated.

When I attended that statewide meeting of our members last week, I saw colleagues I had not seen for months and we were able to catch up quickly and meaningfully in ways that have been impossible on the phone, via email or on Zoom.  We did this with masks on and while maintaining safe social distance, of course. And it was still exponentially better. I say this having supported decisions we have made at APPA to hold most of our meetings virtually through the end of the year. I recognize that some cannot travel and that maintaining safety in larger groups can be challenging at this point. Having said that, I also know, based on what my electric utility members have been doing for weeks to mitigate COVID-19 transmission, that safety measures work.  Masks, rigorous hygiene and appropriate social distancing have enabled electric utilities to keep the lights on throughout the pandemic – even when crews have been sent to neighboring states to help with storm restoration. 

If these measures did not work (or if electric utility workers were ignoring them), we would have seen higher rates of infection and - God forbid - deaths in our public power utility community. In talking recently with two men on the front lines for their utilities and communities, they shared that they have developed even closer relationships with their colleagues as they have worked together in the face of the pandemic. They feel a sense of purpose and know that they must trust each other to maintain safety – not just from COVID-19 infection, but also from potentially deadly electrical accidents.

While we continue to navigate the need to communicate effectively and optimally with each other along with the need to maintain safety, I urge us to not lose sight of our need to interact in-person – whenever we can do so safely. Those non-verbal cues are flying by us at the moment, as individuals and as a society. Even if we cannot be with each other in-person, reminding ourselves that there is more to the conversation than is apparent through our voices or limited video interactions might better help us navigate this difficult time. For example, we can make a conscious attempt to avoid jumping to conclusions and focus on active listening.

Time will tell the effect that this pandemic will have on our work practices and communication methods. For me and many others, the best and clearest way to communicate with a colleague, friend or family member is by engaging them face-to-face. I look forward to getting that back.

As we all weigh the risks and rewards of potential in-person interactions, the following questions might be helpful for our own internal soliloquies on the matter.

  • Are there certain situations that would be easier in person?
  • Would taking the necessary precautions to reduce risk in these situations overshadow or negate the benefits of interacting in-person?
  • Are there other ways to replicate in-person interactions that could be tried?
  • Does meeting either way unintentionally exclude anyone or any particular group of people?  

What other questions help you weigh the in-person vs. distanced question?