For the past several weeks, I have participated in a number of meetings for Toastmasters and the SCA remotely via Zoom or other such services. And I’ve noticed something: All of a sudden, we’re seeing people we haven’t been able to see at in-person events in ages.
For both clubs, we’ve seen a reduction over the last few years in attendance at many events. People have just been busy, unable to get away or make time. When you have clubs that really base “membership” on in-person attendance, the tendency has been for members who can’t make the meetings or events to just slip away.
Now, with extra time and a desire to be social, I think a lot of people are realizing that online events may just survive this crisis as a viable option to keep people involved. I’m seeing an explosion in classes and demos as well, and even SCA courts and Toastmasters speech contests done online. I don’t really expect either of those two will be permanent, but it’s amazing how adaptable we’ve become in just a matter of weeks when confronted with a dilemma.
When we come out of the other side of this thing, I hope there will be more recognition of the possibility of adding in online venues for activities. They open our clubs up to more membership, which, in turn, may mean that more people might come to in-person events. It also might mean that we expand our definitions of what these clubs do. Toastmasters, for instance, is a communication and leadership-focused club. In the past few years, curriculum has moved to an online delivery system and there were new projects around things like podcasts, but there was still a bit of an assumption that things like officer training and most “real” meetings had to be done in person. I suspect that assumption may be gone forever—and that, to me, is a good thing because I also believe more and more of us will be working remotely. Teleconferences and WebEx have actually been with us for years; videoconferencing is now likely going to become much more the rule than the exception. So we’re going to need communications skills for that medium.
This hit me tonight as I sat in one of the best-attended Eoforwic meetings I’d been to in several years. Not only were there folks I haven’t seen in an in-person meeting in a very long time, we also were able to have a visitor drop in to discuss a possible event in the future. It was wonderful. I even suggested that when we eventually get back to in-person meetings, we might alternate with Zoom meetings or add Zoom as an option for live meetings.
The one wild card in all of this is, of course, internet access. There will likely be significant pressure after this crisis to ensure that good, fast internet access is more widely available. Schools are apparently going to start teaching remotely next week; many universities are already doing this. And all of us who are working from home may eventually contribute to upgrading the internet backbone for home use. I spent all of yesterday and today (until 7 pm) not being able to get onto our work network, including a stretch in which even email on my work-provided phone was offline. I suspect there will be more and more investment on remote infrastructure and less on physical office space in the coming months and years.
We’re probably going to look back at the period before the pandemic and wonder—as they did in the 90s as computers became ubiquitous in the office—how anything used to get done at all.