Are webinars a phase or the new normal?

Even in trying times like the present, technology has allowed man to be connected, social and productive. Efforts are being made to bridge the work gap, however, whether or not webinars are an effective solution in bridging this gap is up for debate.

Webinars

We have moved from the “age of uncertainty” to the “time of the corona virus”. Through technology man has remained “social” and “connected” in this “new normal”. This is both remarkable and ironic since there was a time when devices and social media platforms were considered only for extracurricular connections. Online meeting tools like Cisco Webex Meetings, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts Meet, join.me, BlueJeans, Cisco Jabber, TeamViewer, Adobe Connect, Zoom and Microsoft teams has made it possible to work from home.

Connected in Covid-19

Software companies had been using such tools way before COVID-19 but as lock downs were initiated, the corporate sector, non-profits and especially universities, started using these tools. In Pakistan, where public (and even the government) has been in a state of denial regarding this virus, we now suddenly see a surge in the frequency of “webinars”: training webinars, educational webinars, discussion webinars, and several other fields.

Are we using these tools correctly? What is the effectiveness of these online forums? Is serious debate being generated through them? Or is the sole purpose to remain relevant in a rat race? Hey, if A, B, C is doing a webinar or podcast, why can’t D, E and F? Or is the purpose to show that one is “working”, “researching”, teaching”; otherwise how else does one convince a donor, a dean, a research director that one is actually making good on the income being earned while sitting at home. Sadly, in Pakistan, we have yet to learn the benefits of Work From Home (WFH) from an organizational and institutional perspective.

Employers remain certain that unless one is sitting in the actual office from 9-5, one is essentially “doing nothing.” And of course, since seminars and conferences cannot yet be organized (well, if wedding halls can open, these might start too, who knows) – an essential part and parcel of many organizations now, a webinar is the next best thing.

Read More: How to run economy amid COVID-19?

Droning seminars, good riddance

Before COVID-19, when non-profits and even government ministries organized any conference, workshop, seminar to satisfy their “donors” – anyone actually believing that these spread awareness and make a difference, has only to attend a handful by local think tanks in the capital –  they would lure university students to fill the empty chairs, with the incentive of good (rather free) food, hi tea or in some cases transport, and a chance to listen to not one boring professor in class but quite a few in an air conditioned hall. In the virtual world, this duplicity and lack of good content and speakers; this trend of hosting big seminars, calling political celebrities and bringing students to fill up chairs as part of a popularity contest, has come to an end.

Webinars become villains during lock down

However, this is Pakistan and we know how to turn every good thing into a Frankenstein monster so, while earlier, it was impossible to meet government officials, NGO heads and experts because they were busy in non-stop meetings; now the ‘new reason’ shared in a text message will be that they are busy in non-stop webinars. Now, one may not have to fill empty chairs, now one has to “log in” to show how many people “participated”! One of my colleagues had to “show” his presence in 9 webinars in one day!

There is an exponential increase of webinars by universities, think tanks and government agencies which may not have been such a bad thing except everyone is doing it on COVID and its impact on anything and everything. One of the newspaper editors shared that he got more than 100 articles about COVID in 2 days and everyone wants to get published and share their “knowledge” and “expertise”. You might ask what else there is except COVID but if you pick up one article or all 100 they all say almost the same thing. “Experts” write on COVID and then on the same day, turn it into a podcast or share this “wisdom” in a recorded webinar with 5 people tuned in (or rather out). In Pakistan, we love to recycle research; and are copy-paste gurus but thanks to COVID, we have taken self-projection and plagiarism to new highs.

Read More: Did Hollywood predict Covid-19?

Webinars made redundant

Are these webinars effective? Frankly, no. For one thing, Pakistanis have no webinar etiquette (yes, that’s a thing). Somehow most people don’t realize that WFH means doing office work in a structured and organized fashion. And if part of WFH involves attending or presenting during a webinar then we should have the decency to be dressed up rather showing our pot bellies in shorts and messy hair. Have a decent background (and no, I don’t mean sit in front of the only bookshelf in the house you have suddenly found a use for) instead of lying like a potato on the couch. We should not attend our phone calls or be watering the plants till our turn comes.

The organizers should ensure that speakers are at least WELL PREPARED! That they are actually interesting people to listen to (and yes watch)! That they are aware of webinar etiquette and are technologically savvy! It is so amazing that most webinars conducted in Pakistan are proudly uploaded on Facebook or YouTube or made available on organizational websites without even being edited to remove improper language or conversations or hacking! I used to love watching America’s funniest home videos back in the day, but now, I rarely miss the chance to be amused thanks to the ratpack webinars in Pakistan.

Read More: Work from home jeopardised after upsurge in COVID-themed cyberattacks.

Technological challenges during webinars

Given our technological backwardness in terms of using these platforms, many of us have also seen webinars interrupted by political slogans, porn clips and absurd pics during live sessions. Moderators/organizers, having left the “technical” side of hosting webinars to one nerdy IT tech guy, are unable to control such interruptions, and often the webinar is postponed.

Read More: Is 5G technology dangerous for our health?

Quality over Quantity

Another problem with local webinars is that content is not tailored for the viewers’ and the new environment which they inhabit. The virtual experience of Pakistani webinars offers few opportunities to engage with speakers in real time. Organizers are still stuck within their age old mind sets of introducing a speaker and then letting him/her drone on and on and on (something which can become extremely tedious if the speaker follows no webinar etiquette!), rather than making these sessions short, focused and interactive.

Let’s be honest, good quality webinars, good in terms of their tech-side and content-side can be mind-blowing! To be able to hear and interact with renowned experts from literally any corner of the world, with the click of one “register” button, free of cost from the comfort of one’s room, is just stupefying. So, there still remains a question as to why organizations (or we as a nation) weren’t using these technologies earlier and spent so much time in transporting speakers from one city to the next, paying for travel, accommodation, food, leaving huge paper trails of invite cards, letters etc. when the SAME meeting or seminar or even conference was possible ONLINE with NONE of these ridiculous attachments?

Focused input

Local webinar organizers need to think of how to engage the viewers and what they can learn from them. Most webinars are conducting discussions/analyses but webinars can be valuable when they focus on training or diffusing objective information on a discrete topic of shared concern and consequence. Moderators should be skilled and create opportunities for dialogue and interaction. Provide the participants an incentive to demonstrate their expertise and ideas as well. Day, time and announcement of the webinar is very crucial. Research shows that the best day of the week is Tuesday and time around 11:00 am to have maximum participation. Of course, there is no way to completely avoid an occasional pitfall. The objective should be to conduct quality and well-structured webinars with amazing tech-savvy speakers.

The writer is a Behavioral Economist based in Islamabad. He can be reached at aneelsalman@gmail.com. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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