A version of this article was previously published on Pharmaphorum.
There is not a single industry that has been left untouched by COVID-19. While the effects of the pandemic have been devastating for many industries, its positive impact on accelerating the uptake of digital health technologies and virtual collaboration solutions is undeniable. This has been a long time coming and there are countless reasons why I believe virtual collaboration and medical education are here to stay, long after there is a vaccine for COVID-19 and physical distancing guidelines have been lifted.
1. The convenience of virtual collaboration
Even before COVID-19, most key opinion leaders and healthcare providers had very limited time for traveling and attending live meetings. Now, many people have been given a taste of what working and meeting remotely can be like. I’m sure many of us miss the human interactions that come with working closely with colleagues or customers in an office setting. However, I doubt most people miss spending hours commuting to and from the office or meeting venue, having to get up early, eating breakfast on-the-go, and missing out on precious time with their families.
The convenience of being able to work, at least partially, from home, is one of the most important reasons why virtual collaboration is here to stay, pandemic or no pandemic.
2. Mobile proximity allows more flexibility
Mobile proximity allows people to work virtually and participate in meetings from anywhere in the world. You are no longer bound to live in a certain city just because that’s where your office is located. Asynchronous communication approaches such as emails, company Slack channels, or other private, secure portals mean that time zone differences and scheduling issues are no longer barriers to effective communication and collaboration. Asynchronous communication also helps overcome barriers related to language, with non-native English speakers being able to take their time when formulating their responses or use automatic translation tools.
Mobile proximity and the continuously improving virtual collaboration technologies mean that global work teams, which were once only graced upon corporations that could afford expensive flights and technologies to coordinate workgroups, are now available to all organizations, irrespective of size.
3. Virtual collaboration minimizes production blocking and is less susceptible to cognitive interference
One problem with in-person collaboration and brainstorming that can be overcome by virtualizing meetings is the potential for “production blocking” that comes with large group sizes. A meta-analysis of group size effects in electronic brainstorming found that production blocking in verbal brainstorming groups increases as the size of the group increases, with electronic brainstorming being superior for groups with more than 4 members (or 10 members if comparing to nominal brainstorming).
Importantly, electronic brainstorming is less susceptible to cognitive interference than verbal brainstorming groups because the participants can generate ideas on their own time, only interrupting this process if and when they want stimulation from others.
4. In virtual meetings, everyone gets a say
Using advisory boards as an example, in-person discussions tend to be dominated by 2 or 3 more verbose or extroverted individuals. While this can be partially overcome by having a good moderator, this problem is eliminated altogether in well-executed virtual meetings.
Most web meeting platforms come with some version of a chat or Q&A function, allowing participants to express their thoughts without interrupting the speaker. Likewise, asynchronous meetings such as online discussion forums or app-based activities let participants take their time to formulate answers, ensuring that everyone gets a say and that there is less of a “knee-jerk” reaction.
5. Online meetings allow for superior continuity
Shorter, more frequent virtual touchpoints offer superior continuity and allow organizers to build their story over time and create authentic relationships with the participants in a way that is not possible in annual in-person meetings. This also allows for digestible pieces of information for the participants, in turn resulting in increased processing time and more granular responses.
6. Short but frequent virtual touchpoints can improve long-term memorization, enhance the recency effect, and avoid mental fatigue
In an interesting review article on the effects of mobile app micro-learning on knowledge retention and work performance, the author summarised that such frequent, short touchpoints are superior to long, one-off in-person meetings in terms of memory recall and avoiding mental fatigue.
Specifically, there is a phenomenon known as the “Recency Effect,” defined as the tendency to remember the most recently presented information best. If a long period of time lapses between the presentation and rehearsal of the information and recall, the recency effect is dramatically reduced. In fact. participants tend to remember only one-quarter of newly learned information after 1 month if no revision or repeat learning takes place. On the other hand, regular reintroduction of information through frequent virtual activities helps keep retention at significantly higher levels by giving time for the learned material to be processed and indexed from short-term to long-term memory.
7. Time and cost-savings
In the same review article, a point was also made that taking long training, learning, or accreditation courses decreases employees’ work productivity, cuts into business hours, and increases budget spending, with no guarantee that the employee will adopt the learnings or show enhanced subject matter comprehension. Having the opportunity to attend virtual medical education events at their own time, without having to travel or take full days of work will continue to be appreciated by healthcare professionals and their employers post-COVID.
8. Virtual meetings can be used to fill the “white space” between, and prepare participants for, in-person meetings
Another important reason why virtual meetings will continue to play a role long after we are able to safely meet in person again is the fact that these are not necessarily a replacement for in-person events but rather a supplement. For example, they can be used to prepare participants by giving them the opportunity to review new data before the in-person meeting, thus minimizing the time spent on didactic presentations.
9. The environmental footprint is much smaller with virtual vs. in-person meetings
National and international in-person meetings come with large carbon footprints. Replacing even a percentage of in-person meetings with virtual activities can help greatly reduce emissions from flights and transportation to/from the airport. Despite setbacks, the environmental movement is growing stronger, and Pharma is slowly getting on board. Having the option to attend events without having to drive or fly will continue to be appreciated by participants, and may even be expected in the future.
10. Virtual collaboration is associated with multiple other advantages
Finally, research has shown that virtual collaboration is associated with multiple benefits such as extended reach, enhanced interactivity, greater persistence, increased speed, and higher flexibility than its in-person counterpart. In turn, these combine to produce superior direction of communication, intensity and richness of the interaction, and size and scope of the audience.
Now that more people have gotten a taste of what virtual collaboration can be like and the benefits that come with it, we are not going back. Will there still be a place for traditional in-person interactions such as advisory boards, conferences, and CME events post-COVID? Absolutely. However, it is clear that virtual collaboration will continue to play an increasingly important role as we navigate the new normal.