Does virtual work always work?

Does virtual work always work?
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Charlotte leaders are grappling with the same issue right now as office managers all over the country: Whether to mandate a physical return to work.

At the onset of the pandemic, city and county leaders began meeting virtually. The public can view these meetings through outlets like YouTube or Facebook.

  • Provisions to the remote meetings law for local governments remain in place as long as the governor’s state of emergency remains in place, which is why Charlotte is trying to figure out how to handle remote vs. in person meetings moving forward.
  • Earlier this month, the government center reopened to the public.

Why it matters: Proponents of hybrid meetings for city council say virtual meetings allow them flexibility and access — for instance, to hold a full-time job and still vote on important matters. Those who favor requiring a full return to in-person work say the public expects them to show up physically and be available to citizens who wish to have their voices (literally) heard.

During a Budget & Effectiveness Committee meeting Thursday, city council member Renee Johnson, who favors keeping virtual meetings as an option for council, said city leaders have been productive working remotely, as evidenced by the $2 billion budget they just passed.

  • “What we need to be is flexible,” Johnson said. “We’ve proven that we are able to get the people’s work done.”

Committee members considered whether to require either a quorum or committee chairs to be physically present. Mayor pro tem Julie Eiselt said city leaders communicate better and resolve issues more effectively in person.


“It is a very different dynamic when we are all here,” Eiselt said. “This isn’t like working for IBM. I do believe that the public expects to see us in person.”

Meeting virtually has caused more than a few awkward moments over the last year. Confusion over process, dropped calls and spotty Wifi have prolonged already contentious meetings over matters ranging from police reform to the 2040 plan.

  • For instance, when city council met virtually earlier this year to hear from candidates hoping to fill Smuggie Mitchell’s at-large seat, some candidates missed their designated 2-minute window for speaking. Some council members said the process wasn’t fair; former council members Gregg Phipps, who didn’t address the council, ended up filling the seat.

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Zoom out: Normally, certain issues on city council’s agenda draw citizens from all over, cramming into the government center with homemade signs and prepared impassioned remarks. But participation in virtual meetings is not always possible for the public.

There will never be a “perfect virtual meeting policy” until all North Carolinians have a better way to participate, says Brooks Fuller, the director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition. Meeting virtually may actually be preferable and more accessible for citizens, so long as they’re able to have their voices heard, Fuller adds.

  • If a local government relies on virtual meetings as a permanent option moving forward, it has to build in a mechanism that’s “as streamlined as possible” for people to interact, he says.
  • This could come in the form of a public comment repository or dedicated email.

“I would tell any public servant who is being asked to experiment with virtual meetings: give it a shot and meet constituents where they are. We have the affordances of technology to interact with government officials,” Fuller says.

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