Conducting and facilitating virtual meetings.

Warning: this is a lonnnng post so please excercise due discretion – or read it in your spare time! I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble for reading it in work… although you could at least argue that it has some workplace relevance 😉

First, this video will give you a giggle if you’ve attended many virtual meetings… but don’t forget to read on afterwards..!

Click to view on YouTube

At this stage in the evolution of business technology, virtual meetings are an integral part of the day-to-day activities of a huge number of Organisations and work forces. Many Organisations would simply not be able to continue to exist (or would need to adapt radically) if virtual meetings were no longer possible.

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At least the technology (whether video or voice-only) is better than it was way back when multi-location meetings started to become common. I agree that they are not as easy in some ways as face-to-face meetings when it comes to the non-verbal stuff like body language, attempts to contribute, noticing lack of participation etc. However, virtual meetings can also be better, especially when they involve remote / offshore participants.

Unfortunately, as with the evolution of any form of communication, when generations of workers become accustomed to virtual meetings (and may not have much experience of real-world, face-to-face group meeting & workshops), there is a very good chance that they will have developed some bad habits when participating in virtual meetings (usually by copying older colleagues’ habits). Future generations are unlikely to develop the right etiquette for participating in group meetings unless they are explicitly taught and required (by procedures as well as by example).

Anyone who has participated in virtual meetings – and particularly those of us who have hosted them – will be aware of many of the following ‘issues’ that occur. Rather than simply bemoan the lack of respect of participants, I think we should be more proactive and take actions (over or covert; obvious or surreptitious) to correct unwanted behaviour. In particular, those of us who take the role of Project Manager or Business Analyst in meetings & workshops (regardless of what our role is actually called) are likely to have the inherent skills to be able to identify, react to and affect the behaviour of others. The authority to intervene where bad behaviour is causing problems might be a different issue but I think most people would accept someone (politely) drawing attention to it in order to make things better for everyone. Of curse, when it is your own meeting, the authority is implicit!

Most of the main ‘issues’ to handle in virtual meetings are not that much different than the problems in face-to-face meetings… these are just some:

1. That awkward time when waiting for people to join the meeting…
2. Ensuring participant are attentive – especially those in remote locations.
3. People reading pre-distributed Documents at the meeting, instead of before.
4. Multiple simultaneous conversations in local or remote offices.
5. Background noise from the locations of remote participants.
6. Remote attendees not knowing if/when they can (or should) interrupt/speak.
7. Remote / local participants working on other things.
8. People dressed inappropriately.

So, given that tackling any big problem is better contemplated by tackling it as a series of small problems (e.g. eating an elephant with a spoon… to twist a phrase I heard recently!), let’s take these one by one:

1. That awkward time when waiting for people to join the meeting…
I’ve spent a lot of time involved in multi-location ‘distributed’ meetings over the last 5+ years – whether for requirements capturing; analysis, elaboration or estimation sessions (incl Agile sessions) or general Project meetings – and this issue – lateness – can be not only frustrating, but cumulatively very costly.

If at all possible, any meeting should start on time. If a group of participants are being delayed by one person, this means that the cumulative time lost is much more than the few minutes delay. As obvious as it seems, we don’t always remember this. If I call a meeting with 6 participants for an hour, that’s 6 person-hours resource time. If one of the 6 attendees delays the start by 15 minutes, that’s 5 others left waiting around – or 5*15 minutes wasted. It’s unfair, it’s unprofessional (especially if it’s the same people on a regular basis) and it wastes money. Lots of money.

Moreover, it’s likely the meeting won’t achieve it’s objective(s) and, as a result, may need to be rescheduled – thereby adding to the cost – or may result in inadequate, insufficient results.

Let those who join late live with the consequences – if at all possible! Of course, I know that this is not always possible, especially if it is senior people (who seem to think everyone else’s time is more ‘stretchy’ and less valuable than theirs), or more especially if it is a Customer. However, if expectations are set early enough in a project or collaboration, subsequent meetings will increasingly start on time and attendees will soon learn that they need to be there. If you are hosting a meeting that involves people who have not been at your previous meetings, and one or other of the participants joins late, simply acknowledge the later-joiner (without sarcasm!) and – when the meeting is over or adjourned – ask them privately to let you know in advance if they are likely to be late for future meetings. Explain why it is important to start on time. If it is a senior / managerial person, explain the wasted resources as above – these participants in particular should appreciate the impact but might need to be politely reminded.

2. Ensuring participants are attentive – especially remote attendees.
It can be particularly difficult in any group discussion to make sure everyone is paying attention. There are obvious things that can be done, such as ensuring all smartphones are face-down on the table, all laptops are closed (or absent) and all participants are activey watching the meeting facilitator / screen etc.

However, this is much, much more difficult when some attandees are in remote locations and all you can see of them is a head-and-shoulders. There might be any number of distractions in their periphery that you cannot see.

One technique I picked up (from my Lecturing days) is to proactively & deliberately involve everyone – and do it randomly. If you do the same ’round the table’ every time you want to initiate feedback or contributions (for example), it becomes easier for people to tune out until it’s their ‘turn’ to tune in. If nobody is sure who is going to be asked first / next to contribute or comment, it increases the likelihood they will pay attention. This applies in classrooms just as much as it does in any other environment.

Another technique, especially if you only have one or two remote participants, is to occasionally ask them to briefly summarise what they have heard & understood of what has been going on during the meeting. In order to avoid alienating anyone, this can be portrated as you making an effort to be sure that they are not missing anythiing due to the network connection, the lack of immediacy or their lack of visibility of the rest of the group. When people know they might be asked to summarise something, they tend to pay attention.

On that note, I’m familiar with situations where the facilitator asks vague questions such as “Does everyone agree..?” and nobody answers or just nods their head. This is a very common scenario in another Sector where I have experience: Teaching and Lecturing. I’m sure everyone is familiar with classrooms full of students who do exactly the same…! I’ve picked up a few techniques when Lecturing that I use to deal with those scenarios – not least the technique of specifically and directly asking people (often in turn) for their contribution / response. I also find that this encourages people to believe that their contributions are actually valued, which encourages them to interact & contribute more in future, often without prompting!

3. People reading pre-distributed Documents at the meeting.
I’ll be honest… this is one of my pet hates.It seems to be especially common among those whothink thay are far too busy (and important) to actually read pre-distributed materials before the meeting. These are likely the same people referred to in number 1 above!

Depending on how importnant the person is, and/or how much control and influence they have over your career, you might want to grin and ebar it. As a Contractor / Consultant, fortunately, I tend to have a little bit more ‘front’ when dealing with these situaitons. I have been known to ‘go nuclear’, so to speak. On more than one occasions, when someone turned up to a group meeting that included remote and local attendees, and then started to read the materials that everyone else had taken the time to read in advance, I have simply terminated the meeting there and then, rescheduling it and making it clear this was to allow the miscreant(s) enough time to read the mateerial without everyone esle having to hang around.

Pointing out the aggreegated cost of such actions is, again, a good way of reminding people that being unprepared is not only unprofessional, it is inefficient, unproductive and generally unacceptable. Most people will accept and agree with these contentions if asked one-to-one, so there is no real argument to defend this kind of behaviour (obviously, I’m talking about repeat offenders, here… there are exceptions such as late delivery of materials, late addition to the participants list etc).

If you are not in a position where you feel comfortable about essentially ticking off one of your superiors for being unprepared, you could approach them after the meeeting and ask how far in advance they will need meeting materials in future. Pitch it as though you want to ensure that meetings are arranged for a more appropriate time to allow them to prepare, because you understand they are really busy and you don’t want to put them in such a difficult position again. Most managers will see through such a transparent gambit but will also understand that you’re being diplomatic but proactive for their benefit as well as everyone else’s. After all, everyone will probably be complaining about having to watch some self-important idiot reading the meetign material while they had to sit and wait (but don’t tell the boss that, at least not in exactly those words!).

4. Multiple simultaneous conversations in local or remote offices.
I think most people who have been at group meetings have witnessed multiple sidebar conversaitons going on. In fact, for some types of meetings (e.g. brainstorming, solution-generation etc) it is positively necessary. However, this does not mean it should be the case for every meeting. As a facilitator, it is often necessary – although difficult – to monitor multiple conversations at the same time. Also, when these sidebar conversations do happen, it is often useful to allow them to evolve for 2 or 3 minutes as they can often be relevant.

It can be hard to detect sidebar conversations between participants at a remote location, especially if they are on a voice-only connection and mute the microphone. However, it is exponentially worse if remote microphones are not muted and sidebar conversations happen in multiple locations. It can quickly become a cacophony of sound, almost impossible to make sense of. In that case, the facilitator should take control and proactively address each participant / location to explain the issue and invite the contributions one by one.

When sidebar conversations do happen and the meeting allows for them, the facilitator should always have one eye on the clock and the agenda with a view to getting things back on track or, if the conversational detour is useful, to dropping something less useful from the agenda.

5. Background interruptions at remote locations.
This might seem to be almost the same thing as the previous issue but it’s not. The issue here is often that remote participants are taking calls from home, early in the morning or late at night and, with their attention dutifully focussed on the screen / meeting, some participants become completely unaware of their noises being generated in the environment behind / around them.

I have been in meetings where I’ve seen participants’ kids getting ready for school and I’ve even seen participants’ kids getting ready for their bedtime storiy (literally… to the point that the little munchkins were sitting on Daddy’s lap demanding ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’…).I’ve even been in a meeting where the neighbours of a remote participant were having a serious swear-driven fight. Later, after the meeting, I asked the participant about it and she said she didn’t even notice the fighting going on because it happens so often!

The point is that we can sometimes be so focussed on what’s right in front of us that we don’t notice the rest of the world going by. Before attending a remote meeting when I am at home, I generally find a room away from the TV / family activies, tell people around me that I’m going to be on a conference call, and stick a ‘Do not disturb’ post-it (or something similar) on the door. Because this is often in the kitchen or spare bedroom, I then activate the device I’ll be using (iPad, iPhone, laptop etc), maximise the camera view and study the room & walls etc behind me from the camera’s perspective, to make sure there is nothing visible that I don’t want others to see… Taking these steps will ensure that there is very little chance that other participants will see or hear something that could be embarrasing for all concerned.

One other thing worth noting, related to this, is that if you plan to share your screen with the group, interruptions can include email notifications, chat messages etc appearing on your screen only to be shared to everyone… some of which might even be about other participants or, worse, customers!

I have, on occasion, hit ‘Print Screen’ on my keyboard to capture the view that everyone except the perpetrator can see, emailing it to them later so they can see what only they could not see earlier.

6. Remote attendees not knowing if/when they can interrupt/speak.
There are often cultural differences in attitudes that affects interactions between geographically dispersed teams that we might not be aweare of. More importantly, we may not be aware of the potential impact of these cultural attitudes on behaviour. As we interact more and more with stakeholders from different cultural backgrounds, we should at least attempt to understand how these differences might manifest themselves and take steps to facilitate / counter them.

For example, in some Eastern cultures (e.g. Indian, Chinese etc), there is often a cultural attitude to doing busines with ‘the West’ whereby participants feel obliged to be deferential to the Customer, the Team Lead, the BA, the PM, the meeting facilitator (and every other Westerner!). Remotely attending meetings can result in some participants deferring to the point that they might have something very interesting or important to contribute – but feel they cannot intrerupt. Imagine a case where children are expected to remain silent until spoken to, no matter how important they feel their contribution could be, and you won’t be far off the extremes of these situations. I’m not suggesting that people from less ‘forward’ cultures are child-like, just that their inherent politeness and deference can sometimes cause the same effect.

Ironically, being remote can actually help the facilitator to proactively promote the involvement of remote participants because s/he can explicitly make an effort to ask them for their contributions. It is literally as simple as that: remembring to ask all participants – remote and local – for their contributions will surreptitiously remind everyone that each contribution is equally valuable. Deliberately asking remote participants if they have anything to add / contribute etc will result in them feeling like their contributions are welcome. Those who are physically present will normally accept this is a necessary ‘interlude’ for reasons of professional courtesy and comprehensiveness, so it sort of levels the playing field a bit.

One other thing to point out: there is often a need to point out (usually at the start of a meeeting) how the participants should indicate that they have a question / comment. In school, of course, we are familiar with having to raise ourt hands to get noticed. In Applications designed for modern Webinars and multi-location meetings, there is often an equivalent button to press, which notifies the facilitator that someone wants to speak. Even when there is no such option, there is nothing wrong with saying ‘feel free to raise your hand if you would like to comment, contribute or clarify’. The only thing to remember is to keep an eye on the screens that show remote participants… I’ve been guilty of not noticing remote hands waving…!

7. Remote, or even local, participants working on other things.
This, like sidebar conversations, is much more obvious with local participants than with remote participants. However, it is also fairly obvious when remote participants forget to mute their microphone. This can be anything from the clickety-clack of keyboard warriors answering their emails instead of paying attention, to some participants (perhaps less well-versed in hiding what they’re doing) actually answering their text messages with their phone in hand, right in front of the camera.

How should the meeting facilitator deal with this…? Exactly the same way as with any other sign of inattention: ignore it unless it’s causing disruption (e.g. noise) but address the miscreant later. If it is a client or customer (or your boss?), you will need to be diplomatic and professional but it can be helpful to point out that their full attention is the only way that everyone can be sure that the best outcomes will be achieved. Most people, once embarrassed like this, will remember it and – hopefully – take it into account next time!

8. People dressed inappropriately.
All I will say is this: while people will accept those who are joining a meeting from home, outside business hours, being dressed casually, this is not the same as vest-and-boxers. I actually witnessed exactly this scenario once and once was enough…! I have also seen attendees (male and female) attend meetings in their nightwear / robe.

Conclusion:
In the end, like ANY meeting of disparate people, Virtual Meetings for any purpose can be well managed, badly managed or anything in between. To get the best from them, participants should treat all virtual meetings the same as real-world meetings. After all, in Business, they are equal. Whatever you consider inappropriate for meetings where everyone is in the same room is also inappropriate where participants are all over the world. When you are the facilitator, you get to lay these ground rules and you should feel comfortable in explaining and even enforcing them (quietly, perhaps after the fact where appropriate) to anyone who doesn’t comply.

I worked with an experienced Agile Project Owner (Dermot Delaney, at Sentenial) who was absolutely brilliant at conducting Agile Estimation and Elaboration sessions involving people in three or four different locations. Once you’ve picked up a few tips from a good facilitator like that, it becomes easier to conduct your own meetings effectively. The key thing is to try to be consistently professional about it and everyone will (should!) respond to that by ‘upping’ their own game.

[Don’t let your virtual meetings go like this one, below… but at least these guys were all on voice-only!]

Click to view on YouTube

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