Now that you’re ‘working from home’… behaviour and etiquette for Virtual Meetings…

This is an updated version (given the huge explosion in the numbers of people working from home in 2020 as a result of COVID19 / Coronavirus and the likelihood that this will accelerate the Work From Home transition) of a Blog Post published originally in 2015.

Warning: this is a looonnnnggg 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, especially while pretending to pay attention on a Conference Call… although you could at least argue that it has some learning value 😉

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 [imagine… this sentence was originally written back in 2015… I should have just predicted the Lottery numbers].

First, to get you in the right frame of mind, this video will give you a giggle if you’ve attended many virtual meetings… but don’t forget to read on afterwards..!

Click here to view on YouTube

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 (or as productive, for some types of activities) as face-to-face meetings, especially when it comes to non-verbal considerations like body language, attempts to contribute, lack of participation etc. However, virtual meetings could 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 colleagues’ habits). Given that we are now at the point in the evolution of virtual meetings where multiple generations of modern participants have grown up without ever having any real experience of face-to-face, in-person meetings, current and (increasingly) future generations are unlikely to develop the right etiquette for participating in group meetings unless they are explicitly or implicitly taught them and required (by procedures as well as by example) to behave appropriately.

[read on…]

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, we need to be more proactive and take action (overt & covert; obvious & 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 course, when it is your own meeting, the authority is implicit!

Note: If you are running a meeting and the behaviour of participants is not as required, you have not only the right to change it, but also the responsibility to all participants. Even if that means having a quiet word with a senior stakeholder. If you are just the organizer of the meeting but it is actually being driven by someone else, it is their right and responsibility… but an odd nudge or reminder to get back on topic is no bad thing.

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

1. That awkward time when waiting for people to join the meeting.
2. Ensuring participants are attentive – especially those in remote locations.
3. Reading pre-distributed Documents at the meeting, not 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 interrupt / speak.
7. Remote / local participants working on other things.
8. People dressed inappropriately.

So, given that tackling any big problem is best approached by tackling it as a series of small problems (like 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 15 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. However, to allow for connectivity problems in virtual meetings, two or three minutes (and not more than 5) might be allowed.

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 a meeting is called 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 1.25 resource hours [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.If the cost of the original Meeting in this example was 6 resource hours, then a quarter of that resource cost was wasted… not just 15 minutes.

Moreover, apart from the cost of late starting, it’s likely the meeting won’t achieve it’s objective(s) or may result in inadequate or insufficient results and, as a result, may need to be rescheduled… thereby adding even more cost.

Let those who join late live with the consequences – if at all possible! Of course, this may not always be 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 team, project or collaboration, subsequent meetings will increasingly start on time and attendees will soon learn that they need to be there on time (or maybe just skip it altogether). If you are hosting a meeting that involves people who have not been at your previous meetings, and one or other of the new 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 (calculated in person hours as above or even in monetary terms). Senior, financial aware participants in particular will likely appreciate the impact… but might need to be politely reminded. While a Senior participant might well have a higher hourly cost that even a collection of Junior participants, their individual cost is unlikely to be more than the cumulative total of the other Attendees… especially at larger meetings (which Senior people are often invited to). In the past, I have been known to circulate reports of the cumulative cost of wasted meeting time on a weekly basis. If done correctly (i.e. consistently, objectively and factually), it can be very effective.

Another useful tip – and something that should be key to all digital or virtual communications, including email – is the correct use of Mandatory and Optional participants. Don’t be lazy. Simply putting everyone in the Invite as Mandatory is not appropriate if there are optional attendees. Do it properly and with due consideration for all invited participants:

  • Mandatory stakeholders are those that limit the effectiveness of the Meeting if they are absent.
  • Everyone else is Optional and they should appear as such on the Meeting Invitation.

Then, when the meeting starts, if any of the Optional attendees are late or don’t turn up, carry on anyway. If any of the Mandatory stakeholders don’t turn up within 5 minutes (or 10 if it is a time-critical meeting), postpone and rearrange the meeting. In the meantime, contact the missing Mandatory attendee(s) and – politely – inform them the meeting was postponed / rescheduled as a result of their absence.

One final tip: in the minute or two that you’re waiting for the inevitable connectivity delays, lay the ground rules and context for the meeting, review the agenda and ask everyone to put their microphones on mute (until they need to speak). By speaking, rather than simply waiting in silence, you reinforce expectations, reinforce your role in the meeting, draw the attention of participants – and it makes the wait seem shorter.

2. Ensuring participants are attentive – especially remote attendees.
It can be particularly difficult in any group discussion to make sure everyone is paying attention. With physical, in-person meetings 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 actively watching the facilitator / screen etc.

However, this is much, much more difficult with remote attendees and all you can see of them is a head-and-shoulders – and even that is only if you’re using video conferencing. There might be any number of distractions in their periphery or location that you can’t see.

One technique I picked up during my Lecturing days is to proactively & deliberately involve everyone – and do it randomly. If you do the same ’round the table’ each time you initiate feedback or contributions, 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 to contribute or comment first / next, it increases the likelihood they will pay attention. This applies in classrooms just as much as it does in any other environment. In remote meetings, it can be especially useful as there are no visual cues provided to participants that you’re going to call on them.

Another technique, especially if you only have only one or two remote participants (or if one or two of a larger group are more critical in terms of involvement / outcomes), is to occasionally ask them to briefly summarise what they have heard. In order to avoid alienating anyone, this can be portrayed as making an effort to be sure that they are not missing anything due to the network connection, remote location or lack of visibility of the rest of the group. When people know they might be asked to summarise something – especially on a group call when there might be more senior people in attendance – they tend to pay attention.

On that note, facilitators should avoid asking vague questions such as “Does everyone agree..?”. Much of the time, nobody answers or everyone just nods their head. This is very common in Teaching and Lecturing scenarios. I’m sure everyone is familiar with classrooms full of students who do exactly the same!

To avoid this apparently perfectly synchronized group-think, ask closed questions and target them directly. Instead of asking “does everyone understand?“, ask “Can you please summarise your understanding of the [requirement | plan | report] outlined to this point?” and target the question at someone different each time.

3. People reading pre-distributed Documents at the meeting.
I’ll be honest… this is one of my pet hates. It really frustrates me when meeting attendees – especially those who are mandatory for the success of the meeting – don’t prepare in advance by reading any material that has been circulated.

It seems to be especially common among those who think they are too busy (and too important) to actually read pre-distributed materials before the meeting, as if they are the only people who are busy.

Depending on how important the person is, and/or how much control and influence they have over your career, you might want to grin and bear it. As a Contractor / Consultant, fortunately, I can get away with having a little bit more ‘front’ when dealing with these situations. I have been known to ‘take the nuclear option’, so to speak. On more than one occasion, 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 them enough time to read the material without everyone else having to hang around. Not everyone has the opportunity to do this, of course, but alternative (less assertive) techniques can be used, such as telling everyone else they can ‘take 5’ (or however many minutes you think it will take for the offender to read the critical material). This reinforces both the expectation to pre-read critical materials in the future but also the importance of starting on time.

If you are not in a position where you feel comfortable about essentially ticking off one of your superiors for being unprepared and unprofessional, you could approach them after the meeting and ask how far in advance they would need critical pre-reading 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 stakeholder reading the material while they had to sit and wait (while they could be doing something more useful instead).

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

Unlike on-site meetings, it can be difficult (if not impossible) to detect sidebar conversations between participants at a remote location, especially if they are on a voice-only connection and mute the microphone. While that’s bad enough and something that we just have to accept, 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. In such cases, participants might not even know that they are talking over each other because of connection lag or whatever, so the facilitator should be proactive and ‘talk over’ the group until they realize the problem, and then name someone to continue. Depending on the technology used, there is often a ‘Mute Participant’ or ‘Mute All‘ button that allows the facilitator to ‘cut through’ all voices for that purpose. Don’t be afraid to use it. It might take a few seconds to get everyone’s attention but that is still preferable to giving everyone a headache. A consistent short phrase such as ‘Time Out‘ or ‘Quiet, Please‘ repeated can be very, very effective especially if it is the same phrase always (like a sort of ‘safe word’ for meetings!).

Whether in person or on a group call, when sidebar or off-topic 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, be prepared to drop something less useful from the agenda. If that happens, it should always be presented as a positive, especially if there are senior people listening in. Instead of saying “Unfortunately, we didn’t get to cover XYZ topic today and we’ll have to reschedule“, for example, say something like “That was a useful detour and we got to cover some good material so we’ll pick up on the remaining agenda another time“.

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. It happens to the best of us (i.e. it has happened to me… I’ve even been responsible for everyone else listening to my unevenly-positioned Washing Machine on the Spin Cycle. I couldn’t even hear it as I was presenting but everyone else could..!)

I have been in meetings where I’ve seen participants’ kids getting ready for school in the background. I’ve even seen participants’ kids getting ready for their bedtime story (literally… once even 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-laden fight outside the participants open window. Later, after that particular meeting, I asked the participant about it and she said she hadn’t even noticed the fighting going on because it happens so often!

[Right now, as I type, there is a neighbour’s dog (a Yorkshire terrier, by the sound of it) barking away incessantly. If I was on a Conference Call right now, I probably wouldn’t hear it… but others would!]

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. That’s a function of our biological evolution so there is no point trying to change it by flicking a proverbial switch. Instead, we have to try ensure we’re in a position that it doesn’t become an issue.

Before attending a remote meeting at home, find a room away from the TV / family activities, tell people around you that you’re going to be on a conference call. If there are small children around, try to enlist the help of an adult. If not, it could be difficult for small kids to understand the context. Even if they do, they can still forget.

Some people stick a ‘Do not disturb’ post-it (or something similar) on the door. If there is a lock on the door, turn it – it’s better for meeting participants to hear someone knocking on the door or trying to open it and that tiny delay will give you the time to react / hit mute.

Another small tip: because meetings are often taken in a kitchen, lounge or bedroom rather than a home office (especially in the current global ‘work from home’ climate), activate the device you will be using (iPad, iPhone, laptop etc), maximise the camera view and study the room & walls etc behind you from the camera’s perspective, to make sure there is nothing visible that you 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 embarrassing for all concerned.

One other thing worth noting 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.

[credit: Techrepublic]

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 aware 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 business 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!). This is changing (albeit slowly) as participants in those cultures become more and more accustomed to the more Westernised way of working encountered in modern meeting. Practices associated with Agile mindsets (not necessarily in the Software or I.T. sectors) are also helping to reduce the effects of these cultural differences.

While it is difficult enough for culturally-deferential people to ‘interrupt’ (especially if it means interrupting managers or customers), remote attendance at 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 interrupt. 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: remembering to ask all participants – remote and local – for their contributions will subliminally 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 levels the playing field a bit.

One other thing: there is often a need to point out (usually at the start of a meeting) how the participants should indicate that they have a question / comment. In school, of course, we are familiar with having to raise our hands to get noticed. In applications designed for modern virtual 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 (on a video call) ‘feel free to raise your hand if you would like to comment, contribute or clarify’. Most importantly, if you do ask participants to raise their hand (physically or virtually) to interrupt, you should remember to keep an eye on the screens that show remote participants… I’ve been guilty of not noticing remote hands waving…!

7. 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!

In this regard, any session likely to be longer than 1.5 hours should be split to allow people time to stretch, check on important activities and mentally shift their focus (which is good for allowing the subconscious a bit of ‘free time’ to process the information received so far). If participants know they will have an opportunity to address unrelated activities, and not have to be ‘out of touch’ for 3 or 4 hours, they are less likely to be distracted by those activities.

At this point it is worth reiterating that the correct use of Mandatory and Optional fields for meeting attendees. If a Mandatory participant doesn’t turn up, the meeting likely won’t be as successful as it could otherwise be. the same applies with Mandatory participants doing other things instead of paying attention. If it’s only the Optional attendees doing so, it’s probably not worth worrying about.

[credit: Pinterest]

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 does not mean T-shirt and boxer shorts. 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.

Put simply: don’t. If you’re at work, and you’re going to be on a video call, then dress appropriately for the audience.

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 virtual meetings the same as real-world meetings in as much as they can. 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 (name-check: Dermot Delaney, at Sentenial) who was absolutely brilliant at conducting Agile Estimation and Elaboration sessions involving people in three or four different locations in a way that was collaborative, inclusive but apparently effortless. 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.

In addition, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are explicitly and implicitly training future generations of meeting attendees and facilitators on their meeting etiquette.

Don’t let your virtual meetings go like this one: [Click to view on YouTube] …but at least these guys were all on voice-only!

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