Posted in The Distance Lens Blog

When Only a Few are Virtual

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Meeting When Not All are Present

You’re at a meeting–well, virtually. You’ve dialed in to a meeting with 6 or so members of your team who work physically together. They are sitting around the conference table with the squawk box (Polycom may be the technical term for it) in the center. The meeting starts out orderly but as the meeting progresses it devolves into clamour as spirited members attempt to speak over one another. Though it may be a productive discussion for those physically present, for you as a virtual participant it’s too hard to follow who’s talking, let alone jump in, so you retreat to finishing work tasks, checking email, scanning Facebook, or playing Tetris on your phone.

This scene may seem all too familiar.

The internet is replete with tips for running in-person meetings and for running virtual meetings. So what do you do when only some of your participants are virtual — when you have both in-person and remote attendees? All too often, what happens in such a “blended meeting” is that the virtual participants struggle to keep up with those who are physically present. Once you have even one person dialing in, in order for that member to be able to participate fully, and for your meeting to successfully accomplish its goals, you must understand that your meeting needs to be approached differently. A blended meeting is neither a virtual meeting, nor an in-person meeting. These “somewhere in the middle” meetings require their own framework; otherwise, your meeting will turn into an in-person meeting with a few lost souls trapped hopelessly in the ether!

There are different schools of thought on how best to approach a blended meeting. One school dictates that colocated team members should stay at their desks and dial in, even though it may seem easier to gather together around one speaker in a conference room. This levels the playing field for all participants. However, another school of thought is that forcing in-office team members to attend virtually would ruin the “synergy” or “juju” (they’re synonyms, trust me) of the meeting; and therefore the onus is on the virtual attendees to do their best to stay engaged with the rest of the group.

Promoting a meeting environment hospitable to virtual participants requires a concerted effort from all members. The most important thing a team can do is agree together on rules of engagement AND commit to follow them. Begin with a brainstorm of what rules ought to be followed for your particular team. Below are some best practices to get you started.

 1. Alternate the meeting format

The best solution is for the blended meeting to alternate between being conducted entirely virtually and conducted with both colocated and virtual attendees. Alternate between conducting your meetings with everyone dialing in, and conducting them with only the remote people dialing in. This will help everyone to understand the difficulties of being virtual, and this understanding will improve all meetings.

2. Eliminate side conversations.

When people at a meeting indulge in a conversation of their own, one that is unrelated to the matter at hand, one that the virtual attendees cannot see, it leads to feelings of exclusion. If virtual attendees don’t understand the context of comments, there are more opportunities for misinterpretation, especially if there is not a sufficient amount of trust amongst team members or they do not yet know each other well. Furthermore, side conversations are simply distracting!

3. Say your name before saying your piece — Every time.

While it may seem tedious, especially if the team has been working together a long time and know each other well, saying your name before you speak will immensely help virtual participants keep track of the unfolding conversation. It requires a fair bit of mindfulness because, as meetings progress, participants are inclined to dispense with the formality to the detriment of those who cannot identify the speaker.

4. Work — actively — to include those not in the room.

Mindfulness is key. Be aware when virtual attendees have been silent too long and elicit their feedback. Actively call on them by name. Engage them. Leave silence and space for them to talk. Articulate what’s happening in the room for them: who’s leaving, who’s arriving. Consider sending them a picture of what is happening. 

5. Provide name tags.

Place name tents or some other sort of name tag of the virtual attendees on the conference table (with photos is ideal). This helps to remind those who are in the room that the virtual participants are there, too.

6. Revisit your rules of engagement.

Pull out those agreements every 4 to 6 weeks and see if you are really following them and if not, why not? Change them if you need to — the key is to keep the conversation going.  Working together to establish your own rules of engagement is a good thing. Consider bringing in someone from the outside to help evaluate how you are doing.

If everyone actively works to include virtual participants and elicit their thoughts, they’ll have no more excuses to shut their eyes, mute their speakers, and power nap during the meetings.

P.S.  And just don’t rustle papers in front of the microphone!

 

Question for readers:  What suggestions do you have for running good blended meetings?

 

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