Making Distributed Meetings Matter

October 5, 2015

Distributed MeetingOn the eve of IFMA’s annual World Workplace conference, which I am attending this week in Denver, it seems appropriate to think for a moment about meetings that don’t take place in a “place.” I’m thinking of course of meetings where everyone is somewhere else – what most of us call “distributed” meetings.

One distributed meeting practice I hold very dear is this [New Rule]: Do not schedule a “mixed meeting” unless there is absolutely no alternative.

A mixed meeting is one that includes two or more people in the same place plus one or more others calling in from somewhere else.

I’ve almost never seen a mixed meeting go well; some organizations actively prohibit them – if anyone is participating remotely, everyone calls in, even when some participants are located close together.

In a mixed meetings it’s far too easy for the people who are in the same room to forget about or ignore the remote participants. And for the remote participants the experience can be enormously frustrating. Most speaker phones prevent two people in different locations from being heard at the same time, so the technology just adds another barrier that makes a free-flowing exchange of ideas extremely difficult.

Even if the audio is unusually clear (and it usually isn’t) it can be difficult for remote participants to follow the conversation or even to recognize who is speaking. The remote attendees often feel like second-class citizens. That leads them to tune out, start checking email or working on something else, and generally disengaging. New Rule: don’t go more than 5 – 8 minutes without asking remote participants to comment, or to let you know they are still tuned in.

New Rule: The best way to make distributed meetings matter is to use video conferencing.

As an outside consultant I was once asked to participate in a three-hour twenty-person meeting that was convened in a remote community by a foundation I was working with. It really did not make sense for the foundation to fly me half way across the country and put me in a hotel overnight so I could be physically present for that half-day meeting.

The first hour of the meeting went just the way I expected; it was hard for me to hear, and even harder for me to stay focused on the conversation. I couldn’t tell who was speaking, and it was often difficult to understand what was being said.

Then during a short break one of the participants who was physically at the meeting connected with me using a screen-sharing application that included video. He and I spoke individually for a moment and then he turned his laptop around so his video camera faced the middle of the large round table in the center of the conference room.

Suddenly I felt part of the meeting; I could see most of the other participants, as well as their arm gestures and facial expressions. When one of the them got up to write on a white board I could see the words and pictures she created. While it wasn’t completely the same as being there, I found myself paying much closer attention, engaging with the conversation, and speaking much more frequently as well.

Videoconferencing through a tabletThat experience, more than any articles I’ve read or stories I’ve heard from other people, convinced me of the value of using video for distributed meetings. Video creates a far richer experience for group meetings than most of us realize. We really don’t understand what we’re missing without it.

The best conferencing systems include features that can sometimes make distributed meetings even more effective than face-to-face meetings. For example, most commercial audio-only systems enable you to punch in a code on your telephone that will automatically record the conversation, which can then be transcribed or at least made available to team members who could not participate in real time.

The newest technologies go way beyond basic audio, video, and screen sharing; I recently learned about a new “sociometric badge” from Humanyze that can track who is speaking, for how long, how loudly, how rapidly, and even in what tone of voice – as well as documenting who else is part of the meeting or conversation  (see “Sensible Organizations: Technology and Methodology for Autmatically Measuring Organizational Behavior” for a detailed description).

That kind of technology introduces a whole new level of behavioral metrics into the science of meeting analysis; it enables you to track who speaks how often and for how long, whether anyone is dominating the conversation, and even the intensity of what’s being said (the Humanyze system I’m aware of does not record the actual content of the comments being made).

We’ve still got much to learn about how effective meetings differ from boring, unproductive ones. I’m excited about these new technologies that offer new insights. Stay tuned; we are really just getting started on understanding how to make meetings matter.


Contact me today for a free 30-minute conversation about how you can design meetings that matter using powerful technologies to augment participant experiences and enhance your understanding of what’s happening.


 

 

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