Core facilitation skills apply to both face-to-face and virtual meetings. With teleconference or video presence meetings, the session leader must speak clearly, provide active listening (especially feedback and confirmation), ask appropriate questions, manage time constraints and personality issues, etc. Our discussion that follows focuses on what is different with virtual participation.
Purpose of Virtual Participants and Meetings
Same time access across multiple locations require may require distributed or electronic meetings, with known challenges called virtual meetings and participants. With the use of supplemental tools, virtual meetings can also satisfy the dual condition that demands meetings at different times and in different locations.
Virtual meetings save travel money (and time), allow for remote participation, and help avoid viral transmission. While fine for review and sharing, they should be avoided at kickoffs, phase gate reviews, when consensus is critical, the issues are contentious, or the situation demands high-quality decision-making.
Method of Virtual Participants and Meetings
The following suggestions summarize and offer up the differences between face-to-face versus distance meetings. Remember that active listening is always critical to effective facilitation and it is very tough to provide feedback and obtain solid confirmation without eye contact and observations around the room.
Collaboration Considerations with Meetings Including Virtual Participants
When selecting meeting type, mandatory considerations include:
- Geographical distance
- Organizational differences
- Team size
- Time zone differences
Some of the softer and subjective factors include:
- Cultural differences
- Goal interdependence
- Multi-tasking expectations
- Social factors
- Team size
- Technical skill
- Type and mix of communications
- Work histories
The aspects that support virtual meetings frequently mirror the justification for hosting face-to-face meetings and workshops:
Warning about Meetings with Virtual Participants
Do not trade analog dollars for digital cents. In other words, expect virtual meetings to take as much as four times longer to accomplish the same amount of work when conducted face-to-face for the following reasons:
- Effective facilitation may be more critical in virtual meetings since there is no opportunity to “help” the participant without speaking up directly.
- Participants stay more fully engaged when they can observe and “feel” the non-verbal clues and intonations.
- Thirty to sixty percent of meaning is communicated or expressed outside of the words that are used.
- With English as a second, third, or fourth language—do not assume that everyone is hearing or understanding the same meaning or intent.
Seating Charts for Meetings with Virtual Participants
Seating charts (also known as roll calls) are indispensable and will be used frequently during virtual meetings. Assign a sequence to everyone as they join the meeting. Make sure you place the virtual participants up front and always call on them first.
Tell them where they are sitting at the U-shaped table so that they create a mental picture of the room and their orientation to the other participants. You can use this roll call sequence to capture quick or final comments, formal or informal voting, and even to help determine if everyone is present. As mentioned later, enforce a protocol for identifying the speaker in your “virtual” room.
Experts all agree that clear thinking is the most important item behind successful virtual meetings. Thorough preparation instills confidence, helping bring the participants along so there is no doubt about the purpose or deliverables from the meeting.
Other preparation considerations include:
- Assign people different roles such as note-taker, time-keeper, “guardian” of unanswered questions, etc.
- Communicate in local time, or how to calculate local time, when sending virtual meeting announcements.
- Discuss the agenda, expectations, and subject-matter preparations with participants prior to the call.
- Include the dial-in number, pass-codes, and attendance list.
- Inform participants about the files or website that should be open and available.
- Make arrangements as to how participants will be informed about changing meeting arrangements or instructions.
- Send participant package (ie, background documents), management perspective (ie, team charter), and simple agenda in advance.
Invest heavily in scheduling and preparation since you cannot rely on your ‘good looks’ when meeting in a distributed mode:
- Allow for extra time. An hour in a virtual meeting will not accomplish as much as an hour in a face-to-face meeting.
- Consider providing a map with photographs of the participants around their location on the map along with their time zone. Distribute to the group or publish to a team site.
- Consider special arrangements for hearing-impaired participants (TTY, simultaneous transcriptions, etc).
- Consider the impact of volume of comments on time available when building the agenda. If everyone on a ten-person call provides input on a specific issue, and comments on average two minutes each, you can complete only two issues per hour (in addition to your introduction and guardian of change).
Etiquette and Quality During Virtual Meetings
While the some of the following reflects common sense, it’s your role as process policeman to enforce the standards:
- Avoid cell or low-quality wireless phones. Cell phones should be put on mute when not speaking.
- Avoid paper rustling and other office noise.
- Be aware of the impact of accents and slow down pace and tempo.
- Consider body stretching exercises before and during the session.
- Decide how to reach each other if a technical problem arises.
- Do not permit multitasking. Remind people to “Be Here Now” and note any keyboard sounds. Speak with the violators after the tele-meeting so that you do not embarrass them.
- Encourage the use of quality headsets to avoid poor sound.
- Keep the conversation low-key and control the pace (tempo).
- Offer bio-breaks every hour.
- Relax and control your own breath.
- Speak clearly and slightly slower than normal.
- Test to make certain that everyone can hear each other clearly.
Proper Launch of Virtual Participants and Meetings
Getting and keeping people involved and productive will take a concerted effort on your part from start to finish. Most importantly, get off to a good start by setting a good example:
- As the facilitator, log in first and early.
- If possible, provide an electronic sign-in sheet that participants must update if they need to leave the meeting (even if only for a short period of time).
- Greet each person as they come online and assign a ROLL CALL sequence for sound-off (eg, someone drops off and you hear the ‘three beeps’).
- Introduce each arrival to subsequent arrivals.
- Establish and enforce protocol of announcing name (could be a nickname) when taking a turn speaking. Last name only serves as a solid protocol. No verbs or prepositions are required.
- Provide ground rules and roles as appropriate.
- Constantly remind participants where you are on the agenda.
- Provide a clear end and smooth transition for each step in the agenda as you make progress.
Primary Differences of Virtual Participants and Meetings Contrasted with Face to Face Meetings
Use your intuition. Since you cannot rely on non-verbal feedback (unless using high-resolution video), be firm but flexible.
- Use people’s names to get their attention.
- Break-up long stretches of one speaker.
- When appropriate, go “around to circle” for inclusive participation. Use the roll call sequence built earlier, and call on virtual participants first.
- Consider “break-out sessions” where two or more get off the main call, call each other(s), and then get back on the session bridge to share their results.
- For decision-making processes, restate or repeat key issues while they refine to a decision point.
- When possible, use Internet-based collaboration tools to create shared electronic notes, flip charts, Mimio, etc. When appropriate allow “side chats” and “ breakouts” to accelerate participant contributions.
While also true with face-to-face meetings, the likelihood of engaging multiple cultures increases with virtual meetings and participants. Therefore be reminded and reinforced about the “Deadliest Sins of International Misunderstanding” (see “Do’s and Taboos Around the World”).
- Grammar—remember to facilitate and to stop processing the content. Someone needs to be listening and that is the role of the facilitator. Generously paraphrase if necessary to ensure that all participants capture meaning from their perspective. Document and distribute your notes quickly after meetings to solicit corrections. Accept the blame for any misunderstandings. Never interrupt; rather, use active listening to correct for imprecise word or grammar choices.
- Jargon—likened to a tongue without a brain, avoid “interface” in favor of “work together.” Police carefully, such as “shotgun approach” and “on the same wave length.”
- Local color—from idioms to accents, people need to slow down their rate of speech, enunciate clearly, and project a bit louder. Everyone should avoid local idioms such as “Don’t make waves.”
- Officialese—your particular concern here ought be acronyms or what many people call acronyms (technically, an acronym needs to spell an actual word). Even basic English abbreviations may not be understood by everyone, such as “P & L.” Groups are never too clear, so be certain to use active listening to provide a fuller, clearer reflection of what is being stated.
- Slang—in Islamic and Buddhist cultures, a simple “thank God” may be considered blasphemous unless meant piously. Avoid even simple comments that lack clarity such as “go for it”.
- Vocabulary—don’t forget after providing reflection to confirm that everyone seemingly understands what has been stated. If you sense that someone is holding back, consider a roll call approach to have each person interpret how the new content affects them.
Capture the Work of Virtual Participants and Meetings
With the few exceptions noted, most of the MG RUSH technique is immediately transferrable to the virtual world. Some additional differences in the video-presence mode include:
- Before bio-breaks, insert a quick “Plus/ Delta” and ask for immediate feedback.
- Enforce “Silence or Absence is Agreement” but solicit one-by-one responses for highly critical decisions.
- If you don’t want to ask each person to respond to a general query (“do you understand the new procedure?”), ask questions so that silence implies consent, and remind them to speak up if “they can’t sleep at night” with the outcome.
- The larger the group, the more your session leadership skills need to keep people from dominating each virtual meetings
Preparing to Wrap a Virtual Meeting
Throughout, emphasize reflection and confirmation of content that is offered up. All too frequently, virtual participants are distracted and do not capture as much the first time as they do when meeting face-to-face. Summarize, summarize, summarize . . . a clear group is typically an oxymoron.
- Offer each participant an opportunity for final/ closing comments. Consider “PASS” or “Just Three Words” for example. “What three words describe your experience with today’s meeting?”
- Review next steps, assignments, and deadlines as appropriate.
- Use MG RUSH wrap-up and Guardian of Change as appropriate.
- Summarize the virtual meeting and end by confirming the next meeting appointment or commitment.
- Use the MG RUSH evaluation form to improve subsequent calls. A “Plus/ Delta” can be completed at the conclusion of each call.
- Distribute meeting notes within hours after the meeting and emphasize the follow-up steps and responsibilities in your email cover note.
VideoPresence Meetings / Differences
Some of the differences afforded when meeting with visual feedback, frequently called videopresence meetings, especially when higher quality resolution video is made available, suggest the following:
- Clothing; for example, stripes or patterned shirts are not recommended during a video conference meeting and may not display well at the remote site(s). Plain colored shirts and pants/ skirts are optimal. Also, avoid wearing white, red, and color of the background.
- Restrict movement as much as possible. Excessive movements are disruptive to viewers at the far site.
- Have a back up plan for your meeting or class in the event of connection failures or equipment problems.
From Global Work Groups to Global Teams
Here are some tips that may be helpful in creating commitment and facilitating communication among work groups that are widely separated by geography.
Very often, a work group is made up of several small teams, each in a separate location. To be successful, the teams must use nested synchronization, integrating their efforts frequently. Regular and frequent integration has many benefits, from establishing mutual commitment to creating a common repository of knowledge.
All too often we find that a team in one country has all of the necessary technical capabilities, but their “requirements” come in large batches of written documents developed many time zones away. Predictably, when an application is finished several weeks or months after the arrival of the requirements, it isn’t what the customers really wanted. Large separations between customers or analysts and the implementation team—with over-the-wall communication—seldom works very well. One way to deal with this situation is to locate a couple of people from one team on the other team for extended periods of time, preferably on a rotating basis. Either a couple of team members that understand customers should be located with the development team, or alternatively, a couple of people who are part of the development team should be located with those who understand the customers. Rotating people through these positions is effective.
Some successful dispersed teams communicate through a single person. Someone from a remote site becomes a member of a core team. They serve as a proxy for the remainder of the remote team. Every day this person assumes responsibility for a large amount of well-defined work and sends it to the remote team, calling them each day to describe what needs to be done, answer questions, and retrieve completed work. Thus, the remote team maintains rich communication with one person on the core team, and the core team considers the remote team an extension of this proxy, who can take on work for several people.
Consider an oobeya or “war room” with big visible charts showing project status and issues. The status charts can be maintained identically in each of multiple rooms around the world. The program leader can travel from one room to another, holding regular status meetings at each location. Other locations may call in to the meetings, and renew the mutual commitment of all teams to their common objective.
When part of a team must work using a second language while other team members use their first language, or when one group is a subcontractor while the other is part of the contracting company, or when one group clearly has higher pay or status than the other, people can easily get the perception that one group is “better” than the other. Such perceptions will quickly destroy the respect, trust, and commitment that are essential for true teamwork.
Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.
Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.)
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- How’s your “Teletiquette” in Virtual Meetings? (themarlincompany.com)
- 5 Tips For Better Conference Calls (grasshopper.com)
- Meeting Killers: Eight Ways to Kill A Meeting and Your Reputation