May 17, 2012 6 Comments
Core facilitation skills apply to both face-to-face and virtual meetings, With teleconference or videopresence 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 below and in the next two blogs, will focus on what is different with virtual meetings.
Same time access across multiple locations require may require distributed or electronic meetings, also known as virtual meetings. 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 are used to save travel money or allow for remote participation. 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.
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.
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:
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 (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.
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. Be well-prepared and bring the participants with you so there is no doubt what needs to be accomplished over the course of 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
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.
The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).
- How’s your “Teletiquette” in Virtual Meetings? (themarlincompany.com)
- The case for more (virtual) meetings – Online Collaboration (businessns.wordpress.com)
- 5 Tips For Better Conference Calls (grasshopper.com)