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Virtual Meetings: Design with the ‘Distracted Participant’ in Mind

Here is a wonderful summary by Geoffrey Morton-Haworth of a January 2011 discussion in NCDD’s LinkedIn group on ground rules and best practices in virtual facilitation.  The discussion was started by group member Martin Pearson with the subject “Groundrules necessary to make the best of virtual meetings,” and is also posted on Geoffrey’s yalaworld.net site at this link.

Martin wrote that he was starting to use Skype more for meetings, and asked group members if they have created specific ground rules for their own virtual meetings (like asking people to not to browse the internet while participating in the meeting). The conversation morphed into a rich discussion on best practices for virtual meetings, with over 30 comments shared.

Virtual Meetings: Design with the ‘Distracted Participant’ in Mind

Geoffrey Morton-Haworth posted on February 03, 2011 03:39

There has been a useful discussion in a LinkedIn group over the last few weeks. The group was the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) and the topic was “ground rules for making the best of virtual meetings”. It is an important topic since more and more of us meet and work together over the internet these days. The drawback with LinkedIn discussions, however good, is that they tend to fade away into hyper-space (I don’t think they are picked up by search engines, maybe this is accidental or maybe it is by design to ensure that such discussions remain relatively private). Therefore what follows is an attempt to distill and record this conversation.

What’s a Virtual Meeting?

Colin Gallagher (a public participation expert from Salinas, California) noted that there are two basic types of virtual meetings – synchronous and asynchronous – plus a third that combines both.

  1. In synchronous meetings, we can do things at the same time: chat, videoconference, and/or, constructively edit something together (such as in MixedInk.com or in some functions of Google Docs).
  2. In asynchronous meetings, we are offline part of the time, coming back on to see what has happened, and contributing. Facebook and LinkedIn are examples of this. E-mail is another example.
  3. We can also blend the synchronous and the asynchronous modes of electronic or ‘virtualized’ communication. This is true where web apps are developed for specialized engagement purposes that involve various modes of communication, all visible to the participating end users through a web site. This can lead to gaps, periodic breaks, or phases in communication rather than the single stream of communication that we are accustomed to in an in-person meeting.  We need to set up the steps, or guidance system (ground rules), for the user of this kind of experience in which the ‘meeting’ is drawn out, phased, or simply subject to short gaps.

The Challenge of Virtual Meetings

Martin Pearson (a facilitator from Glasgow, UK with a background in peace studies) framed the question this way:

I am starting to use Skype more for meetings. However, I am starting to see that there are different ‘rules’ necessary for effective virtual meetings. For example, a commitment from those in the meeting not to browse the internet while participating in the meeting will ensure a greater quality of participation. Or asking people to go to a room where they cannot be distracted would also support people to give of their best.

Do you have any other suggestions of useful ‘ground rules’ which support participants in virtual meetings to make the most effective use of their time together?

With so many online meeting systems now available (Cisco’s Webex, GoToMeeting, Microsoft’s NetMeeting, and so on), you would think that this was an old question and must have been asked and answered many times. But Carolyn Caywood (a librarian from Norfolk, Virginia) contributed a webliography (http://www.diigo.com/user/nmcgee/virtualmeetings) which suggests there is still more to say.

It is not easy to run a good physical meeting where all the people are in the room. How much harder might it be to run a similar meeting where most are phoning in or connecting via the internet? John Carroll (a facilitator from Atlanta, US who specializes in leading virtual teams) counted twenty examples of the poor behaviors in virtual meetings that stem from participants who do not value virtual meetings and consequently multitask:

  1. People don’t show up
  2. Meetings don’t start on time
  3. Few people do the pre-work
  4. There is no pre-work
  5. Few actively participate
  6. No agenda, nor clear purpose for the meeting
  7. Sponsor doesn’t prepare (tip-off – reads directly from yet another PowerPoint)
  8. No common team glossary
  9. No clearly understood ground rules for proper individual and team behavior
  10. “Meeting Bullies” dominate
  11. Facilitator fails to ensure everyone is comfortable with the technologies
  12. Remaining technophobes avoid any technology orientations
  13. No clearly understood deliverables
  14. No time allocated for relationship building
  15. No effort to create excitement
  16. No decisions made on anything of importance
  17. Decisions, if made, made without a clear understanding of the alternatives
  18. Decisions, if made, made without a clear understanding of the criteria.
  19. No feedback from, nor follow-up to, the participants.
  20. People expect the least from each other – and tolerate getting it!

Cynthia Wold (a consultant with Heartland Inc in the Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul Area, USA) agreed that the real culprit in virtual versus in-person meetings is distraction and a sense of disconnect.  Nearly all these “poor behaviors” can occur in physical meetings, but three factors make virtual meetings additionally challenging:

  1. We don’t know what participants are doing while they’re on the phone – what they are seeing, being distracted by or working on.
  2. We can’t see who is speaking or take cues from body language whether someone is just pausing or finished.
  3. We can’t hear from everyone in a virtual environment unless we create an order of speaking.

Cynthia gave us the phrase that best sums up all the subsequent advice on how to conduct virtual meetings: “design them with the ‘distracted participant’ in mind” (drawn from Julia Young’s “Five Tips on Running Engaging Webinars” http://www.ncdd.org/?p=1479 ).

Good Practice in Any Meeting

Cynthia also noted that all the usual practices or terms of engagement that apply to in-person meetings regarding timing, respect, confidentiality and order apply to virtual meetings as well.

Thomas Herrmann (an experienced facilitator of Open Space Technology meetings from Göteborg, Sweden) invites participants to create a powerful meeting by presenting the four major principles of Dr Angeles Arrien’s Four-Fold Way:

  1. Show up and be fully present
  2. Tell the truth without blame or judgment
  3. Follow what has heart and meaning for you
  4. Be open to outcome, not attached

This prompted Michael Goldman (a certified professional facilitator and collaboration specialist from Toronto, Canada) to remind us of the importance of addressing the group norms. For him, ‘norms’ are ‘behavioral guidelines that concretely define how group members want to be treated by each other’. There are two types of norms:

  1. Those that speak to how we want to ‘inter-personally’ interact, for example:
    • one person speaks at a time
    • before contributing we all state our names
    • we seek to understand others by asking clarifying questions before we critique
    • and so on
  2. Those that speak to how we want to collectively ‘operate’ our meetings, for example:
    • the role of facilitator will be rotated every three meetings
    • when making collective decisions we will strive for consensus, but will fall back to a super majority if a consensus cannot be reached
    • and so on

As the group generates norms it’s important to point out ‘abstract’ or ‘value-based’ norms that tend to mean different things to each group member such as ‘integrity’, ‘teamwork’, ‘professionalism’ etc.  As the facilitator, it is our responsibility to help the group more concretely define what these words mean. For example, we might ask “imagine I walk in to the room and see our group acting with integrity, what behaviors are they demonstrating that would lead me to this conclusion?”

All defined norms need to get group consensus before approval. In addition, the facilitator needs to confirm with the group “how much authority does she/he have in ensuring the norms are followed?”  Asking for agreement to intervene when appropriate affords the facilitator (especially in high stakes, high profile, high status situations) the right to intercede when norms are broken without anybody losing face.

Ground Rules Specific to the Online Environment

Carolyn offered these ground rules for participants and conveners/facilitators.

For participants:

  • Be totally familiar with your equipment, practice with it.
  • Watch the participant list to take turns.
  • Share the microphone – stay aware of your off/on switch.
  • Personalize your font in chat if the platform allows – this makes it easier to see who is writing.
  • Be present, not multi-tasking.

For facilitating or moderating:

  • Have technical backup, human and alternative technology. Murphy’s Law prevails.
  • Engage different intelligences: voice & chat & mouse, use polls for interaction.
  • Provide materials in advance.
  • Made the agenda visible.
  • Monitor the participant list to see who’s waiting to speak, who’s typing.
  • Since there are fewer cues, ask explicitly, e.g. are we ready to move on? If you have a mix of virtual and physically present, summarize continually for the others.
  • Prepare likely text in advance to paste into chat.

Ben Warner (Deputy Director at Jacksonville Community Council, Florida) suggested two additional ground rules:

  1. Charitable interpretation. The virtual environment also poses a couple of other unique challenges. One ground rule I like is that of “charitable interpretation” — because of the mix-ups that occur when words are removed from body language and intonation, it’s much easier to get offended online. If the ground rule is established that encourages people to try to understand each other with the best possible interpretation of what they said, instead of the worst, and to ask for clarification if you can’t find a non-offensive interpretation, the discussions can avoid sinking into hurt feelings and disconnections.
  2. Privacy. The second ground rule to consider has to do with the different privacy challenges of online/virtual communication. It’s too easy to grab someone’s comment and tweet it out of context. Establishing shared expectations of what is and is not to be shared electronically outside of the forum helps free up conversation, while reminding everyone that online privacy is an oxymoron.

Varying Activities

Enriching these excellent suggestions, Harry Webne-Behrman (a Senior Partner at Collaborative Initiative, Inc. in Madison, Wisconsin) stressed the importance of varying activities and modalities in a way that encourages continuous engagement. Small group work (which Maestro Conferencing, for example, allows, see http://maestroconference.com) brings new incentives to remain engaged and ‘civil’ in participation.

Thomas agreed and described some of the simple but powerful tools he uses in virtual and in-person meetings:

  • Use a circle. We use software such as MS Live, Adobe Connect or Webex where we can use whiteboards. Participants are invited to write their name when arriving. If it’s a telephone conference I ask each participant to write a circle on a piece of paper, putting participants in an order all around.
  • Use a talking stick. If using a whiteboard it is placed in the center – so I can invite people to share ideas regarding a topic – the one holding the stick talks others are respectful listeners. When finished, are asked to put it back. This way people can talk until they are finished – and even breathe in-between!
  • Use group rooms to work in pairs and larger groups. Create rounds by sending the talking stick around or inviting sharing in the circle as mentioned above. Write together on a whiteboard or text page or use different tools for facilitating and inviting creative work.

Addressing her own questions, Cynthia suggested:

  1. As the real culprit in virtual versus in-person meetings is distraction and a sense of disconnect, it is useful to bring togetherness to the group by using the human imagination to create the perfect place to meet. Webinars notwithstanding, it is helpful to ask everyone to disconnect from any non-essential technology and imagine themselves together around a campfire, around a conference room table or in a lovely garden – whatever makes sense for the particular group. A short description of the space is sufficient. Their imaginations will do the rest.
  2. As we can’t see who is speaking or tell from body language whether someone is just pausing or finished, we need to ask that everyone state their name before speaking (“I am NAME” or “This is NAME” or “NAME”), then voice their comments, then state that they are finished (“I am finished” or “I am complete” or “over”). This may be done in all kinds of meetings, but in virtual meetings it is particularly important.
  3. When it’s time to hear from everyone in a virtual environment it is helpful to state an order of speaking (“first Sue, then John, then Carol” etc.). Participants are asked to remember who they follow. This is an efficient way to do a “check in” or do a virtual poll as well – that mimics going around the circle or going around the room.

Michael said that he used the circle in all his teleconference meetings. Always start with a ’round-robin’ structure to ensure everyone speaks then open it to a random structure – anyone can now add their opinion. He checks off every time a person contributes and calls on those who have been quiet for a while.

When NOT to Use a Virtual Meeting

Finally, Martin posted the question:

When are virtual meetings, using Skype or other software, useful and save a lot of travel time? And when are virtual meetings not so effective?

From my experience I think virtual meetings can be quite effective when people know each other well and have met in person before. But if you are only meeting virtually, such meeting can be less effective.

Colin answered:

Based on my experience designing and implementing a civic engagement program in a very diverse community, I think that they would be less and less effective as you approach portions of populations in your community that rely primarily upon door hangers or radio for community meetings, respond primarily to announcements that are in a language other than English, and do not have a significant online presence. Still, for meetings that are ongoing on the same topic (maybe it is several budget meetings and people are being encouraged to come to the series, and each meeting is designed to build on the next), an online resource can still be built to supplement the in-person meeting environment, and the in-person attendees can be invited to participate in the online environment, assuming cultural, language, technological, and any other barriers have been surpassed.

I do think there are circumstances where a virtual meeting (only) can and should be launched, for example, to take ongoing input from the public on commonly available data in a format easily understood by all. This might be something periodically announced in newspapers of various languages and available on a City’s website, for example. However, the structure and presentation should direct people to an alternate (physical location) where they can go to perform a similar or equivalent participatory / public input function in case they are unable to complete the online task.

The Key: Mindful Awareness of the Group in Progress

Perhaps the last word should go to Harry:

The basic ground rules are the foundation… lots of variations can work or become dust in the pile of ignored intentions. The key is how we actually facilitate these virtual discussions and our mindful awareness of the group in the process.

One more dimension to consider is our own bias here… in Integral Facilitation, which I co-teach with Darin Harris and Steve Davis, we emphasize the interior journey and the importance of personal clarity. Tools, ground rules, task organization, etc. are all important to be sure, but the inner awareness and clarity of the facilitator is essential. I would also refer you to Larry Dressler’s “Standing in the Fire” and the LinkedIn discussion around it about a year ago… not only applicable to face-to-face meetings, as he framed it, but to virtual discussions.

Good stuff… thanks for catalyzing it!

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Add a Comment

  1. The HR Blog | Best Practices for Virtual Communication and Meetings Says:

    […] for Human Resource Management has provided a list of nine different tips for running effective virtual meetings. Here are some you will definitely find […]

  2. James Faulkner Says:

    Virtual meetings can really become disastrous if one doesn’t use proper tools like RHUB, WebEx, GoMeetNow, gotomeeting etc. or even when you have distracted participants. The above mentioned points provides valuable information about do`s and don’t s during a virtual meeting.

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