Meetings. Around 70% of us wish we had less of them. And when we talk to people in business, the worst offender is the remote or virtual meeting. Being in different physical locations seems to exacerbate everything that is wrong with many face to face meetings, and it also brings tech challenges along with the territory.
But there’s no escape. If we're going to embrace the digital era, we need to use technology. So let’s use it wisely, to improve meetings. We're on the brink of a massive shift in how we connect over work matters, so let's not repeat the mistakes we've already made.
We often get asked for tips about running collaborative sessions and meetings by phone or video link – and our answer is: how many tips do you want? There are so many aspects to creating the conditions for collaboration and it’s rarely done well in person, let alone across the miles down a data link. But it is possible. We’ve done it ourselves and we’re confident you can do it too.
The first aspect we’re going to tackle is the visual. People need to see a ‘person’ when they are having a conversation, in order to engage the brain's social functions, so if you want a productive meeting, turn those cameras on!
Ever noticed how impolite many people are in message forums and chats? The same lack of empathy that drives this behaviour happens when you can't see all the individuals you are interacting with in a conversation. That’s because, when it comes to communication, only 7% of a person's meaning is communicated by their words. 38% comes from tone of voice and a staggering 55% from body language. So if you can't see someone, you are literally only getting half of their meaning when they speak – and that's a problem when asking people to share views, opinions and new ideas. Not to mention that people who are not being kept honest by being seen, are rarely being honest about their focus... remember that telecon where everyone swore they weren't the phantom keyboard tapper - but it must have been one of you? Let’s face it, we don't Skype in to a friend's dinner party, and we wouldn’t decline a wedding invitation then ask to listen to the ceremony on speaker phone! So, when your meetings matter, first ask yourself if they should be done in person. If that's really not possible, keep everyone focussed and raise the level of rapport and respect in your conversations by making sure you can see each other.
If there is a person who says they can't attend on camera, now matter how senior or important they are, we would suggest they don't attend at all – the cost of them attending on an unequal basis will be lower levels of group co-operation, more time to reach decisions and a lack of basic rapport. Get a group feeling going as much as possible. When attendees are based in the same location, get them a meeting room and have them dial in together. The boost to co-operation will be palpable. It can be difficult to fit everyone on-screen if using laptop-based video calling systems, so if anyone is off-camera, move the camera, or the furniture, or dial in from two devices for a widescreen view – don't let anyone be a ghost!
If you really can't use video, there are a few options to help participants see each other. For example, when using audio-only on a digital platform like Zoom or Skype make sure everyone has a profile photo so their face is on screen for others to see. If using the good old spider-phone, we like to draw pictures of the people at the other end and stick them up on the walls - or you can take a quick selfie at each end, send to the other attendees and print them out or put them up on a screen.
So if you want better remote meetings, go visual. If you allow people to speak to a blank screen, or have disembodied voices coming from a device that looks like an alien, you will have to accept the de-humanising behaviour that comes with the territory. To be more productive, get over the stage-fright, make the most of technology and go as visual as possible to build co-operation and rapport.