Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 39;   September 28, 2016: Favor Symmetric Virtual Meetings

Favor Symmetric Virtual Meetings

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Last updated: March 19, 2019

Virtual meetings are notorious for generating more frustration than useful output. One cause of the difficulties is asymmetry in the way we connect to virtual meetings.
A schematic of a symmetric virtual meeting

A schematic representation of a symmetric virtual meeting. Image (cc) by SEO.

When we conduct synchronous (live) virtual meetings, we use technologies like speakerphones, bridge lines, desktop cameras, and videoconference rooms. We enhance immediacy by transmitting voices or video to all attendees. But technology isn't free, and it's far short of real life. To compromise, we sometimes gather in small clusters, and connect the clusters together. For example, three people at one site might connect via one camera or speakerphone to small groups at other sites seated in front of similar cameras or speakerphones. Or four people gather around a speakerphone, while a fifth calls in from a distant site.

Such geometries are asymmetric — attendees have unequal access to the shared environment. Symmetric geometries, such as bridge lines or at-your-desk video equipment, grant to all attendees (except perhaps the chair or facilitator) equal access to the shared environment.

Equal Access to the Shared Environment (EASE) offers advantages over Unequal Access to the Shared Environment (UNEASE). Some examples:

Technological uniformity
In EASE meetings, because all participants have equal access, we need to distribute only one set of connection instructions to attendees. This simplifies the instructions, testing, and tech support. Moreover, in UNEASE meetings, variability in connection quality between the attendee and the shared environment can place some people at a disadvantage, if they're more difficult to understand or if their connections break frequently. In EASE meetings, any non-uniformity of the individual connections is due to the attendee's method of connecting to the shared environment, rather than to the way the shared environment provides connection service.
Self-facilitation for small meetings
EASE Equal Access to the Shared
Environment (EASE) offers
advantages over Unequal
Access to the Shared
Environment (UNEASE)
makes small meetings more like ordinary conversations. Attendees often self-facilitate. Small EASE meetings are less formal, ideas flow more freely, and people get more done with less frustration.
Easier facilitation for larger meetings
Facilitating a large UNEASE meeting is, um, not easy. Special skills and attention are required (see "Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: I," Point Lookout for March 26, 2008). By contrast, facilitating an EASE meeting is much more straightforward, because it's more like facilitating a face-to-face meeting.
Simpler conflict management
Managing conflict entails either keeping constructive conflict constructive or making destructive conflict less destructive, or sometimes both. It's never simple. In EASE meetings, conflict management is simpler than in UNEASE meetings, because of reduced complications arising from the misunderstandings, frustrations, and misrepresentations that are associated with unequal access to the shared environment.
More balance in contributions
In any meeting, some individuals might dominate the give-and-take. Dominance by a few is more likely in UNEASE meetings, because some people have better access to the "virtual floor." If those people happen to be among those who tend to dominate any meeting, controlling them is especially difficult. In EASE meetings, where everyone has equal capability to gain the virtual floor, controlling the dominators is no more difficult than it would be in face-to-face meetings.

These are just a few of the advantages of EASE relative to UNEASE meetings. How many more can you find? Go to top Top  Next issue: How We Waste Time: I  Next Issue

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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When one person tries surreptitiously to extract information from another at work, an implicit interrogation is taking place. Here are seven tactics that people use to interrogate others without revealing what they're doing. Available here and by RSS on December 4.

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