Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 14;   April 1, 2020: Virtual Meetings: Then and Now

Virtual Meetings: Then and Now

by

Last updated: April 1, 2020

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to stay-at-home orders that affect many of us, more of our meetings are virtual, and the virtual meetings we used to conduct are somewhat changed. How have they changed, and what can we do about it?
A bedroom in a log home

A bedroom in a log home. Not the ideal background for a videoconference. Check your background when you participate in videoconferences from home. Choose a location that's at least somewhat businesslike.

Many of us had become accustomed to virtual meetings, even before the COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread stay-at-home orders. But virtual meetings are happening much more frequently now during this pandemic. And there are some new twists, because these virtual meetings are unlike the virtual meetings we're accustomed to. So perhaps a review of the differences might be useful even to those who are familiar with the pre-pandemic virtual meeting format. Understanding the differences between pre-pandemic virtual meetings and virtual meetings now can help make our virtual meetings more effective.

We're now 100% virtual
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many teams were able to conduct face-to-face meetings, a format known to be far more effective than virtual meetings when humans are involved. And many members of those teams that had mostly virtual meetings before the pandemic were also able to hold some face-to-face conversations with people with whom they were co-located. So before the pandemic there were virtual meetings, but there were also face-to-face meetings, hallway conversations, and lunches and coffee breaks.
Because of the stay-at-home orders, we can no Understanding the differences
between pre-pandemic virtual
meetings and virtual meetings
now can help make our
virtual meetings more effective
longer rely on face-to-face conversations to supplement our virtual meetings. Whatever puzzles do get sorted out now, get sorted out over telephone calls or videoconferences.
To mitigate the effects of this change, team members can try to meet more regularly — if virtually — in pairs and small groups.
One person, one mic/camera
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many virtual team meetings consisted of small groups of co-located team members gathering around a single speakerphone or mic/camera to exchange ideas with other sites. Some of those other sites also consisted of small groups. Now, we're (nearly) all working from home — one person, one mic/camera.
When we had small subgroups interconnected through a virtual meeting, the members of the subgroups could converse face-to-face during the meeting. The members of the subgroups could comment to each other, or pass notes, or communicate by body language or by mouthing words. Although these interactions could be distractions, and often were frowned upon, they sometimes made the larger virtual meeting more effective. Now, all conversation usually occurs through the single channel of the virtual meeting. More of the confusions, misstatements, and unworkable ideas go through that channel before they can be sorted out.
To mitigate the effects of this change, use the chat feature of the conferencing software the team is using, if available. If that feature isn't available, try texting.
The home scene isn't the office scene
Attending a videoconference from home is a bit different from attending a videoconference from the office. The two settings differ in every way from background to lighting. In the office, the background of the shot is office furniture, computers, books — very businesslike. In the home the background of the shot could be anything from a kitchen refrigerator to a wall of family photos. Not so businesslike. And the lighting in the office is usually video-friendly. It's bright enough to make for a clear image of the videoconference participant. Lighting at home is usually subtler. Many participants appear in poorly lit silhouette.
Check to ensure that you're projecting the image you want to project. An easy way to check your image is to connect to an expired meeting using whatever meeting software you normally use. If there isn't anyone else in the meeting, the meeting software will probably show you what you look like. (This works for Skype, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom) Another approach is to connect to a meeting with yourself using a second device. It's a little more complicated to use a second device, but usually it's doable.
Whiteboard withdrawal
Especially for complex or technical issues, whiteboards are helpful communication tools. They're most effective when two or three people are working through some kind of puzzle, each person with a marker or two in hand, and everyone standing in front of the same whiteboard. Although there are tools that enable this kind of exchange in the virtual environment, it's difficult to replicate the natural flow and excitement of such face-to-face exchanges.
Most conferencing systems do include whiteboard capabilities, but if your team isn't satisfied with what you have, shop around. Search for online whiteboards. Don't assume that you must decide on a single system for everyone to use. Personal tastes and usage patterns differ.

There are many more differences between virtual meetings then and now, including the wide gulf between home printers and office printers. All these differences affect the flow and effectiveness of the new virtual meeting. Pay attention to what works and what doesn't, and be open to making adjustments. Go to top Top  Next issue: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

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More articles on Effective Meetings:

The mushroom cloud from the Grable test of 1953Misleading Vividness
Group decision-making usually entails discussion. When contributions to that discussion include vivid examples, illustrations, or stories, the group can be at risk of making a mistaken decision.
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In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern.
Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: III
When we need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, we risk giving offense. Still, there are times when interrupting is in everyone's best interest. Here are some more techniques for interrupting in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process.

See also Effective Meetings and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A spiral notebook, a pencil, and a mobile deviceComing October 28: Notes to Self
Many of us jot important reminders to ourselves on sticky notes, used envelopes, scraps of paper, and whatnot. Often we misplace these notes, or later find them too late to serve their purposes. Here's a low-tech alternative that works better for some. Available here and by RSS on October 28.
Multiple clocks, one for each time zoneAnd on November 4: Mastering Messaging for Pandemics: I
When a pandemic rages, face-to-face meetings are largely curtailed. Clarity in text messaging and email communication becomes more important than usual. Citing dates and times unambiguously requires a more rigorous approach than many are accustomed to. Available here and by RSS on November 4.

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