Can You Hear Me Now?

Feb 12, 2011 3 Comments by

A lot of companies use online meetings as a way to save travel costs and time. But as many of us have experienced – online meetings are not always as effective as face-to-face gatherings.  In fact they suffer from some very serious deficiencies if they are not carefully organized and well facilitated.

In today’s post I will share some of the ways that online meetings differ from “the real thing” and how those differences can lead to problems. Over the next couple articles I’ll introduce some ways to make these tech-based meetings more effective.

Before starting into the list of tips, let’s review a few reasons why teams have meetings.

Among other purposes, meetings are often used to:

–       Conduct dialogue and share ideas

–       Make decisions as a group

–       Validate or approve recommendations made by others

–       Share status information

–       Solve problems

–       Gather feedback

–       … this list could go on for a while, but here’s my point…

Notice how most of the goals we have for meetings are quite dependent on the participants interacting?  That’s where online meetings start to run into challenges because the very nature of the online process makes it harder for people to effectively interact.

It Gets Worse: Here is an ominous list of 13 ways that online meetings are different from face-to-face meetings:

1. No Line of Sight: Attendees obviously can’t see each other, so you’ll have to rely more on direct verbal communication. You may think that video is the answer to this dilemma, but it can be very difficult to read the digital faces of 9 distant people in those 9 little pop-up windows. Unless of course you are at the Pentagon or the United Nations where the video screen is 21 feet across.

2. Lack of Non-Verbals: Non-verbal cues such as body language are completely lost (head nods, raised hands, scowls of disagreement, etc.). While these elements of communication rarely show up in the meeting notes, they contribute greatly to the flow of a meeting.

3. It’s Hard to Draw a Picture: Often we have limited means to express ideas graphically – as we would on a conference room whiteboard.

4. People Multi-Task: Or at least they think they can. In online meetings, it is almost impossible to prevent people from working on other work during the meeting.

5. Distractions Abound: It’s easy for distant attendees to be distracted by other non-work activities such as cleaning their desk, streaming You Tube videos or babysitting their nephew.

A friend of mine told the story of calling into a meeting while furniture shopping. She was a bit embarrassed after she forgot to mute her phone and blurted out: “That is the ugliest #%^$@ couch I have ever seen!”

6. Please Don’t Tell Us What You’re Really Doing During Our Meetings: It’s hard to tell for certain if distant participants are paying attention. There is no easy way to bring them back in. (as you might be able to do with a quick shot of direct eye contact in a face-to-face encounter)

7. Handout Hiatus: Paper copies of the materials needed to conduct your business are obviously not going to work. Even if you send things ahead electronically, it’s much harder to keep people “on the same page” if they haven’t either printed or opened up the attachments beforehand.

8. Let’s All Stand Up and Stretch: Activities that involve engaging people physically – such as team-building exercises or break-out discussions – are nearly impossible.

9. Hey Buddy, Can you Spare a Web Plug-in? Technical issues can derail web mtgs – especially in the first few minutes of your time block as people load drivers and web plug-ins and connect through VOIP and conference call numbers – sometimes you can lose a portion of your meeting time waiting for people to just get “into the room”.

10. Can You Hear Me Now? In the worst examples, the quality of audio in the online environment can be utterly awful. In the best cases, it is at least inconsistent. Different people use different phones and the worst phone in the bunch can set a low baseline for the quality of the entire conversation.

11. Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Background noise can be a problem at any location – especially for those attending from non-traditional locations such as home offices or airports.

12. Online Meetings Can Lack a Clear Flow: All of these factors when together can make the productive rhythm of an online conversation hard to maintain.

13. Online Meetings are Still Meetings:  And of course online meetings face the same challenges that regular meetings face (disorganization, lack of focus, etc.). Any meeting without an agenda is doomed to wander. Any meeting without a clear purpose is destined to be challenging.

When taken as a whole, these factors make it very hard for online meetings to be effective!

But the task is not impossible.  In my next article, I will share some tips that you can leverage to make your online meetings as successful as your face-to-face events.

-Steve

Questions for Chatter:

  1. What other challenges have you faced when participating in online meetings?
  2. How about in your organization – do the benefits of meeting online outweigh the tangible and intangible costs?

Incoming search terms:

  • old telephone

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Team Dynamics

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3 Responses to “Can You Hear Me Now?”

  1. Effective Global Teams – Conference Call Etiquette | Catapult Systems says:

    […] also encourage you to read Steve Chihos’ excellent series of posts on this topic at theBigRocks of Change. He has many more tips about how to make online meetings […]

  2. Kevin Rutkowski says:

    I find participating in a meeting remotely is especially difficult when most of the meeting participants are in one room and one or two participants are remote. The people in the room tend to forget the people on the phone.

    They have side conversations that can’t be heard by the people on the phone. They don’t talk loud enough for their voice to be picked up by the phone. They draw on the whiteboard in the room, and the remote folks can’t participate. Then, when the remote person tries to say something, the people in the room often ignore the voice coming through the speaker-phone. It definitely takes a conscious effort on the part of everyone in the room to engage the people attending remotely.

  3. Tweets that mention online meetings -- Topsy.com says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Vern's Attic, chihos. chihos said: Read today's fresh post on what can go wrong with online virtual meetings http://thebigrocks.com/virtual_meetings/ #pmo #sap #leadership #HR […]

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