Let’s face it: It’s almost impossible to make remote callers feel like they’re on equal footing with people who are gathered in the conference room for the big meeting. But with some thoughtful planning, you can come pretty close.
I felt compelled to write this Communiqué after a dismal experience I had recently as a remote participant calling into a client’s project team meeting. (Undoubtedly, my work in helping organizations to plan and lead engaging virtual meetings had my antennae way, way up!) During the entire hour-long meeting, I couldn’t help feeling that I was the only one who could never quite follow the rather chaotic conversation.
Taking the perspective of a frustrated remote participant, I offer eight tips for people who plan and run “hybrid” meetings, consisting of people who are gathered face-to-face and those who join from afar. Here I am assuming that the meeting planners are using WebEx and phone conferencing, but these tips can apply with almost any kind of virtual meeting set-up.
- Tell me who’s there. Even though WebEx may show who’s calling in (assuming people have dialed in using the WebEx system), keep in mind that someone who calls in another way may show up simply as caller #3. And for those of you in the room, sometimes we have no idea who’s there, especially if people come and go. Even though it may take a minute or two for a verbal roll-call, please realize how important it can be for those of us on the phone to know who’s seated at the table, and who’s not.
- Say your name before speaking. This applies to all participants, whether on the phone or in person. If Mary has dialed in through the WebEx system, I can see when she’s talking by the green phone icon on my screen. But please don’t expect me to remember that Mary is caller #3. For people in the meeting room, unless your are completely confident that your voice is familiar and distinctive to all, please don’t assume we know who’s speaking, especially if you’re sitting far from the microphone. Even if 95% of the people may know your voice, please identify yourself for the sake of the other 5%.
- Make sure I can hear you. Some people are blessed with naturally resonant voices that require little extra amplification. But most people need microphones of some sort to make sure that everyone can hear them clearly. If you’re seated in the room, make an effort to get close to the microphone when you speak. Otherwise, I will end up asking you to repeat your point, and you’ll only end up having to move anyway, or someone closer to the mic will have to do it. Either way, it chews up time and makes me feel frustrated, especially if it happens a lot. Or maybe I’ll just give up trying to hear everyone, put myself on mute, and get back to email.
- Remember that I can’t see what you’re seeing in the room. You may be showing one slide on our WebEx screen, but those of you in the room may be commenting on something else you’re looking at, such as a handout, flipchart, or another slide. If your conversation veers to something other than that which we can see in our online conference area, please let us know what you’re referring to so we can follow the thread. Better yet, post all documents we may need to discuss in our online conference area in advance, so that we’ll all be on the same page, literally.
- Give me different ways to participate in the conversation. If this is a big group with a lot to say, I may never get a word in edgewise until it’s 10 minutes after the original point was made. If you’re using a web conferencing tool like WebEx, be conscious about the need to invite people to comment and ask questions, or to respond to questions or polls every so often. If I speak a different native language or need time to reflect before I speak, it’s especially important to give me ways to participate other than verbally. And I really hate feeling like I have interrupt someone else to make a statement.
- Cut out the cross-table conversation unless it’s meant for everyone. When I hear snatches of conversations, I become confused. Did I miss an important point? Was I the only one who didn’t hear? Was this a private conversation among a few people in the room, not intended for my ears? Please remember that those of us calling in have no idea how to interpret your conversations across the table. If you must have side conversations, please stop to explain what just transpired so we all feel equally present (e.g., “John just asked Carol if she needed a copy of the report.” Or “If you heard a big sigh, that was Maggie when she saw the size of the slide deck.”). Better yet, eliminate all conversations not intended for everyone.
- Don’t forget about me. Even though you can’t see me, I am very much at the table, wanting to feel as an equal participant in the conversation. Ask me what I think from time to time, preferably right up front, rather than waiting until the end, when everyone seems to suddenly remember I’m on the line. (I am far less likely to drift off to my email if you work hard to find ways to keep me actively participating. The reason I usually drift off is precisely because I feel like my opinions and questions aren’t given the same regard as those in the room.)
- Minimize the time my active participation is really needed. Do I really need to stay on the phone for your entire four-hour meeting, or can you arrange the agenda so I am there when it really counts? If I feel like it’s a good use of my time to listen at times I don’t need to actively participate, please let me decide. But do let me know at what junctures I need to be actively involved, so I can plan accordingly. (I have a ton of work to do, and I am not one of those people who thinks she be doing other work while half-listening to another conversation. )
Hybrid meetings are a necessary evil for most virtual organizations. To create a perfectly level playing field, everyone needs to participate exactly the same way, either in the room together, or with everyone joining remotely. But in reality, there are times when that simply can’t happen. Creating a meeting environment where remote callers feel like equal participants requires considerable thought and special skills. But as a result, you’ll get more done in less time when everyone has an opportunity to contribute their best ideas.