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Can Remote Meetings Be Better Than Face-To-Face?

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by: Scott S. Elliott, Principal and Founder

In technology business, if you want to communicate clearly and collaborate fully, then you have to meet with your collaborators face-to-face, right? Well. . .maybe not anymore. Today's internet and telecom collaboration tools can be extremely effective in allowing technical and business collaboration - and even offer some advantages over face-to-face meetings.

We have all been victims of the "normal" group teleconference meeting. It goes like this: One group gathers in a conference room with a speaker phone and perhaps a PC projector. Another group assembles in a second, distant conference room - also with a speaker phone. Several members call in from their home offices or a hotel or an airport. At least one person is calling from a mobile phone while driving.

These meetings leave much to be desired. The people that are not in the primary conference room are second-class citizens. They cannot hear very well - especially those people with low voices away from the microphone - they cannot see the body language, the slides, what is being written on white boards, or who is doing his email or sleeping. How can we expect to get their brightest thoughts and ideas? These experiences are what make people feel that they have to travel to meet face-to-face to get real work done.

PCs and personal internet tools now make it possible to have a much better and richer experience, from one-on-one to many-on-many meetings and collaborations. Here is how:

  1. Abandon the speaker-phone conference room. Put everyone on the same footing. Insist that each person is in a quiet place in front of a workstation (PC) with a good headset and a "do not disturb" sign. Do not allow mobile phones in airports or cars.
  2. Use one of the many excellent web-conferencing tools such as GoToMeeting or Webex to name a few. Make sure each participant preloads any needed software and knows how to use the tool. Training sessions may be in order.
  3. Send out an agenda in advance of the meeting with times, speakers and discussion leaders named. Also send out soft copies of all the materials to be discussed in advance so that people have them in case of technology problems. If needed, preload any slides or other materials on the web conferencing server.
  4. Assign a Meeting Facilitator to keep everyone on agenda and to monitor the attendees for electronically "raised hands", chat interrupts, etc. The Facilitator should also limit the more assertive people from monopolizing the discussion and draw-out contributions from shy attendees. Note - it is usually better to have a Facilitator who is not the high-ranking manager who called the meeting.
  5. During the meeting, encourage participants to draw on the electronic "white board" as they speak - drawing like this can be better than body language for getting points across.
  6. An assigned Notetaker should be taking notes during the meeting. These notes should be visible on the screen to everyone as they are taken - like flip-chart notes in a physical meeting. At a minimum, any decisions or action items should be documented as they are made.
  7. Leave time at the end of the meeting to go through the decisions and action items. The action items should have a commitment from the person responsible and a time frame or due date.
  8. Shortly after the meeting, summarize the decisions, action items and other notes taken and email them immediately to all participants and other stakeholders.

Since the participants typically cannot see one another, this kind of meeting needs rules:

  • Everyone should agree to actively participate, no sleeping, doing email, surfing the web, etc.
  • Rather than jumping in vocally, participants should use the web conferencing tool's "hand raising" or text chat feature to interrupt with a question or point.
  • If there is background noise somewhere, that person should mute his/her microphone.
  • Take a break at least once per hour to allow bathroom trips, snacks, and stretching. An hour is a long time to sit with a headset on.
  • Keep to the agenda. It is a good idea to have a visible "Parking Lot" text area on the screen to track off-agenda items that may be urgent or important.

So how can this type of meeting be better than a face-to-face physical meeting? There are several possible advantages. One is that it limits the side conversations and keeps the attendees focused on the main topic. Secondly, if conducted properly, the meeting is self-documenting. The attendees see the notes as they are taken and can correct the Notetaker in real time if there was a misinterpretation. The various electronic "whiteboards" used, or other shared materials, can also be captured and sent as documentation. Everyone gets the notes immediately after the meeting in a Wiki or other shared digital space.

This kind of electronic meeting also lends itself well to collaboration on documents or designs. Written documents or spreadsheets are easily shared and edited in real-time. There are also excellent software packages for collaborating on mechanical or electrical designs, allowing rotation of the design, mark-up, etc.

One problem with any kind of remote meeting is that it is difficult for workers to gain a mutual understanding of their co-workers personal styles and cultural differences, especially across language and national barrier.. Of course it would be best to meet face-to-face at least once to try to bridge these differences. But in the case that physical meetings are not possible or practical, cultural barriers can still be crossed with the right kinds of collaborative, remote meetings. We have seen "teamwork building" remote meetings, following the format above, that really work. Some suggestions are to invite each participant to submit a funny picture of him/herself and tell a biographical story. Participating in an on-line game together also gives the group the sense of style of each participant.

In summary, investing in good practices for remote collaboration and meetings can save you and your staff much money, time and energy that would be lost to travel. The results of well-run remote meetings can be as good or even sometimes better than face-to-face meetings, and vastly better than "speaker-phone" meetings.

12 comments

  • Comment Link Brian Holder Monday, 28 January 2013 20:22 posted by Brian Holder

    There are some good take aways from your post. I tend to agree this process is better than the old speaker phone teleconference routes. Since reading I finally elected to try something else (takes an effort to move away from teh old ways and implement something new). Last meeting we used ScreenConnect to conduct. Had questions and answer afterwards. Did a survey form ~10 employee of whether they prefered this method. Seemed like the majority favored. Will have to go by meeting as to what method should be used.

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  • Comment Link Roy Kell Wednesday, 02 November 2011 20:47 posted by Roy Kell

    Scott:

    While I do find these meetings more convenient and certainly less time consuming, I do believe that the dynamics that are missed in face to face meetings can sometimes be as important as the actual dialog and data presented. I think they can be a good supplement to face to face meetings, but not a replacement for all face to face meetings. ;-) I never thought I would be a student of the "soft science" of things like body language, but it can be invaluable to determining how effective the communication has been.

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  • Comment Link Charlie Rothschild Thursday, 20 October 2011 03:00 posted by Charlie Rothschild

    Scott: great article. I spend up to 3 to 7 hours a day using these tools. The latest versions of GoToMeeting and WebEx both support multiple webcams (6 or greater in real time), and it makes a tremendous difference. You can see the expressions on people’s faces, and catch much of the body language. It also has the advantage of not allowing people to multi-task – it becomes visible to all. Another subtle but important difference when you use the computer audio – the bandwidth is higher, thus it is easier to understand the other folks, especially for those where English is a second language.

    Remote meetings will never replace face-to-face, where the informal time (such as group eating and drinking) builds relationships, but remote meetings do a great job in connection with some face-to-face meetings. I try to get my teams face-to-face twice a year, and a minimum of once a year. Teams that collaborate well, especially remotely, do it because of the personal connections.

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  • Comment Link Peter Hoberg Tuesday, 18 October 2011 12:21 posted by Peter Hoberg

    Thanks for these guidelines Scott. It is a great reminder. It seems like business travel has a lot of wear and tear on people, in addition to being expensive. Effective remote meetings can certainly help. This week I am at an annual trade show for the solar industry. It is great to see customers, suppliers, and industry leaders at this type of event. I do wonder though whether the millions of dollars spent by companies to be here could be better spent elsewhere!

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  • Comment Link Frans Rutten Tuesday, 18 October 2011 09:06 posted by Frans Rutten

    The assumption that remote meetings are better due to the self-documenting nature of some technologies is completely true. It depends on the meeting organizer if he/she is documenting, facilitating, time-keeping, having an agenda, etc… F2f and remote meetings can both be run good and bad; the remote technology is only adding another layer of complexity, which makes it even more imperative that the meeting organizer is a skilled professional.

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  • Comment Link Frans Rutten Tuesday, 18 October 2011 09:03 posted by Frans Rutten

    Too many companies think you can do everything via telephone, which is not true. A team only works as a team when there is “emotional money in the bank”, e.g. trust, respect, know the person beyond the pure task/professional domain… This means that any project or program should start with a F2F kick-off meeting with at least a dinner as teambuilding, after which the project/program/team follow-up can happen very well through teleconferencing. Even seasoned teams, who know each other for years, but who haven’t met for a few years, demand a yearly F2F to recharge the emotional bank account.

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  • Comment Link Andrew McCaskey Tuesday, 18 October 2011 01:11 posted by Andrew McCaskey

    The new systems with HD video (Google+ Hangouts or GoToMeeting HD Faces) solve two issues - you can see who's engaged and participating not doing email, and a highlight frame shows who is speaking.

    The formal role of Facilitator (who is not the tech person and is not the senior manager) is still crucial.

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  • Comment Link Ed Mattingly Monday, 17 October 2011 20:27 posted by Ed Mattingly

    Great article! As you state there are many benefits to virtual meeting IF well constructed and managed. You have provided a sound structure and set of best practices. If available, I also recommended the use of video, especially for the person presenting or addressing questions. This provides some of the non-verbals you mentioned and keeps folks more interested.

    In addition, many of these tools such as Webex allow the facilitator to see who is doing other activities on their PC such as email. Just the mention of this capability by the senior person along with meeting expectations will reduce the alternate activity greatly.

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  • Comment Link jeffrey harkness Monday, 17 October 2011 16:30 posted by jeffrey harkness

    One of the main reasons I like these meetings is that they don't get called for nonsense reasons, and tend to be very time efficient. People ususally don't like to putt around and will get right down to business.

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  • Comment Link Scott S. Elliott Saturday, 15 October 2011 23:45 posted by Scott S. Elliott

    A few people have made the point that it is difficult to keep remote attendees from "tuning out" while they do their e-mail, surf the web, or other activities since nobody can see them. While true, the problem exists even for physical meetings when people bring their laptops.

    The best solution is to keep the meetings to the point and invite only people that really need to be there with some contribution. Poll those people often, and excuse anyone who has finished contributing.

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Email: scott.elliott@techzecs.com
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