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Offer People Reasons to Love Your Remote Meetings

Posted by Pete Johnson on Dec 10, 2007 |

When I first started teleworking from Dallas to Palo Alto in 1997, I was almost always the only remote person in the meetings I attended. In the past few years, though, it has been far more common to have every single person in a meeting at a different physical location. While strict Agile processes would prefer to have team members all in a room with each other as a way to promote synergy, that's not always possible. Sometimes, you can't talk that killer Ruby programmer into moving to Cleveland (or wherever you might be), and in order to accommodate that talent you have to work remotely from one another. More and more projects are utilizing talent from locations all over the world in order to solve various problems and it doesn't look like this trend will end any time soon. As such, those who master the ability to run an effective remote meeting will be looked upon more favorably by the folks upstairs who hand out rewards than those who cannot.

All remote meeting agendas are not created equal

Regardless of whether or not your meeting is remote, it's always a good practice to send out a numbered agenda with your meeting invitation. This sets expectations for what will go on, gives the meeting structure which can be adjusted as needed, and should make it clear why each person should give up some of their valuable time. For remote meetings getting these messages across, especially the last one, is even more important than it is for a face-to-face gathering. Why?

Raise your hand if you've been on a remote meeting and you weren't paying attention, but instead doing something really important like checking your fantasy football roster or getting lost on Wikipedia. I've been guilty of this myself, certainly. Would you do this in a face-to-face meeting? Of course not, it's too easy to get caught because the other meeting participants would see that your eyes are focused on your laptop screen instead of on what's being said.

(huh? oh, it's that fantasy football roster!)

With a decreased chance of facing repercussions, people are more likely to concentrate on something else at a remote meetings than they are during face-to-face ones. For that reason, you not only have to make it clear why you need them to be there with your published agenda, but by walking through the items in order and referring to them frequently it helps attendees predict when they have to pay attention.

More consciously passing the conch

Sticking to that carefully worded and organized agenda can be difficult remotely, when you have a strong personality on the phone. Without visual cues, it is harder for you as a facilitator to interrupt that person in an attempt to reign them in so they don't take over your meeting. This is not only important for keeping the agenda on task, but also for giving even quiet team members an equal opportunity to contribute.

In Lord of the Flies, the book's characters overcome a similar problem by instituting a rule that whoever has a designated conch shell gets their turn to talk. You may have to be a strict facilitator and pass a virtual conch around to all the meeting participants by allotting each individual a 5 minute window to say whatever they want. The quieter personalities in the group may waive their time, but at least the more vocal folks are limited from diverting from the purpose outlined in your agenda. Employing IM to start and stop people when using this tactic can be effective too.

Logistical challenges unique to remote meetings

Just as it can be difficult to secure the good meeting room because of that executive who hogs it all the time, remote meetings have their own logistical problems to deal with. By its very nature, a remote meeting likely involves people in different time zones. As the leader of the meeting, it is your responsibility to at least try to accommodate everyone at a reasonable local time. In cases where there are 12-hour time shifts to deal with for recurring meetings, rotate the start time so that the same people aren't stuck being inconvenienced in their personal lives repeatedly.

Depending upon how your phone systems work, it might be a good idea to secure both toll and toll-free conference lines for your meeting. If everyone is going to be in a remote office that has unlimited long distance, for example, a toll free number isn't saving anybody any money. When somebody is calling in from some place like a hotel, though, it probably is worth the extra charge for the free number.

Whatever desktop sharing solution you'll be using, send out the logistics for connecting to it (whether it be a URL, an IP address or whatever else your software of choice requires) either with the original meeting invitation or with a version you update a few minutes before the call starts. There's nothing worse than the following scenario involving NetMeeting.

[You dial in, activate the conference line and attempt to start the proceedings, when the stragglers arrive late.]

You: Hello everyone, and welcome to the meeting. I've got some slides I'd like to share so let me give you my IP address so we can all see them over NetMeeting. 32.42. . .

You: Hello, who just joined?

Dwight: Dwight here. Can you give me an IP?

You: Yes, I was about to . . .

Ryan: Hi everyone, this is Ryan. Sorry I'm late, the web site was down. Can I get the IP address for the NetMeeting?

You: Sure, it's 32.42.33. . .

And so it goes. I was once on an hour long meeting where this happened for the first 15 minutes, which made me late for the next meeting where I caused it to happen again. Save everybody some grief and time by taking care of desktop sharing logistics up front.

Desktop sharing usage tips

In the place of hooking your laptop up to a projector, a remote meeting will typically use some kind of desktop sharing software. Microsoft's NetMeeting is a popular choice because it comes bundled with most versions of Windows, making it essentially free. One side effect of using it is that in its default mode, both the meeting host and the first person to join will get the acceptance requests from every other person wishing to join the session. If either person isn't paying attention and forgets to turn on the "accept by default" option, that can cause a delay.

As a best practice, it's a good idea as the meeting facilitator to put NetMeeting into "host" mode first and to turn on the auto-accept feature a few minutes before the meeting begins to avoid this annoyance.

Also, NetMeeting has a tendency to distort the colors of the application you are sharing. What looks blue to you might appear a light green to somebody else connected to you. So when you say something like "that blue box there depicts the hydrospanner" and to everybody else there is no blue box, it can lead to confusion. Similarly, be conscious of any network lag that might be in play, causing your local mouse and keyboard motions to show your actions over the desktop sharing out of synch with your verbal descriptions.

Another good tip is to avoid sharing your entire desktop if at all possible. If that isn't feasible, turn off your email and any IM applications you might otherwise have running. I was once in a meeting where somebody not in the meeting sent an IM to the person sharing their desktop that openly disparaged one of the other meeting participants. The sender thought he was sending something private, but it was plainly seen by the target of the nasty comment. Obviously you want to avoid this or someone seeing an email subject line letting you know your subscription for an embarrassing medical condition is ready for pick up.

Finally, while NetMeeting is a great tool it is subject to capacity problems since it is utilizing your local desktop machine to do all the relaying of information to the other participants. While your mileage may vary, I've found it begins to show significant performance degradation at around a dozen participants. There are a variety of online tools for accomplishing the same thing that centrally hosts the rely on a more powerful server. Not surprisingly, I'm partial to HP Virtual Rooms, despite not being on the team that created that very useful solution.

Be a better remote meeting participant

What if you aren't running any of your remote meetings yourself, but you attend a lot of them? First, resist that temptation to do something else - be engaged in the conversation. If something of critical importance does call your attention away, send the facilitator an IM so they know your attention is elsewhere, why it is, and let them know when the distraction is gone.

IM can be used in other ways too. As mentioned earlier, you can use it to ask for interruptions. It's also great for generating side conversations with others in the meeting while something is being debated. I find this one particularly useful if I know 2 or 3 people feel the same way about an issue as I do and the group of us can agree on what to say next without having to divulge anything to the other participants in the meeting.

Finally, be prepared with whatever materials you might be asked to present. Nobody wants to see you fumble your way through your file system for that diagram you were supposed to explain. The same rules for facilitators regarding sharing your whole desktop apply here as well.

Final Thoughts

As the work force has become more global, remote meetings are more common than ever before. Being able to facilitate remote interactions without making a jerk of yourself is a key skill whose importance will only grow as we continue to work in more distributed groups.

A recap of some things to consider:

  • Distribute a numbered agenda before the meeting that clearly defines why each person's attendance is necessary and follow it during the proceedings. It's too easy for people to be distracted if they don't have a good reason to be there.
  • Without body language and facial expressions to help you interrupt long-winded people, put a system in place for making sure everyone gets a chance to speak.
  • Be clear about your desktop sharing connection logistics before the meeting starts so you don't burn valuable time synchronizing everyone once the meeting has started.
  • Don't share your entire desktop if you can at all avoid it and be conscious of color differences or lags that your participants might be experiencing as you go through your presentation.
  • Be a good participant by being engaged in the conversation, making use of IM to alert the facilitator when you do need to focus your energies elsewhere or to have side conversations about the topic at hand.

How about you? What are your best practices for running or participating in remote meetings? How much did I miss? What did I get wrong?

About the Author

Between creating one of the first web applications ever built within Hewlett-Packard during the mid 1990's and reaching his current position as HP.com's Chief Architect, Pete Johnson has worked with over 400 engineers all over the world, written technical articles for publications, presented at trade shows, and been active in HP's college recruiting efforts. He blogs about how improved non-technical skills can accelerate engineering careers at http://blog.nerdguru.net.

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Whiteboards by Deborah Hartmann

You know, I still have not had the chance to test out any of the many whiteboard apps for a real meeting. Does anyone have favourites?

This is an important topic by Amr Elssamadisy

Thanks for the article.

Unfortunately, these meeting tools annoy me much more than regular meetings do. There has to be a better way.

I don't have one. But I do notice when I run video conferences via Skype/IChat there is something less frustrating about it (when bandwidth permits). But even those don't really help with meetings much. I want to be able to see the white-board.

Has anybody used a low-tech solution for distributed meetings? (In my mind I can see a small plastic tower with 4 different screen-cams, each pointing in a different direction so that the remote attendees can see what's happening....)

yes, important topic by Yim Carfield

might be it is better to organize the article is [issue , solution] pair?

Re: This is an important topic by Deborah Hartmann

Amr, I wonder why the kind of solution you suggest isn't here already. We have had cheap hardware for this kind of thing for a while. Or maybe it's here, but we're not aware of it?

I'd love to get rid of the polycom phone... and get visual communication going. In one place I worked recently, we couldn't even run MS-Meeting! We had just the phone... we were in a locked-down environment and unable to install Meeting on the relevant PC, too much of a perceived risk. We ended up mailing pdfs and using those as visual aids.

Please, send me your articles! by Deborah Hartmann

I'd love to run an article on visual aids for remote meetings! Please, send me your abstracts, folks!
:-)
deb

Re: This is an important topic by Pete Johnson

@ Amr - Something like your "4-way cam on a cone" idea would work great as a low tech solution if there's only one person not in the room, but once you change from broadcast to multicast video, it gets pretty expensive, unfortunately.

@ Deb - I've done customer visits where environments were that restrictive, it certainly feels a lot different.

There are good solutions, but they are not cheap at all by Alexey Verkhovsky

CISCO has a product like that, for boardrooms (don't remember the name). A couple of people told me it was awesome, but for the price somewhere in 5 or 6 digits range... justified by savings in business-class travel and executive time.

Re: There are good solutions, but they are not cheap at all by Deborah Hartmann

> somewhere in 5 or 6 digits range...
> justified by savings...

Yes, Alexey, you are right: Expensive? Yes.

Less expensive than the cost of finding and resolving miscommunicated requirements? Some organizations say "Yes".

Re: Whiteboards by Kevin Tronkowski

My partners and I have to participate in a lot of ad-hoc remote meetings for both product development and support. Since we were not happy with the setup, voice integration, and desktop sharing experience with many of the free and commercial apps, we built our own called Yakkle.

Since part of the reason we created it was to eliminate many of the "Logistical Challenges" that were mentioned in Pete's post, it has allowed us to have more short, focused remote meetings with other developers and customers.

We recently released a free Beta version of Yakkle (www.yakkle.com) and hope that it can help someone to enhance their remote meeting experience.

Re: Whiteboards by Deborah Hartmann

Thanks, Ron. Who else has found a good solution to visual teleconferencing?

Re: There are good solutions, but they are not cheap at all by Pete Johnson

We (HP) actually have one too:

www.hp.com/halo/

I've used the ones we have set up at various sites and it's pretty slick. One screen for the presentation and up to 3 more for the video feed and the system is smart enough to toggle to the person who is speaking automatically.

Re: There are good solutions, but they are not cheap at all by Vikas Hazrati

We just use Skype video and audio for doing remote calls. We have LCD screen in the conference room connected to the resident desktop. We have a good mic and great speakers attached to this desktop. The other side has the same set up. This works well for distributed team meetings and iteration planning sessions. For developer to developer chat we use laptop webcams and headset mic.
The underlying carrier remains skype. Works well for us. Of course you need to have a good(~2Mbps) net bandwidth.

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