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02 Apr 2015

Remote Participation Tips and Tricks #2 - How to Decide Whether to Have a Remote Meeting or a Face-to-Face Meeting

My group needs to meet.  Most of us are here in Troy, with a few in other places.  No brainer, right?  Those of us in Troy come into my office, get in front of my camera, we run GoToMeeting, and the other few call in from their desks.  Why might this not be a good idea?

We all concede that face-to-face is the best way to meet, especially given all of the studies that show that phenomenal amounts of communication happen via body language.  Use any search engine to look for a specific percentage in the literature, and you’ll see results that indicate a range from 7% to 25% of communication is verbal. 

Whatever the actual number, what we are left with is that nonverbal communication is a huge piece, and it’s mostly (not completely) missing in remote meetings.  With a phone, only the tone of voice is added.  If you have video, too (as in Skype or WebEx or whatever), you get a 2-dimensional representation of someone, unless they are sharing their desktop, and unless the bandwidth is so bad that both audio and video cannot be transmitted, and unless the technology being used starts to fail, and unless…..well, you get the picture. 

So – should you have a face-to-face meeting?  Absolutely!  Whenever possible!  Is that realistic in a world with attendees in all time zones and spread far and wide geographically?  Absolutely not!  So, then, why might that GoToMeeting session in the beginning not be such a good idea?

Believe it or not, there is a growing school of thought that for every meeting, if even one person has to be on the phone/remote, then everyone should be on the phone/remote.  For example, if there is a meeting of 20 people, over several sites, the first instinct is to have groups of people meet at each site, in a conference room, and huddle around the phone.  This is the option in the first paragraph.  What happens?  With some in person and some face to face, we can chat to our own group, pass notes, send secret signals, and otherwise communicate in such a way that no one on the other end can tell.  We are, effectively, cutting one group out of a ton of communication.  And they, in turn, are doing the same thing to us. 

Try this, then.  Put those same 20 people in their own offices, and have them each call in from their own desks.  Seriously.  I have tried this and it works.  If everyone is on the phone, a couple of things happen – there are no simultaneous conversations; there are no side conversations; everyone has to take a turn; everyone has floor time; and everyone pays attention.  Everyone is on equal footing with respect to communicating, and everyone is at the same disadvantage

I know you’re thinking yeah, but then you have chat rooms, and people check their email, and put the phone on mute, and ……  Yes.  That behavior is no different in person, and that topic will be covered later.  Suffice it to say that human behavior doesn’t change a whole lot from technology to technology – we’ll have side conversations and do other work whether we are sitting in front of a person or in front of a phone.

Point is, all-remote forces all of us to use our voices and our words much more carefully; what might be a joke in person where we can see the wink, wouldn’t work over the phone, and might not even work in 2-D over a Skype call!  Similarly, all-in-person forces us to be aware of our body language – how we sit, where we are looking, who we are facing, where we are pointing, and so on.  Again, everyone is on equal footing with regard to the method of communication.  Everyone in the discussion is using the same sets of communication tools in the same way, and that goes a very long way towards having a productive meeting.

Simple guideline then – if all of your participants are physically there, face-to-face it is.  If even one cannot be there, the best solution is for all to attend remotely.  If that isn’t possible, as when RDA has Plenary meetings and the break-out sessions have one or two people calling in, then you need the next lesson – how to have more effective telecons!  Stay tuned.

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