Challenges of Virtual and Blended MeetingsJun 30, 2011
Author: Rachel Smith
A few weeks ago, we put the following question to several facilitators’ groups on LinkedIn: What are the biggest roadblocks you’ve encountered during virtual or blended meetings? (We defined blended meetings as those where some participants are face-to-face and some are attending virtually.) In the lively discussions that followed the question, expert facilitators shared the issues they have encountered—as well as some tips for dealing with them. This summary was prepared from their remarks, and our grateful thanks go to those who responded.
The groups represented here include the Organizational Development & Training Forum of Linked:HR, Training & Development, Leadership Strategies Facilitation & Leadership Community, and The Grove Consultants International.
Benefits of Virtual or Blended Meetings
It’s a testament to the positive outlook of the members of these communities that even when asked specifically to identify roadblocks, they still point out the upsides of virtual meetings. They noted that a well-run blended or virtual meeting can involve people who would otherwise be unable to attend, especially in today’s environment of geographically distributed teams. When virtual meetings go smoothly, they take less time than similar face-to-face meetings. In large or newly formed teams, tools like whiteboards and chat windows give people who might otherwise keep quiet a chance to contribute. Instead of having to speak up vocally, they can record their preferences and ideas in a way that is a little less intimidating. In some cases, the meeting can be recorded and used for archival or other purposes, although the recording should not be considered a substitute for attending; it’s even more difficult to stay engaged from a distance while watching a meeting that has already happened.
Top Challenges and Approaches
The challenges fell into three broad categories: logistical, technical, and professional. Logistical challenges have to do with the details of meeting management and are likely to be similar to challenges encountered in any other kind of meeting, no matter where the participants are. Technical challenges reflect the realities of depending on software, hardware, and connectivity that isn’t always as transparent and reliable as we would like. Finally, professional challenges are those that are related to being a facilitator and working with groups. We’ve listed the challenges below, along with some approaches that can help address them.
Challenge: There is no agenda, or the meeting’s purpose or goal is unclear.
I have actually attended virtual meetings that began with someone asking, “What is this meeting about?” Meetings that start like this rarely go well. When people come together for a virtual conference, it is just as important that they know why they are there as for a face-to-face meeting. Participants who don’t understand who else is present or why the meeting is happening will quickly become disengaged and, without the social pressure of being in the room with others, will drift away from the conversation.
- Prepare—and send in advance—a very clear agenda that outlines the topics for discussion, the desired outcomes of the meeting, and who will be there.
- Be prepared to send the agenda out again at the start of the call, as some people will not be able to find their copy.
Challenge: Not all attendees know who is present in the meeting.
Whether all participants or just a few are at different locations, it’s important for people to understand who is present. Knowing who is “in the room” makes a difference in how and what people will communicate and is an important factor in building trust among meeting participants.
- If a shared whiteboard or shared screen is available, draw a simple table and write each person’s name at a place around it. This creates a visual image of the group in a co-located space even when they are not.
- In blended meetings, leave an empty seat and make a name tent for each remote participant. Include that person in “go around the room” discussions when you get to their seat. If holding empty seats is impractical, make a flip chart list with the names of the remote people, and go down the list when you go around the room. Note that this technique helps the face-to-face attendees remember the virtual attendees are there, but does not address the virtual attendees’ need to know who else is present.
- Prior to the meeting, distribute a list of invitees and attendees, noting each person’s location next to their name.
- Ask people to identify themselves before they speak every time (unless the group knows one another’s voices very well).
Challenge: Not everyone has the materials that support the discussion.
If materials were sent too far in advance of the meeting, it is very likely that some of the attendees will not have them at hand when the meeting begins. Likewise, if they are sent immediately before the meeting, some people will not be able to have them printed or otherwise available during the meeting. This causes delays and can lead to attendee frustration and disengagement.
- Send the materials one to four days before the meeting and then refer to them, or send them again, in a follow-up email closer to the meeting.
- Avoid sending multiple versions of the same document in the days leading up to a meeting, if possible.
- Well before the meeting, ensure that all participants can open, view, and (if desired) print the materials in the format they are sent in. If not, work with them to provide materials in a format they can use.
- Some virtual meeting rooms allow materials to be posted so that attendees can download them without leaving the meeting space. Consider posting backup copies of important documents this way to avoid losing attendees who switch to email to find the materials.
Challenge: No one is actively facilitating the meeting or moderating the discussion.
It can be tempting to assume that virtual meeting room software replaces active facilitation, but it really doesn’t. Virtual or blended meetings require as much advance preparation and active facilitation as face-to-face meetings, and sometimes more. When people can’t see each other, the social dance of figuring out who is going to be in charge takes longer, wasting everyone’s time. It’s much more efficient to make it clear who will be facilitating the conversation.
- The facilitator doesn’t have to be the same person who convened the meeting. If you’ve called the meeting but aren’t comfortable facilitating it, find a partner who can help.
- At least one, and sometimes two or more, people should facilitate virtual or blended meetings. Very large groups, or groups that are clustered in several remote locations, may benefit from a facilitation team to ensure that everyone can participate. Smaller groups, or groups where everyone is joining from a different location, may require only one.
- If the meeting is taking place in an unfamiliar virtual environment, it can be helpful to have a second facilitator to handle technical issues as they arise so they don’t derail the meeting.
Challenge: No one is taking notes, or it is not clear who the note-taker is.
Any meeting worth people’s time is also worth recording in some fashion. Whether in the form of minutes, a graphic recording of the conversation, or a summary of the main points of discussion and list of action items, some record of the meeting should be kept. It is usually not necessary to capture every detail, but future agenda items, action items, decisions, and open questions should be recorded at the very least.
- Assign someone to take notes, or ask for a volunteer at the start of the meeting (or take notes yourself). Identify the note-taker verbally so that everyone knows who it is.
- Have the note-taker capture action items as they arise and review them at the end of the meeting. Make sure responsible parties are noted.
- Distribute notes or minutes promptly once the meeting has ended, with action items called out in the body of the email. If they are only present in an attachment, many people will never see them.
Challenge: There is no common meeting space or platform.
This is a very common challenge with blended meetings where remote participants are calling in on a phone line but have no visual meeting support. Remote participants can easily lose the thread of the conversation and become disengaged, especially in situations where no steps are taken to remember, recognize, and include them. Even meetings where everyone is calling in with no face-to-face component can benefit from a common focal point.
- For telephone-only conferences, make sure everyone has copies of any materials to support the discussion. Label them clearly to make it easy to keep track of which is which, and be clear about which part of a document is currently under discussion.
- Consider sending out a meeting roster with photos of the participants to make it easier to attach faces to voices.
- If possible, use a virtual meeting room. In blended meetings, have someone in the face-to-face group log in and project the meeting room so that everyone can see it.
Challenge: Some of the participants and/or the facilitator are not familiar with the platform being used.
Unless you always work with the same group of people, you will encounter this situation at some point. The range of virtual meeting environments (Cisco WebEx, Adobe Connect, Microsoft Office Live Meeting, Fuze Meeting, Elluminate, and others) offers a variety of tools and options, but also gives rise to some confusion when people find themselves in an environment they do not know well.
- As the facilitator, spend time in the meeting environment before the meeting. Run through all the tools and options you think you might use. Load any files you plan to show, and practice screen sharing (if you or anyone else will be using it) so that you understand how it works.
- Offer to give brief orientation sessions to meeting participants a couple of days before the meeting.
- If possible, have someone on hand who can answer technical questions and help attendees who get stuck. Working with a partner will allow you to keep the meeting running smoothly while your partner assists attendees in trouble.
Challenge: The platform is experiencing technical difficulties.
This will happen. I’ll say that again: this will happen. It’s inevitable that once in a while, the platform will misbehave. It’s embarrassing, but it’s not the end of the world. At least, not usually.
- Remain calm. Don’t let the technical difficulties become the focus of the meeting.
- If someone in the meeting is capable of working on the problem, ask them to do so while you continue the meeting verbally. If no one can fix the issues, apologize and move on.
- If the system is unusable to the point that the meeting cannot continue, summarize the progress so far and reschedule the rest of the meeting, or move the meeting to a teleconference line.
Challenge: Something is wrong with the sound for one or more participants.
Sound problems during a web conference happen when someone can’t hear or can’t be heard when speaking, voices are garbled, or people hear clashing echoes when someone is talking. Like other technical problems, sound issues can quickly turn into the focus of the meeting.
- Ask attendees who are calling in from their computers to use a headset. It really does make a difference for the rest of the group. When someone doesn’t use a headset, their computer microphone can sometimes pick up the output from the speakers and broadcast it back into the conference. While the offender often can’t hear this, everyone else can, and it’s very disconcerting.
- If someone simply can’t use a headset, or if their headset is of poor quality and makes it hard to understand what they are saying, ask them to keep their microphone muted unless they are speaking to help reduce echoes.
- If necessary, skip the built-in audio tools and just use a telephone for the voice part of the call. Remember that many web conference environments can’t record the audio if you use this method, though, so if a recording of the whole meeting is important, you’ll need to solve the audio issues.
- As with other technical difficulties, try to have someone on hand who can help the person who is having the difficulty so that you can keep the meeting running smoothly.
Challenge: It is difficult to keep remote participants engaged or to tell how they are feeling during a blended meeting.
When some people are face-to-face and some are not, it is very, very difficult to pay the same amount of attention to the remote participants as to the ones in the room. There is much more information coming in about the people who are physically present—their body language, expressions, movements—than about the people who are only present when they actually speak. In this situation, people who are not in the room may justifiably feel they are not an equal part of the meeting. They may feel overlooked, neglected, or even entirely forgotten. People who feel that way will not always say so; some of them will just drift off to other activities.
- Take time to describe what’s going on in the room, especially during moments when there is quiet. For instance, if you’re brainstorming a list of solutions to a problem, during a pause you might say, “We’re getting all this down on the flip chart here. It’s quite a list,” or “Everyone’s looking at the list and considering the ideas so far. What seems to jump out at you as you’ve listened, Denver folks?”
- If you’re recording ideas on paper or a white board, try to share that somehow. Tools like Skype allow you to point a laptop camera at an area of the room and broadcast it in a video call, bringing the remote people a little closer to what you’re doing.
- Setting up a web meeting environment and having a computer in the room broadcasting it can be helpful. One person can sit at that computer and serve as the liaison between the remote participants and the ones in the room, relaying information back and forth.
- Consider placing the facilitator be in a different room, so that he or she can equalize the experience for the face-to-face and remote attendees. It’s easier to enforce good virtual meeting habits if you’re virtually present yourself.
Challenge: Remote participants tend to multi-task and miss key parts of the conversation.
It’s hard to ignore that little bouncing or lit-up icon that tells us a new email message has come in, and for remote participants in web or teleconferences, who’s to know if you just pop over and take a peek? The problem is that it’s easy to get sucked in to email, or something else, and tune out the meeting. If no one appears to remember you’re there in the first place, why not?
- Make an effort to include remote participants. Go “around the room” and ask people by name if they have contributions.
- Check in with remote participants a little more frequently than ones you can see; they can’t half-raise their hand or give you other visual cues.
- Remember that even in a face-to-face meeting, people sometimes have things they have to deal with. If a remote participant occasionally needs to be caught up with what’s going on, help them out. It’s not worth embarrassing anyone to make a point.
Challenge: Periods of silence are uncomfortable and it’s difficult to refrain from filling them.
In a face-to-face meeting, periods of silence while people absorb and think about what they have been hearing are not unusual. It’s easy to glance around the room and see that people are mulling things over. In a virtual meeting, silences seem longer than they are, and there are no visual cues to let the facilitator know that people are thinking as opposed to checking email, pouring a cup of coffee, or talking to someone else while their microphone is on mute. People sometimes worry that their audio has stopped working. Thinking time is necessary, though, so it’s important to let it happen.
- Be explicit. Say, “Let’s take a few moments to think about this. I’ll wait til you’re ready,” so that everyone knows what’s going on.
- Check in with the group after a little bit: “What do you think? Any ideas or comments, or would you like more time?” Usually someone will speak up at this point.
Challenge: It is difficult to facilitate uniform participation.
It’s easy for a few vocal people to dominate the session, and it can be hard to tell when someone is dissatisfied or trying to break into the conversation.
- Call on people in a specific order to make sure everyone is included.
- Keep a list of attendees and make tick marks by their names when they participate. Call on people who have not spoken up very much.
- In situations where the meeting is attended by clusters of people at different locations, try to assign one person at each location to be their advocate. Ask this person to help maintain balanced communications at their location.
Challenge: Handling breakout groups is harder in remote or blended meetings.
This challenge is difficult to overcome without a virtual environment that supports breakout groups. If no such virtual meeting environment is available, one solution is to set up different telephone bridges for each group, and one for whole-group report outs.
- When part of the group is face-to-face and part is remote, if all the remote participants are at a single location, they can form a single breakout group.
- If not, or if it’s important to your meeting goals to mix up groups, try to include a remote participant in each of the face-to-face breakout groups if you have the technology to support that. Each group can then be responsible for including that person in their conversations.
- If it’s necessary to have the remote people form their own breakout group and they are not all at the same location, be aware that they will need extra facilitation help, as all of the above challenges apply to their mini-meeting.