Our guest post today is by Dr. Sarah Gallagher and details important guidelines for hosting effective remote meetings. Dr. Gallagher (@scgQuasar) is the Science Advisor to the President of the Canadian Space Agency and an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.
Research groups and committees with members from different institutions or offices are meeting via videoconference increasingly often. Remote meetings save time and money and have a smaller carbon footprint, but if done poorly, videoconferences are significantly less effective than face-to-face meetings. In particular, remote members who aren’t able to hear what’s happening or follow the visuals can become exhausted and frustrated, which inhibits engaged, informed participation. Below are some best practices to set up videoconferences as well as recommendations for interaction protocols to retain the benefits of the in-person experience as much as possible.
The recommendations below assume a common setup where an institution (the host) has an in situ group of several people (3 to 15) and additional members are connecting remotely via laptop and/or telephone.
1. Use good software and invest in the professional version
My favourite is Zoom. I’ve had good experiences with Bluejeans, and both good and bad experiences with Webex. Do not use Skype: it’s not reliable enough. The software should have screen sharing, computer audio and video enabled, and allow for telephone call-ins (preferably with a toll-free number.) The host should have a wired connection and be aware that remote participants may not. All participants must first give their permission if the meeting will be recorded.
2. Build in communication redundancy
Assume that someone will encounter a problem accessing the video-conference system at some point and therefore will need a backup way of communicating, such as texting. To minimize delays, distribute a list of each participant’s email address and cell number in advance so there are alternate ways to communicate within the group. This is particularly useful for remote participants to check in with each other if one of them loses audio or screen sharing becomes too low resolution to read. Live, collaborative note-taking is also useful, particularly if a document needs to be produced following the meeting. My favourite is Google Docs because documents can be accessed directly by participants with a browser and therefore don’t require the videoconferencing software to share.
3. Set up the host conference room with the remote participants in mind
Ideally, a dedicated videoconferencing room should be set up with a camera that can see the whole room and a quality microphone that will clearly pick up the audio from the in situ participants. Quality external speakers are also required. (A large in situ group requires more sophisticated audio equipment such as distributed microphones in the conference room that can be individually muted.) If you have limited resources, invest in the audio equipment first. A camera located close to a large screen with the video feed and any visual presentations will create the most natural experience for the remote participants. A single laptop in front of one of the in situ participants or located in a corner of a conference table DOES NOT WORK, and creates a horrible experience for the remote participants. They generally can’t hear anyone except the person in front of the laptop, and they can’t see most of the in situ participants.
4. Consider time zones when scheduling the meeting
A meeting with participants in three to five adjacent time zones can be scheduled within typical business hours for all parties, between noon and 5:30 p.m. in the easternmost time zone. A meeting with participants in time zones further apart (e.g., Beijing, Toronto, and Paris) means someone will be calling in outside typical business hours. While many people don’t have too many conflicts at 2 a.m. (other than sleeping), insufficient sleep can ruin productivity the following day, and is an imposition on your participants. If this has to happen, then the pain should be distributed so that the people in a particular time zone are not the ones who are always calling in at awkward hours.
5. Schedule regular breaks and keep to the schedule
Remote participants are likely busy with other responsibilities and have only allocated the time scheduled for the meeting to participate in it. The host is not providing them with snack breaks or lunch, but should respect that they need both and stick to the schedule. It can be physically uncomfortable to sit in a chair and stare at a screen for hours. Breaks should be scheduled at most every 90 minutes to allow people to stretch their legs. The videoconferencing system should also be left on during breaks so remote participants can join in with casual conversations if they so choose.
6. Minimize presentations to maximize discussion time
The value of having everyone in one (virtual) place at the same time is the opportunity to develop relationships and discuss the issues at hand. I’ve participated in many advisory meetings where we were bombarded by hours of overly detailed and often redundant presentations because the presentations were not coordinated and the presenters all went over their allotted time because of ineffectual moderating. All visuals and supplementary material should be provided to the participants at least several days in advance. This allows remote participants to use the downloaded slides in case there is a problem with the screen sharing video feed (e.g., it cuts out or the resolution is too low), and also allows participants to review materials in advance so less time can be spent presenting them. Slides should all be numbered with the full name, title, and contact information of the presenter included. Twenty minutes should be considered the maximum time allowed for a presentation. Presentations can be shortened by using a reduced set of big-picture summary slides and including backup slides with further details that can be shown for questions and discussion as needed.
7. Be respectful of the newbies
Invariably some members of the committee will be new. This means they don’t know everyone already, can’t recognize people’s voices when they start talking, and they have no idea who “John” is (and there will likely be two Johns). These are important reasons why videoconferencing works better than teleconferencing for remote meetings. Start with a round of introductions and when each person speaks (at least for the first few times), they should state their name and affiliation. Refer to people not present in the meeting by both first and last names with a frame of reference (e.g., Janelle Monet, Director of Programs), and minimize the use of acronyms without definition. The goal is to bring everyone up to speed quickly with sufficient context to participate fully in the discussion.
8. Moderate the meeting and establish videoconference etiquette at the outset
In general, it works better if the Chair (who may be remote) is not also managing the logistics of the meeting. An in situ moderator should be appointed to set up the meeting and manage the connections, etc. Testing connections prior to the start of the meeting is a good idea, particularly for people using the system for the first time. At the start of the meeting, the Chair or moderator should state the expected etiquette, including the recommendations in point seven. In addition, remote participants should mute themselves when they are not talking to minimize background noise: even paper shuffling and typing can be distracting. Headphones help reduce echoes. The in situ moderator should monitor problems such as audio dropping out or poor camera sightlines. It’s useful to have private chats enabled so remote participants can inform the moderator when there are problems without disrupting the meeting. For larger meetings that require a more formal structure, participants can virtually “raise their hands” and the moderator can call on people in order. This gives everyone an opportunity to contribute without interrupting each other; it can be particularly difficult for remote participants to cut in and be heard.
These best practice guidelines were specifically inspired and informed by my experience on several advisory committees that evaluated the performance of and made recommendations to institutions that serve scientist user communities. Poor videoconferencing implementation has a negative impact on the experience of the participants and can make serving on such committees inefficient and frustrating. Institutions that respect the time of members (who are generally experts volunteering their effort) and optimize their experience will obtain the best advice.