The art of (virtual) meetings

I have stopped counting the number of weeks we have been working from home. This is partly because each of us has started at different times and partly because I want to shift my focus to the Post-COVID-19 world. It may possibly be something to look forward to I guess.

I wrote last week about the future of sick leaves. This week, I want to continue the same theme of imagining what life will be like with several arrangements made possible by advanced technology being adopted in a short span of time. You may be like me who never really had any proper video-conferencing before the COVID-19 outbreak. But in several weeks since many governments across the world have enforced some forms of social distancing and lock-down measures, we have been working from home and using Zoom and other video conferencing applications a lot more than we would do before the outbreak.

In an Opinion piece published in the Financial Times on Sunday, Pilita Clark cites a report by Mary Meeker who wrote in a report that “Zoom has gone from 10m to 200 m daily users in the space of just three months.” That seems to suggest that while we have been accustomed to technology to a certain extent, a great majority of us had not used some features of the online world on a regular basis. Video conferencing is one of them. Now the majority of us are using videoconferencing applications/programmes as though we have known them since time immemorial.

This requires a lot of adjustment though. The meeting arrangements and the logic behind them differ on a sheer scale from conventional meeting. A conventional meeting in the old days usually requires a set of chairs and tables neatly set up in whatever shape the format and objective of the meeting need it to be, U-shape, oval-shape, or semi-circle. The chair will have sent out the agenda and relevant documents beforehand. With a good set of microphones, you are all set.

A more modern meeting may need a working projector, several monitors, and a few laptops to screen up the agenda and documents. The secretariat may need to be a bit more IT-literated, knowing how to switch between documents, and how not to screen up everything on the laptop screen while you are desperately looking for a website or a hard-to-find document requested by a meeting participant who just doesn’t seem to be satisfied with his/her set of documents.

Yet in this virtual world, we have not been given much time to learn the new set of skills. As a host, you will probably need to familiarise yourself with a few videoconferencing programmes. You will need to figure out whether there is a limit on the number of participants, how to invite and lock the virtual meeting room so as not to allow unwanted guests, how to screen the documents, and how to make changes to the document in real-time while everyone can properly see the markings. These still do not include the technical side of it. You need to have an internet speed that is quick enough and you probably have to come in up to an hour early to make sure that everything works.

As a participant, you cannot simply open the door and come in (and apologise if you are late). Many meeting rooms lock participants if they log in after a certain time. You will need to know how to troubleshoot if some technical glitch happens. You will probably need to juggle between different windows in your computer to be able to follow the meeting while taking notes and searching for some minute details mentioned by one of the participants on Google.

Since virtual meetings are likely to be with us in the near future, I have listed a few things that, I think, we need to master.

  1. Know your computer and the prerequisites for the meeting. Quite straightforward as it may sound, failure to adhere to the advice may result in a meeting turning to disaster. Some applications cannot run on Apple-owned operating system. Some applications require a certain amount of internet speed for the bandwidth. In this light, test runs are vital. And the downside of it is that those responsible may need to standby for the meetings earlier than the ones conducted face-to-face.
  2. Know where the buttons for ‘mute’ and ‘no videos‘ are. This is a bit tricky since different applications have different ways of controlling your audio and video. Most will allow you to join with muted microphone and no video by default. When you are not sure, it may be safe to look your best when joining. After all the tests are done, if you are not speaking, then it may be wise to mute your microphone and (from first-hand experience) if you are running low on bandwidth/internet connection, it may be good to speak without video so your voice is not choppy.

    I must say however that if you are not observing a meeting, then it is appropriate to keep your video on to show that you are present and paying attention. This also applies to online classrooms when teachers/lecturers need to see if students are present.
  3. Try to be comprehensive and succinct every time you speak. This probably should not be just for videoconferences, but indeed for every meeting of importance. That said, when doing videoconferences, when you want to speak, you need to unmute your microphone. The moderator / chair may need to give permission or call out your name. If you tend to forget things and ask for the floor a few times in a row, that might slow things up. So it’s probably best trying to be succinct and make sure that you have all points covered for the topic being discussed.
  4. Make sure that you are not going to be disturbed for the whole duration of the conference/meeting. This happens when you have kids, pets or someone else at home. By muting your microphone when not speaking can help reduce the embarrassment. But still, if it is your turn to speak and a delivery man comes knocking, it won’t look good on you.
  5. For formal meetings, keep the background plain and simple. Some applications allow you to change your background. Perhaps you are thinking of a place to go after this COVID-19 outbreak ends thus the beach background. For a formal meeting, I would think that it’s nice to pay some attention to the meeting surroundings, including background to reflect professionalism.

That’s all I can think of at the moment. It is an interesting phenomenon. Having attended quite a few, I have to say that videoconferences work quite well especially for briefings or meetings where each participant is allowed one opportunity to speak. However, jury is still out I think when it comes to more interactive meetings/conferences. I have heard of some successful cases but they clearly had gone through a considerable amount of preparations.