We make it work of course and technology helps quite a bit. Sharepoint, video-conference, Skype, shareable documents. But it always feels like something important is missing.
Best practice for virtual meetings is the same for meetings when everyone is physically located in the same room, just amplified. An agenda, roll-call, creating space for people who are calling in to the group meeting to participate. Too often, these simple practices go unfulfilled and it is just plain awful for the single person calling in on their cell phone to a group meeting. The group forgets there are people on the phone – there are side bars, shuffling, unexpected laughter- and it’s hard to follow along.
I spent some time in Bangalore on an expat assignment and called in to a weekly meeting in Chicago. Because it was evening my time, I asked for the meeting to be moved to 8am CST – an hour earlier than the normal time – for the duration of my trip. It still meant I was calling in at 7:30pm but it was better than the alternative. I had put in a full day’s work when the call began but I was excited to be talking to my colleagues and friends. I soon discovered how important those best practices are.
People would shuffle in as late as 8:15 for a one hour call and then complain about the time or the late trains or tell endless stories about their kids’ recitals. It made me feel a little guilty and a lot annoyed.
I never forgot that feeling and try to go out of my way to ensure that everyone on the call feels included, even if that means I have to halt the conversation in Chicago to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak.
For years, we’ve held global video conference calls for our all-staff meetings. It’s a nice way to remind everyone that we are a global team, to see each other’s faces and to promote team spirit. But these are directive meetings with a formal agenda and a series of presentations.
So I tried something different. A business partner held 15 minute “hot topic” meetings every Monday morning for their global team. They were quite popular and I adapted the idea to create a format called “Global Roundtable”.
Since we don’t have Skype at work, we used a simple conference line. The only rule was everyone had to call in separately – no one was to gather in a meeting room and then call in. It wasn’t a mandatory meeting and there was no agenda; we just talked about what was on people’s minds. I occasionally had some questions to provoke a dialogue – what should we be measuring in our monthly scorecards? Were the service level agreements recently implemented changing how we consulted with our business partners? But really, I didn’t need to. Once the dialogue started, people were off and running. They felt comfortable asking me questions and then soon they were riffing off of each other’s points. It was a rich and lively discussion and an hour flew by.
Team members from Singapore, London, Bangalore and Chicago were all chatting away as if we were sitting in a coffee shop together and it was awesome. We’ve kept them going and they are the most popular communication forum we have.
So why did that forum engender the best dialogue we had had as a team? I realized it was because there was no “nexus” – no central point or headquarters where the majority of people were sitting and the rest felt like they were calling in to the “main location”.
Sometimes people would “cheat” and get together in a meeting room in one location and it was always obvious when that happened. Like a dense star, the group emitted a stronger gravitational field and started warping the conversation. We naturally react more to people we can see during a conversation and unconsciously begin neglecting those we can’t see.
When we were all blind, we were actually more responsive to each other, allowing everyone to have the space to speak and work out arguments.
If you’re looking for a way to recreate the “hallway chat”, I highly recommend experiementing with the ‘Global Roundtables’. I guarantee that these will bring out some of the most interesting ideas and lively debates your team will experience. Quite a few innovative ideas have emerged from these chats and the diversity of thought has strengthed our practice greatly.
When there is no center, everyone becomes the center. And the personal connection is priceless.