Virtual meeting - up to my ankles

In November '09 I blogged that my toes were in the water, trying out how to integrate e-communications into workshops. Over a year later and I'm happy paddling up to my ankles: using cut-down post-its, a document camera and telepresence.  I was delighted to work with a client which had installed video-conferencing in many locations in the UK and US.  We were able to run a half-day workshop for a small team who were spread over three different locations.

This is a stock picture from Teliris on wikimedia commons, but it gives an idea of what the room looked like. In addition to the large screens, the people in the 'main' room had screens in the desk where images from slide shows or the document camera were visible.

Here are some very practical lessons and tips from that experience, firstly about things you can do before the meeting begins:

  • When designing the session, keep it interactive, don't feel that you have to make it one-way just because participants are on different continents.  Consider what might cause you to alter your design.  For example, I had expected there to be at least two people in each location, which would enable pairs / small group discussion.  But in the end one of our locations was used by just one person. So I adjusted the meeting design to include quiet thinking time, rather than pairs discussion. I asked everyone to make a note of their key points, so that everyone was ready to say something in the later round robin.
  • Make sure you check the time difference between locations, and double-check it!
  • Visit the room you'll be facilitating from, and play with the equipment.  How do you enable participants to view slides or an electronic document?  How do you dial up the other locations?  What do you do if the connection is lost? How much delay is there when people speak?
  • If you're lucky enough to have a ceiling-mounted document camera, can the camera pick up writing or diagrams on a flip chart sheet or on the desk?  How big does the writing need to be? Where are the edges of the camera's vision, and do these match the edges displayed to participants in other locations? Mark the edges with masking tape.
  • Make friends with the IT / facilities team.  What works well in their experience, and what trouble-shooting tips can they share.  How do you get hold of them during the meeting?

In the meeting

Having worked out how the document camera worked, and tested different sizes of post-it and handwriting, I was able to use small square post-its to record individual contributions and move them around until we had collaboratively created a timeline of the organisation's journey to this point.

Later in the session, I recorded contributions about people's vision of the future in a mind-map which was also broadcast live to the people in other location, via the document camera.  Unfortunately one of the locations lost the feed, so we ended up with some people not being able to see what the rest of the meeting could see: an imbalance which we were unable to correct before the meeting ended.

For my own use, I made a little map of who was sitting where, and used it to keep track of who'd spoken. This enabled me to invite contributions from time to time.

This was a half-day meeting, so I built in a comfort break which everybody really needed. Keeping focussed and engaged in virtual meetings are harder work than face-to-face, I think.


In future, I'd like to work out a practical way of integrating a running record into a meeting like this.  A simple word document shared live through google doc or a similar system might work.  You would need to check that everyone could access it - firewalls might be a problem.  Alternatively, a bespoke webmeeting package with a whiteboard could be used. I'm getting experience of both Huddle and Central Desktop in different client work at the moment.