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Academia & Education Community

‘Meetings, Bloody Meetings!’

Author: Angus Farr, Director, Training Counts

Published: 07 Dec 2022

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So went the title of one of the early offerings from Video Arts, the John Cleese-owned training company. Making learning available on video cassettes was certainly cutting edge back in 1976.

How times have changed.

What hasn’t changed quite as much though is our relationship with meetings. Whether we’re having them with students, with colleagues, or indeed as an academic community, meetings punctuate most of our working weeks. And we still have to put a lot of effort in to make sure they’re a good use of everyone’s time, not least our own.

Over the last three years we’ve all mastered (OK, we’ve all had to try and get used to) online meetings. Now in the brave new hybrid world of work, we have meetings where some people may be in the room and some are logging in on Teams or Zoom or similar.

Many people know exactly how to run an entirely in-room meeting and how to run an entirely online meeting. But a hybrid one?

‘Presence disparity’ is not a new concept but it’s recently been used to describe the problem with these kinds of meetings where attendees will have different experiences purely depending on whether they are physically present or not. If they’re online, so the thinking goes, they may not contribute as much to, or get as much from, that meeting as their ‘in-room’ colleagues. And that affects collaboration, creativity and productivity.

This isn’t a novel phenomenon, as conference calling has been around a while. However, it was rare to have more than one or two attendees dialling in this way.

A friend in the Big Four first mentioned this problem towards the end of lockdown. She was meeting with six or so colleagues – half in-room and half online. During the meeting, one of the in-room attendees wanted to show some slides on the screen. This wasn’t a problem, as the remote attendees could see these just as well as those in the room.

However, from that point on, because the people in the room simply couldn’t see the faces of the remote attendees anymore, the meeting started to become dominated by the in-room attendees. No wonder the online colleagues began to drift off or feel marginalised.

Over the last year or so, it’s been interesting to see what solutions different organisations have come up with.

  1. Some have big IT budgets and simply added second screens into all meeting rooms on the understanding that one screen is always ‘pointed’ at remote attendees, the other screen being for any slides or visuals. In other words, the remote attendees are always visible, even with multimedia.
  2. With a much smaller budget, one organisation I know has just put instructions into every meeting room on how to operate the PiP (picture in picture) controls. This then allows a competent meeting chair to toggle between different views on the same screen. So, you can show the slides but you can then easily revert back to your remote attendees.
  3. A more behavioural solution is to suggest that hybrid meetings are actually chaired by one of the remote attendees. In this way, their in-room colleagues are metaphorically and physically ‘looking’ to one of the online attendees to run the meeting.
  4. Another neat approach is to encourage all meetings to last less than 40 minutes. Once meetings start to stretch to, and beyond, the one-hour mark, it’s not unreasonable for people to want a comfort break. But once this happens, it’s quite natural for the in-room delegates to have side-conversations, perhaps round the coffee machine, and this of course is lost on the remote attendees. So, removing the need for a break helps ensure everyone has a more common experience of that meeting.

Admittedly, there’s a lot we can all learn to improve the productivity of meetings. As John Cleese’s video explains, it comes down to the five steps of planning, informing, preparing, structuring and summarising. As valid now as it was back then.

One organisation I was talking to about this, recognised ‘presence disparity’ but dealt with it by getting the in-room delegates to go back to their individual desks and join on their computers! Perhaps there’s a familiarity with this, but it strikes me they’re missing the opportunity to try something new and perhaps ending up with the lowest common denominator.

What do you do to make hybrid meetings a success as academics and educators?

Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas here on the Community.

Or do we need a meeting to discuss it?

*The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.
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