To make video-meetings work, force people to stay engaged

Our videoconferencing tools have been getting better, but meetings with remote video participants still don't work very well. One problem is poor use of the technology (such as a lack of headsets) which I outlined in my guide to room based video meetings. These can be worked on and the tech keeps improving.

The other big area for improvement is the discipline of the people in the meeting. The big challenge in typical meetings is that some of the participants are 2nd class. This is obvious when you have a meeting room with multiple local people and some remote users. It can also happen when people have differing levels of technology. In an ideal meeting, everybody in the meeting is on the same footing as far as their presence and ability to communicate. In addition, everybody should be as fully engaged with the meeting as if they were in a single olde-tyme meeting room.

We break this rule often. It is quite common to have remote attendees turn off sending video, or mute their audio, for example, making them be more like a TV audience than members of the meeting. It makes sense because it saves bandwidth, and people don't like being watched. We also tolerate having some people present just on the phone, while others are there in person and others are on low and high quality video systems.

If you hope for a good meeting, you also want to express that the main value of the conferencing system is to let people attend without travel. It is not there to let them attend without the same effort and engagement they would put into a meeting they did travel to. The things I describe may seem minor, and they may veto features of great convenience, but those features are actually bugs and disrupt meetings more than people realize.

Here are some principles to get around this:

No meeting room

In an ideal video meeting, everybody is on their own personal video station. There is no meeting room. This means that even if several of the attendees are in the same building, they don't go to a room, they stay at their desks and join the meeting just like any other remote.

This is obviously hard to do if the majority of participants are in the building, but it can be worth it. It also means you don't need room-based videoconferencing systems, which are expensive and don't work well. But if only 2 or 3 of the participants are in the same place, definitely consider having no meeting room. The big benefit is that when everybody has their own microphone, everybody hears everybody really well.

Today you can't have people in the same room using their own computer because they hear the other people both via their headset and through the air. Perhaps some day a smart videoconferencing system will understand that some people are in the same room (you can tell because some sounds do get into the microphones) and adjust. It would allow those who still want a physical meeting room to get the great audio and video that comes from everybody using their own computer and headset. Those in the room together would still be higher-level participants, but remotes would not be that badly off.

Headsets at all times

We have gotten seduced by how well some voip systems handle speakerphone mode in one on one conversations. Don't be fooled. They don't do group meetings well at all. They seem like they do, but quickly you realize that now everybody hears all the random noises from the location of a speakerphone user. They do things like step away from their desks to eat, chat or take a phone call, and everybody hears it. Keyboards and mice clickety-clack. Sirens go by. It's easy to ignore this in a one on one call, but it disrupts a meeting.

That's enough reason to always use headsets, but of course they also provide much better audio, and do two-way audio better as well. They put you more in the room. The quality of your audio goes by the square of the distance from your mouth to the microphone. 2 inches with a headset, 20 inches with the built-in laptop microphone, 100 times easier to get good audio and eliminate external noise.

High quality for everybody

Insist everybody put some effort into their videoconferencing setup. Aside from the headset that means selecting a location with good bandwidth. That may mean not just "doing it where you are on the gear you have" but rather arranging in advance for a nice, quiet location with good bandwidth and good equipment. It may even mean some local travel -- after all you were saved long distance travel.

This also means pushing for a wired connection, and only using wifi if there is no other choice and the wifi is very high quality. Truth is, wifi just doesn't cut it for video streaming some of the time. And in a meeting with several people, somebody will have a problem because they are on wifi.

The same applies for use of mobile data networks. Sure, they are so convenient. But they don't match a wired link.

Avoid cell phones and older laptop cameras

Aside from the fact cell phones don't have wired links, they have other problems. The screen is very small, and if you use one, you need a stand, ideally a stand propped on top of something to be at around head level. People do not hand-hold cell phones very well for video conferencing. They can't and should not focus on their own image and so it wavers or only shows from the nose up or otherwise sucks. Laptops should also be raised up -- laptop and phone cameras on stands on tables are too low and show us the view up your nose.

Older laptops came with pretty poor cameras, so external cameras are advised on those. Most newer laptops do have decent cameras -- but get them up. Yes, that makes it harder to type while in the meeting, which is a good thing.

Nobody just dialing in

People always try to dial in by phone. This is popular because it's older, well known and thus rarely has the same level of tech problems. They can't avoid but be 3rd class participants at the meeting, and it's worse if they are on a cell phone with bad sound quality. You may have to give in to this in the end if it's the only way to get somebody at a meeting, but it's better to insist they just allocate the time to be somewhere with good internet. That takes work but such is life.

In particular, the worst are people phoning in while driving. They are 4th class participants, the sound is terrible and it's probably not that safe. Pull off the road to a cafe with wifi and join for real. Or book an Uber instead of driving yourself, and have a headset and good LTE data. And perhaps get a phone case with a hook to hang the phone on the back of the headrest in front of you. Not as good as a private room with wifi, but way better than a driver on speakerphone. The Uber costs more, but if this is a business meeting, the price of the Uber driver is vastly less than the value of the time of the participants.

Improve your video station

For those who are serious, I recommend an external camera for the computer, and even more I recommend attention to the lighting. Don't have your back to a window or some lights. Consider a desk lamp behind the camera. Both of these are even better than a quality camera.

Everybody practices with the tech beforehand

Everybody hates it when tech fails for anybody in the meeting, especially if it's because that person has never used the tech before, or didn't test a new configuration. So require that everybody do that. No waiting for people who didn't prepare -- kick them out of the meeting if they are not essential until they have it working on their own.

No muting your audio or video to tune-out of the meeting

It's tempting to turn off your audio or video. Muting your audio is a must if you've broken the rule about headsets, but it makes you less engaged. In a real meeting you don't have to push to talk. People like to mute audio or video so that they can tune out of the meeting. They quickly start working on the computer and lend only half their attention to the meeting. People in meeting rooms do that to, but everybody can see them, so there is a pressure to not do it very much. That pressure is good, and should apply to remotes as well.

I also suspect that if you force people to engage with the meeting, it also makes meetings shorter. Everybody has stuff they need to do. If they can't easily do it by tuning out of the meeting, they will push for shorter meetings.

This rule can be enforced to the point that if you want to mute your audio or video, you have to temporarily leave the meeting. So sure, if you need to go to the bathroom, or step out to take an urgent call, you can do that. Then come back and show you are back.

Now you can finally use those digital meeting tools

Most multi-user video systems include some useful tools, like shared documents, whiteboards and chat, including private messages. This actually gives them a power that in person meetings don't have. It's hard to use those in "mixed" video meetings (meeting room plus remotes) but if everybody is on the system, you finally get that utility.

Telepresence robots

I have been impressed with how much of a difference the use of telepresence robots like the Beam improve a remote user's presence in a meeting room over the use of simple video conferencing. Of course, that is still designed for meetings which have a meeting room with most of the participants present in the flesh. Even so, it teaches useful lessons.

The Beam for example, has no video mute, because they believe you should really feel like you are transported, and physically present people don't have video mute. However, people are not ready for this, I have seen them put covers over the camera lens to withdraw a little from the meeting. It also has really, really good audio which is important. The ability to turn and look at things is very important in meeting rooms too.

People really do get a sense of telepresence in both directions when you have some physicality, and that makes people more engaged.


Equal access can be achieved with this:

One more button is needed to ensure engagement:

If you have a wholly virtual meeting place, it begins to look like a multiplayer game. I have no experience in that field, but I'm wondering if there is existing relevant practice.

I don't think live upstream video for all participant is necessary. But there doe's need to be some way to communicate their level of engagement. In short a newcomer has to be able to move around and quickly establish who is talking to who, and who is listening or not.

Basic rule: You are free to move around and can talk to anyone you are looking at (and concentrate your attention so that only they can hear you) but they may turn away and ignore you, or simply present their profile, or give you their full attention. you can see instantly where you are invited to join a conversation or not, or if there is someone else interested in what you have to say.

Your avatar should be able to communicate all this non-verbally; through movement in and out of veiw, direction and narrowing or widening of the gaze, perhaps some gestures in movement of the head and arms like a glove puppet.

For physical meetings , but there is also the possibility of small telerobots like animated table lamps, with picoprojectors for sharing images but in some casesperhaps the best avatar would be another human being equipped with camera and headset.

Yes, people use games, or second life, for meetings. Or rather, something not quite like a "meeting" but more a conference, where it is expected to have side conversations etc.

I'm talking about what we do when we replace a true meeting, what in the old days was a group of people around a table. Where sure, some people look at their phones and laptops or out the window, but it's obvious to everybody. The speaker knows if they are losing the room, the feedback is two-way.

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