We are getting the hang of facilitating mixed virtual and physical groups.
We are innovating with small but significant incremental improvements.
Tick Box - created by Rawich
This group has people who attend physically, we also have people attending from all over the UK and also from Continental Europe.
Readers of this blog will know that we have tried video conferencing, and played with telepresence with mixed success.
We have come to the conclusion that the off the shelf technology (Skype) is not quite up to the task at the moment.
We still want to involve people and give them a meaningful two way communication between those present in the room
What worked this time
- We abandoned video conferencing and pre-prepared virtual attendees so they knew it would be voice only
- We used two facilitators:
- one to manage the room(F1)
- a second person managed the virtual attendees (F2)
- We used the Skype instant messaging facility for virtual members to communicate with their facilitator (F2) in the room
- At appropriate times F2 helped draw attention to comments made by the virtual attendees, then we turned up the sound on the laptop and let them speak for themselves to the room.
The benefits of this approach:
- This made the people attending vitually feel included
- The main facilitator (F1) could manage the flow of content in the room
- The backup facilitator (F2) was the virtuals’ champion in the room and as respected by everyone.
We’ll continue making improvements and will tell you how it goes..
I have been facilitating many meetings using Skype and have some observations to share:
Our experience so far is that Skype’s voice conferencing is more stable than video conferencing.
This is based on facilitating many conference calls between 5 – 15 people at any one time.
There are things you can do to make a Skype conference successful.
I thought it would be useful to condense some of our learning for you, so here goes..
Facilitation Tips for a Successful Skype Conference
- Make sure you have everyone’s Skype ID – set up a group list in Skype beforehand then you just need to make one call
- Let everyone know you will call them – If they call you – and you answer, you put the main group on hold and this can be frustrating from their point of view.
- Circulate a clear agenda beforehand.
- Set a clear start time – and don’t forget to include local times for people in other time zones
- If people arrive late, get them to text you rather than Skype you to let you know they are waiting to join – then you can add them to your conference call.
- Leaving a virtual meeting is easier than leaving a real one, so….
- Set a clear end time – If you don’t do this I’ve found that people make their own assumptions about when the meeting will end and you run the danger of people giving their apologies before the end of the meeting then you can lose control and it ends when you run out of a critical mass of people to contribute.
Tight or loose control – it’s your choice:
- If you want to control the meeting tightly then add more agenda points.
- If you want the meeting to flow more freely then just have 2 or 3 points at most
- Microphones are sensitive things, we have had all of these and more in our meetings:
- Dogs barking
- Mobiles ringing
- Doors slamming
- Landline telephones ringing, then voicemail kicking in
- Birdsong (I can live with this one)
- Postmen, delivery people arriving
- Make sure people know how to mute their microphone (and recognise when it is muted)
- You get a visual cue for who is talking, their icon on-screen has a blue halo.
- Keep a mental (or written) note of who is contributing and encourage the quiet ones to have their say
- Dont be afraid of silence, give people space to talk
- A good tip to involve the quiet ones:
- Give them warning that you will invite them to have a say after the next person.
- Some people need that time to think.
- You can get really valuable contributions this way.
- Nearly every time I have run a Skype conference someone has had trouble with their microphone
- Encourage people to use the Instant Messaging feature
- This can seem like you are running two simultaneous meetings – it gets easier to do with practise
Should you put in a comfort break?
- If shorter than one hour, no
- If longer than an hour, schedule in a break halfway through and make this clear at the start.
- Tell everyone not to close Skype, keep it open while they take a break 5 -10 mins max
Tips for helping the meeting write-up afterwards:
Creating a Skype transcript is easier than you might think.
Skype has an instant messaging (IM) function built-in, encourage people to use it during the meeting and the notes write themselves.
- We find it is very helpful when people have problems with the technology.
- In one case two people could hear us but not speak
- So I encouraged them to type comments in and we had a parallel track of conversations
- This makes for a juggling act as a facilitator keeping track of the voice traffic and message traffic but you get used to it pretty quickly
- At the end of the session before I closed the Skype window I did 2 things
- Took a screen capture to get everyone’s pictures (using the print screen key – then paste the image into the meeting notes document)
- Clicked and dragged over the message traffic text in the IM window, copied and pasted it into the meeting notes.
Ending the meeting:
- Try to keep to the end time, having a clear ending is satisfying for everyone involved and shows you respect the value of their time and, by implication, yours.
- If you are not good at monitoring the time..
- Tell the people in the conference call at the start.
- Encourage people in the conference to alert you when the meeting is close to the end.
- If you are going to overrun call a quick halt agree a new end time and stick to it.
This all works, it is based on actual experience.
I’m a fan of learning by doing so give it a go and tell me what works for you.
As the meeting ended I asked the 15 or so consultants in the room ” A good use of time…?”
Waiting for Skype to work at the start of the meeting
Nods and grins, “Yes thank you”…….. “well, er…. No!…. it was awful at the start! …
“We were supposed to start at 9:30 but didn’t get going until 10:10 – 40 mins of precious time together wasted”
That got my attention.
Well, if you ask for feedback you have to be prepared to receive it.
So what happened?….
We were being innovative with our meetings – Using Skype for telepresence, bring ing in people from Germany, Scotland and the South of England to join a room full of people.
What went well
- The microphone and speakers are a definite improvement (see Pyramids and Starfish)
- We did get 3 people joining us remotely well,… for a while anyway
What did not go well
- Skype fell over again. Despite the fact that I had signed up for the premium version of Skype
- We switched laptops,… it worked for a while then fell over again
- I had to stop trying to fix it as I was interrupting the flow of the meeting.
- This is not low bandwidth, we had a 10 Mb line
- I’m coming to the conclusion that there is something inherently unstable about Skype for video conferencing
Continuous improvement for future meetings:
- Skype works well when we are all on Skype in a voice conference
- Mixed virtual/ physical meetings just don’t work with this technology.. so I’ll give up on that, for now.
I’ll be cancelling the subscription for Skype premium
One of the things about being innovative and pushing the technology is that things don’t always work!
Thankfully we have a group of people who are highly tolerant, so we must be doing something right.
It won’t stop me trying more new things, Life is far more fun when you introduce a bit of innovation.
A cryptic title for this post. Hopefully all will become clearer..
We’ve been reviewing our successes and failures in our mixed physical and virtual meetings.
We are testing a form of telepresence in our meetings because standard video conferencing with Skype isn’t quite good enough when it comes to meetings and workshops..
- When we are all together physically or virtually everyone has a similar experience and the workshops generally run rather well.
- We continue to experiment with mixed virtual and physical meetings – and follow-up the feedback with 1:1 discussions afterwards.
- In the mixed meetings the people attending virtually feel they have a lesser experience than those in the room
- This is partly due to the richness of the communication (more on that in later posts)
- Also partly due to the limitations of the technology we are using.
- the laptop microphones are simply not up to the task of picking up sound evenly in a room of 10 – 12 people
So we have made an excursion into some new hardware (thanks to John Fisher)
We have tested a new pyramid microphone
Pyramid Microphone for virtual conferencing
I added the pack of biscuits for scale, shortly before eating them.
The next bit was to see if we could connect several laptops to one microphone and also to one speaker.
We did this with a 3.5mm starfish connector,
starfish connector for 35mm jacks for microphone and speakers
We used two starfish connectors:
- one connecting four laptops to one microphone
- one to connect four laptops to one speaker
We tested the set up with four Skype videoconference connections and it worked!
The pyramid microphone worked far better than we expected, picking up voices from a distance of 4m
There was no interference and feedback.
So, the next step is to try this all out for real at our next virtual / physical meeting in a few weeks.
I’ll let you know how we get on.
Consultants Anon is one of the groups I’m facilitating and is going from strength to strength.
It is a non-profit making organisation and designed to keep a group of expert consultants in a wide range of fields at the cutting edge of thinking.
We have people involved from all over the UK and also in Europe.
Meeting physically is an option for some but we cannot get everyone to attend each meeting due to the distances involved.
We are playing with mixed physical and virtual meetings using skype video conferencing, this is what we have found so far:
- Mixed physical and virtual meetings work well and increase the participation in the group
- We have people present in a meeting room and virtual attendees using the Skype group video conferencing facility on a laptop.
- As a facilitator I found you need to make an extra effort to mention the vitual member’s names when inviting comments as they find it hard to judge when to make a comment.
- The cameras built into laptops are ok for 1:1 conferencing but not for group conferencing
- Using external ball webcams works much better – better image resolution and the built in microphones give better sound for virtual members.
- The speakers in laptops are surpisingly good and virtual members can make themselves heard.
- The group video conferencing kept crashing on us and this was the main drawback
Our next meeting will bring virtual members in on individual laptops as this seems more stable for video conferencing.
If you are reading this from Skype please feel free to comment.
I have recently been facilitating a few virtual meetings using Skype and they have gone rather well.
For example in one meeting we had 15 people in the “room” from several locations in Europe and picked up on a few learning points I’d like to share:
- The first thing was not to assume that the time was the same for everyone, central Europe was an hour ahead of the UK and this needed to be made clear in setting up the meeting.
- If people call you on Skype while the meeting is in progress you place one call on hold while you answer the other call and this can confuse people.
- As facilitator, you can save a lot of confusion by making it clear that you will call everyone and bring them in to the meeting.
- The technology enables people to join in from smart phones such as the iPhone. This is fine but I have found that people are less likely to be aware of the background noise which can overwhelm the meeting – ask people to mute their microphone when not talking. This solves that problem.
- One of our members could not get the microphone to work. Keep an eye on the messaging facility (IM) because we brought this person into the conversation by asking questions on their behalf.
- Copy and paste the IM record into a word processor as once you have closed the virtual meeting call you will lose all messages. This helps the note taking.
- Oh and finally if you are facilitating make sure you have the latest version of Skype. you can tolerate version differences if you are a member but if you are the facilitator of the call it can cause call dropouts and interrupt the flow.