No longer is it a special case for companies and their teams to find themselves in a meeting with participants who aren't sitting (or standing) in the room with them. It's critical for clients and stakeholders to be involved in communicating and coordinating with external partners. Teams are often distributed or they have individual team members who work remotely.
Since I'm a remote employee who is a part of a local Scrum team at //SEIBERT/MEDIA, I have a lot of experience in this area which I'd like to share with you in this article.
There are various hurdles that come with remote participation in meetings, and this is further amplified based on the number of people you have in your meeting and the size of the room where the meeting is being held. The larger a meeting is, the more difficult it tends to be to coordinate communication between multiple locations.
One on one
The simplest remote meetings are video calls between two people. Each participant uses a laptop or a tablet, they agree on any number of free to use video chat services and, voila. It's that simple. It's clear that notebooks and tablets are designed exactly for this purpose: they each have cameras and microphones that are centrally located on the hardware, delivering good picture and sound quality.
It's no wonder then that so many quick meetings are completed using such video chat tools.
One of the particularly important features of video chat software is that they utilize a split screen display. In my development team, we use video chat software for smooth, efficient remote collaboration; whether it's working together on a document, discussing prototypes, or coordinating design quality assurance.
Many of the video chat software solutions on the market today offer a multi-chat feature, meaning that any number of remote users can participate in such meetings with their devices.
In our software team, we tend to have a lot of meetings as part of our Scrum process. Daily Stand-Up, Planning, and Retrospectives are all examples of typical team meetings that involve up to ten participants, all sitting around a table or standing in a circle.
Depending on the size of the table, a normal notebook will eventually reach its limits with regard to sound and picture quality. Most built-in cameras lack a wide angle lens, and as a result they only end up capturing part of the participants in the room. You might be thinking that a possible solution is to position the laptop further away from the participants in the room, thus capturing more of them; but this presents another problem, as when people sitting more than two meters away from a laptop they are often difficult to understand.
We can fix these problems with external hardware. The first step is to install a portable webcam that can be positioned so that all team members are in the picture. This works even better with a wide angle camera. Another advantage of using a webcam is that it has a built-in microphone which also covers a larger range.
If audio continues to be an issue, there are a number of fantastic external tabletop microphones available on the market that are designed specifically for meetings. On our team, we use an external omni-directional microphone and speaker by Jabra. It can be connected via Bluetooth to our computer running the video chat, and it's even compatible with tablets, giving us the option of using a tablet instead of a notebook for video conferencing.
In our office, we have the option of using a notebook with external hardware, and also a Mac mini with a huge TV monitor. The extra monitor space allows us to display both the video as well as our Jira board next to each other during our stand-up meeting. Additionally, the "TV" is also used as a dedicated line.
So much space, so many possibilities
The meetings that require the most discipline and coordination to run are the ones held in large rooms with a lot of people. First, we should distinguish between meetings that are more of a lecture style versus interactive meetings. The first category includes, for example, classic presentations or conference broadcasts.
Typically, in both types of meetings there is a speaker who is the focus of attention. In situations where external participants remain largely in the role of spectators and listeners, streaming is a good alternative - for example via YouTube Live. In this situation, having a good camera and a hand microphone are advantageous. You can use the hand microphone for asking and answering questions, which is an important part of any meeting.
Interactive meetings in which remote participants must also be integrated are even more difficult to manage in large groups. In these types of meetings, the goal is to have an open exchange between all participants. Streaming solutions aren't as effective in these types of meetings.
While it may not be perfect for every situation - especially in large interactive meetings - we use our team meetings setup (laptop, Jabra microphone, and camera) and so far we're happy with the results.
Good microphone placement tends to be somewhat problematic in large meetings. Since all participants should be easy to understand, even if they are several meters away, it can be difficult to guarantee clear audio, even from a quality microphone. We use a Bluetooth microphone that can be passed around, which is one such solution that you might consider for your larger meetings.
The acoustics of the room also play a role, of course, and the venue of a meeting should be in a room that has considerable dampening - limiting reverberation and echo as much as possible. If you have an otherwise ideal meeting location in mind, but that room has a lot of echo, consider using area carpets, rugs, thick drapes or curtains in order to soak up the sound.
Google even has a dedicated hardware solution for using Hangouts Meet in large meetings. At first glance, the price is rather steep, but with its intelligent wide-angle camera and 360-degree sound system designed specifically for large rooms, you do get considerable value.
Our experience has shown that there are a variety of good (and bad) solutions for conducting all types of meetings. Hardware is definitely a decisive factor and at the same time an organizational stumbling block, since everything has to be dragged along with you - mobility can be less of a problem when using wireless devices and Bluetooth audio. In our offices some rooms are already equipped with "remote stations" which are similar to the TV in our team work space. For larger meetings, however, it's necessary to have a team or at least a person whose responsibility it is to take the hardware with you and connect it.
Additionally, when you have meetings with remote participants, everyone on the call ends up adapting their behavior during the discussion, based largely on the fact that they're using microphones. When you're in an in-person meeting, you simply take turns speaking, but when remote participants, video screens, and microphones are involved, people need to raise their hands or otherwise communicate (non-verbally) their desire to speak - then, in our office, the Bluetooth microphone is passed around to the person and then they can answer. Adapting to these behavior changes requires increased focus and discipline from all participants involved.
Once you've taken care of all of your hardware and software setup, once you've made the necessary adjustments after troubleshooting inevitable technical difficulties, and after you and the other meeting participants get used to adjusting your communication behavior, remote meetings can be an effective part of your modern collaboration culture. With a little practice, your remote meetings can be productive and efficient - and an important part of your modern collaboration toolkit.
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