Re-thinking Online Meetings During COVID-19 Pandemic and Moving Forward

By SRAI JRA posted 09-29-2020 23:13

  

Volume LI, Number 2

Re-thinking Online Meetings During COVID-19 Pandemic and Moving Forward  

Kumutha Krisnan
Office of Education Research
National Institute of Education
Nanyang Technological University

Ng Qiu Ting Yvonne
Office of Education Research
National Institute of Education
Nanyang Technological University 

Rita Elaine Silver
Office of Education Research
National Institute of Education
Nanyang Technological University 

For this Voice of Experience, we draw on the experience of our research grants management unit in harnessing online platforms to hold various types of meetings during the recent local and international COVID-19 lockdown. Even as we return to some face-to-face meetings, we note the value and convenience of online meetings (e.g. with international collaborators or local colleagues in different offices, to avoid travel time). Thus, we expect to continue regular online meetings as one of our options for efficient research management. While standard meeting rules still apply (e.g. have a meeting agenda), the backdrop of COVID-19 forced us to consider the different requirements of online versus face-to-face meetings. We share experiences which we have found to be effective in order to support others who are also planning and hosting online meetings now and going forward.   

Background

The National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is Singapore’s national teacher education institute. Our office (Office of Education Research) oversees research grants management for the Education Research Funding Programme. We regularly work with Principal Investigators (PIs) on pre to post grants matters. We also interact with administrators at our institute and affiliated university (NTU), with our funder, and with faculty and research staff in other departments. We organize numerous panel and committee meetings, including institutional, local, and international members. In the normal course of events, these meetings and panels are held face-to-face, planned well in advance, using procedures we have developed and tested over time. As the COVID-19 situation evolved early in 2020, scenarios changed rapidly, often day to day. Our careful meeting planning quickly devolved into disarray. As we shifted to online meetings, we had to re-examine how to make these meetings effective.  

We address these overarching questions: What are some of the challenges of setting up online meetings, and how do we manage those challenges? With the increase in online communications, how can we adapt for effective communication to take place? Is there a general approach (regardless of the specific online platform) that might be helpful for hosting better meetings for our research management work?  

Question: Online meetings come with their own set of challenges. What are some pitfalls in hosting online meetings, and how can we manage these?  

A key limitation in online meetings is the lack of visual information—it can be difficult to determine the degree of member fatigue, to see how comments are interpreted to signal that discussion must end. It is important to support a sense of inclusivity and engagement. Video can help, but it presents an incomplete view. In addition, overuse of video can feel intrusive or lead to technical difficulties such as lagging connections. 

On a simple level, we use a set agenda with stated time points and ‘bell’ to note when to move on—standard meeting protocols. Most platforms also provide options to engage via chat which is very useful for back channel communication, immediate feedback, and notetaking. For example, if video is off during a presentation, backchannel comments such as ‘Good point’, help the speaker know that the audience is still engaged. Feedback such as ‘Please slow down’ or ‘Can you show the graph on slide 3?’ help the speaker be responsive. Necessary follow-up actions can be noted, and these notes can be seen immediately rather than waiting for meeting minutes to be sent. Meeting hosts can initially model this sort of commenting to let members know it is good practice. If speakers find the chat too distracting, they can set specific points in the presentation to check chat—the online equivalent of “Any questions so far?” but with the added benefit of a written record that all can see.

Beyond these basics, we have developed a few other practices to improve our online meetings, including planning for different ‘meeting types’, ensuring we trial each meeting, recapping ground rules, and including different types of meeting facilitators. 
 

Question: What do you mean by ‘meeting type’ and why does that matter?  

Meetings are not ‘one size fits all’—Prepare differently for different meeting types  

We realized that we have different meeting types involving different membership (e.g., assisting a PI in submitting a proposal, the funder asking questions related to grant accountability, research committees deliberating proposals). Members also come with different individual experiences and familiarity with online meetings. Sometimes there are restrictions on which platforms/tools they can access. Our experience shows that online meetings must be “packaged” for an optimal experience.

The least successful of all our efforts were ‘split team’ meetings with Group A in room 1 and Group B in room 2, connected via the internet. This set up might make members feel they are part of a group. Unfortunately, we found that visuals were spotty (e.g. the camera didn’t capture everyone) and turn-taking was difficult because visual cues were missed. Technical difficulties were likely, with shifting visuals from presentations (showing slides) to discussion (showing members). Crucially, most meeting rooms simply don’t have the necessary acoustics: voices drift, sound is garbled, repetitions are frequent and frustrating.  

Given the issues with ‘split teams’, our experience recommends meeting online with each person in their own physical space and individual device. One example was a research grant review panel in which five international panelists logged in from different regions. The purpose was to summarize the strengths and weaknesses of projects as well as make recommendations on revisions and funding; the video function was crucial for supporting interactive discussion. However, in a larger meeting with 20+ people making final decisions on funding, a different structure was needed. Video was confusing, each individual needed to state an opinion on every decision, and decisions needed to be publicly tracked. This discussion was supported with slides shared on screen, a chat line and minimal video. In addition, we set up an individual ‘channel’ (in MS Teams) for each topic/decision. Moving from channel to channel made it easy to organize relevant information and keep everyone on topic. This can  be done in Zoom using chat mentions as topic channels. Other meeting platforms might have other ways of doing this. Our key takeaway was that meetings which need high interactivity work best with video support and less textual information; larger meetings, especially those which make final decisions, are best managed via live, textual tracking (e.g. in chat or similar). 

Some meetings can be conducted using typed chat exclusively. We refer to these as ‘textual meetings.’ Taking out the audio and video cuts down on bandwidth problems as well as the sense of overwhelming input by multiple members. Textual meetings leave a clear trail of discussion while allowing members to work at their own pace. These are also useful for soliciting input from usually quiet meeting members. Such meetings work best when the agenda has delineated items that require short discussions (e.g. multiple choice options), rather than extended or freewheeling discussion. Each agenda item has its own chat, and members can move back and forth across the different chats to read and add comments as desired. 

A final meeting type involves the traditional presentation followed by Q&A format. These ‘presentational meetings’ (Person A presenting, the rest listening) are sometimes useful. However, they quickly become tiring with intensive listening by the audience and the speaker wondering, ‘Is anybody there?’ For these meetings we have a simple change: include additional, 5-minute ‘stretch’ breaks; everyone stays online with video and mics muted for easy re-starts.

Question: Running a meeting trial is useful for newbies, but we don’t need them after that, do we?
Always trial the meeting—yes, always 

As we were new to the many online meeting platform options, we trialed various platforms (MS Teams, Zoom, Webex), keeping in mind that we also had to cater to a different membership. Whatever the platform, we discovered that trials are needed for each meeting, even after online meetings and platform functions become familiar.  

When trying out a new platform, we trial it within our unit to be sure of the functionalities and how they support the meeting type. Then we do trial runs with representative members of the upcoming meeting to confirm the platform is accessible to all (e.g., are there security walls which make one platform easier or more difficult than another?) and not too unwieldy (from the members’ perspective). This is standard practice. However, for every meeting, we also do trial runs with meeting members to ensure attendees are familiar with the platform prior to the actual meeting. In some cases, trial runs are done with small groups; in other case, we run the trial with individuals—depending on member availability. With experience, we can now conduct individual trial runs in about 15 minutes, and group trials last less than 30 minutes. The time is well-spent as these trials help members avoid common login and navigation issues for the actual meeting. Trial runs are also crucial for meetings on confidential matters which require some individuals to enter/exit at different time points. Trouble with entering/exiting can bring meetings to an untimely halt and cause frustration for all.

Meeting trials are not only about the specific software or platform but can also include details such as which speakers/microphones to use and a check of visual elements (e.g. in presentation slides) which will be displayed via individual monitors rather than meeting room screens. Miniscule fonts and unclear graphics are endemic to any meeting but with online members on different devices, the difficulties can be compounded. A trial can help highlight these issues in advance and allow time for correction.

Is it necessary to keep doing trial runs? At two recent meetings, months after we have hosted many online meetings with the same members who could be expected to be familiar with the processes, some members still weren’t sure how to join, how to leave, how to share screens; they found their microphone didn’t work as expected or the visuals prepared for sharing on large meeting room screens didn’t show well on individual laptops—all the initial problems specific to online meetings reappeared as soon as we stopped having trials. The first 10 minutes of planned ‘short’ meetings were taken over by matters that could have been resolved with quick trials. The meetings lost momentum; participation flagged.  

Question: We all know the basics. Why recap ground rules?  

Recapping ground rules helps focus members, reminds people of what they already know, and allows those who are not in the know to smoothly join. 

We found that our online meetings, of all types, need explicit ground rules. Some of the ground rules have to do with basic online etiquette, e.g., turn off your mic when not speaking, turn off your video when not presenting, and join the meeting 10 minutes early to ensure there are no technical issues. Just as trials are repeated for each new meeting, ground rules bear repeating. Why? People forget. In a recent meeting with an external agency, after months of online meetings, no ground rules were set or recapped. During the meeting, there were errant microphones causing noise and feedback, video images distractingly flashing on and off, and members who weren’t sure whether to raise hands, speak up, or write in the chat.  

A standard preamble slide sent to members in advance and flashed at the beginning of the meeting takes 2-3 minutes, saving much time and irritation. We also include information on how the meeting will be run based on the meeting type: how to use the online chat for textual meetings; how to enter the conversation for longer, oral discussions (e.g., raise a hand? turn on video and wave?). This is a quick, easy and effective way to set expectations and pre-empt problems.  

Question: If the meeting chair manages the meeting, what does a facilitator do?

Include facilitators to support the meeting Chair  

While most formal meetings have a person to chair the meeting and often have someone to take notes, we found that the additional administrative work of online meetings required some re-thinking. We include a Facilitator (Administrative) (FA) who welcomes everyone to the online site prior to the meeting start, provides the ground rules briefing and comments on any useful features of the platform. The FA controls the flow of individuals in and out of the meeting, keeps time, and helps individuals with technical issues (via another channel, if necessary). A Co-FA is sometimes needed. For example, in large groups, more than one person might need technical assistance at the same time. The Co-FA can also signal to the Chair if someone has a hand up but has not been called, if someone has not participated, as well as tracking votes and posting live updates on the chat. In brief, the FA and Co-FA support inclusivity in meetings by liaising between individuals and the meeting Chair. The Chair is free to focus on managing the discussion. 

Overall, we find that standard advice on hosting effective meetings (prepare, set a goal, stay with the timeline, create a clear action plan) holds true online. However, we share these experiences and ideas, to address some specific challenges and situations that others might also face with the increasing use of online meetings.  


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