How videoconferences saved my network

Card's author : Gatien Bataille
Card's type of licence : Creative Commons BY-SA
Testimonies : As a member of an environmental education network structure, over time I've seen the number of meetings and participation drop constantly.

It was mainly travel time that caused the number of meetings to drop drastically. More often than not, you spent more time travelling than actually in the meeting…
Eventually this discouraged even those of us who were most motivated...
Meetings became fewer and farther apart in time, and decisions were becoming less and less representative...
The frequency of meetings dropped so much we virtually held none.

I suggested to the other members that we could re-launch our meeting but with two "virtual" meetings between each "face-to-face" meeting (every three months).

For this I trained my colleagues face-to-face or with a brief video tutorial on how to use Google hangouts.

For more than a year and a half we have been using this communication channel for our meetings. Results came by themselves!
The level of participation rose again to almost 100% and the frequency of the meetings became monthly again.
The network dynamics is up and running once more.
Our meetings last 2 hours and dates are agreed collectively for the whole year.
The biggest change is in the duration of the meeting. Where before, for this two-hour meeting, each of us would have to travel for 3-4 hours, now the meeting lasts exactly two hours and everyone can go back to their activities in just 5 minutes.

Some remarks on this experience:
  • it is important to reassure participants explaining to them how the tool works.
  • video tutorials are very helpful. Recording them myself is also very helpful. True enough, contrary to "official" tutorials that always refer to "typical" situations, my ones, with my own voice comments, show a concrete situation that participants will experience. It is a real example, explained step-by-step.
  • it is important not to underestimate any initial small technical issues. We needed 4-5 meetings at the start for everyone to be ready. I was very available and supportive at the start.
  • it is important for the facilitator to master the tool well so he can solve all the small issues that arise (most often relating to configuring the participants' computers)
  • it is not wasting time to plan around 15 minutes at the start of the meeting to test everyone's sound and image settings (normally 3 minutes will be enough for this)
  • when a participant's internet connection is too weak funny sounds happen (like the sound of a waterfall).
  • on some occasion we had "hidden participants" who had invited themselves to our meetings. Even if this is not a "disaster" (since they were all colleagues of the participants) these "undeclared" participants (who didn't show themselves on screen or talk) created some unrest during the meeting. We asked these "invisible ones" to speak up or leave the meeting.
  • body language is not easy to grasp in this type of meetings even if the video image of each participant is visible. This requires the facilitator to be extra vigilant during the meeting. I quickly got a system of hand signs going to allow each participant to express their feelings on what was being said; these signs also allowed me to give the floor more easily.
  • having an on-line meeting does not mean a facilitator is not needed…they may be even more necessary than in face-to-face meetings!
  • you must be careful with the tone you use in virtual meetings. We saw that "distance" sometimes made us use a tone of voice that we would not have used in a face-to-face meeting!
  • with the Google hangouts it is very easy to have a co-writing area (Google-docs). This brings an added value to the tool since besides enabling distance meetings it is an introduction to co-drafting meeting minutes!

Two limitations:
  • this tool has a limitation that can be slightly annoying. Only 10 people can participate in a meeting, at least on video. It is possible to have 5 additional people at the meeting but only with audio features.
  • participants are required to have a Google account (Gmail address)

Generally speaking, in use, all participants found this tool great and I only had to start the meeting and everyone would engage!
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