What is under the surface of virtual meetings?

Many of us have learned the nuts and bolts of virtual meetings quickly with the sudden shift to working from home.  As well as practical tutorials and top tips people are now talking about the psychology of meeting at a distance.  This blog asks some questions about what is happening under the surface of virtual meetings and what we might usefully think about – using the idea of different types of presence as a starting point.

Physical presence

As we sit in front of our screens we are also aware of our physical presence and posture.  We see ourselves on screen, noticing what happens when we move around.  Some people have commented on how they are becoming ‘chair shaped’ or are ‘tethered’ by headphones.  We also tend to forget that the faces we see on screen have human bodies and lives attached.

We can help maintain human connection if we remind people of their physical presence – suggesting they do ‘analogue’ things like standing up, writing or drawing on paper, leaving the computer to fetch an object.  We can also centre our own physical presence by sitting up in our chairs, standing occasionally, and attending to our breathing.

Professional and daily life presence

We have emerging virtual etiquette, often quite formal – including muting microphones, using the ‘hands up’ function, which often leads to quite stilted meetings.  We also experience ‘interruptions’ from children, dogs etc.  In many cases this is a simple and often charming reminder of people’s home lives.  Other people may not feel comfortable with this blurring of the lines.

We can actively consider where we draw the line about what we share with colleagues and collaborators especially if our home circumstances are not comfortable or easy to share.  If we have a leadership or facilitation role we can to make it easy for people to make different choices about this, for instance blurring their background when working from home.

Psychological presence

In virtual meetings we see ourselves on screen – this strange experience rather like seeing ourselves in the mirror.  We also have the challenge of interacting when all we see is the video presence or avatar of others.   We do our imperfect best to fill in the psychological gaps in understanding them as whole humans, particularly when we have never met face to face.

We can learn how to work with online energy – to find ways of representing this to ourselves and others.  One of my colleagues described ‘just pumping out energy’ but most of us are not entirely conscious of how we do that.  Maybe we need to put as much effort into the psychological process as the technical process of virtual collaboration.

Collective presence

The facilitator in the virtual space uses the ‘room scan’ as in a face to face meeting, consciously or through learned behaviour, to ‘read’ the collective energy in a room.  As we scan the gallery of people’s faces on a videoconference call we are also picking up signs – facial expressions, direction of eye contact.  But this is less familiar, and we are often most conscious of the deficits – the body language we cannot see, the facial expressions that get lost.

We have the opportunity to build our competence in reading collective presence – the cumulative impact of voice tones which we can help by not asking people to mute microphones; the cues from facial expressions we gain from really watching people’s video presence; the ability to ask and receive feedback on how engaged people are.  Again, it takes conscious effort to explore how we gain most insight into collective presence.

Presence beyond the meeting

We can amplify and extend what goes on in the virtual meeting room.  Alerts and updates reach our devices and we create our own ‘bubbles’ through decisions on who we follow.  Social media in particularly helps make our presence felt in that wider world.  Many academic and other events have used the practice of tweeting commentary / photos / resources.

We can ask:  how do we perceive this broader world?    Who do we wish to involve and how?  How can we work together to amplify our conversations to reach beyond our individual bubbles?

Next

These are some emerging thoughts.  I’d welcome views from anyone else seeking to understand what is really going on in virtual meetings and how we can develop the deep skills to facilitate collaboration.

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