Thinking back to meetings ‘in the room’ or forward to when we can meet again, physical space makes a difference to the quality of a meeting. A windowless room in a hotel basement or a panelled chamber in a country house hotel create different expectations and affect behaviours. The layout of a room – cabaret table groups or a circle of chairs with no tables at all – changes the dynamic and both creates and restricts the possibilities that can be achieved.
Facilitators and meeting geeks connect with the buzz and feel of a space. From those face to face days I remember meetings on a battleship, in the Tower of London, in a beachside resort on the South China Sea… and of course hundreds of office and hotel meeting rooms.
Space is equally important in virtual meetings.
Different types of space
The laptop, tablet or smartphone screen is a psychological space. We enter that space by putting our attention there, and focusing on different parts of the space.
It seems to me that there are three main different types of virtual meeting space:
- Spaces for people
- Presentation spaces
- Collaboration spaces
Spaces for people
During the pandemic we’ve got used to the Zoom ‘stack’ of faces on a video conference screen, mimicking the view in a meeting room and reminiscent for some of us of the TV show University Challenge. Participants see each other’s faces – either all the same size in a ‘gallery’ or focused on the speaker. You also see your own face, contributing to that strange self-consciousness and also to virtual meeting fatigue. Some platforms allow you to hide this self-view.
The space for people helps build human contact, in particular early in the meeting. A verbal check-in enables people to introduce themselves for the first time if they have never met before, or as a reminder if they have. Working in the space for people is good for shorter, more intense discussions where people need to express themselves. It is also more effective with a relatively small number of faces on screen as there is a limit to what we take in visually. Small breakout groups are valuable, enabling three or four people to have a personal conversation and take in each other’s facial expressions and tone of voice.
In a presentation space one person (usually a presenter or designated speaker) engages the attention of others one-way. Slide presentations attempt to engage the participants visually with the spoken content. Video may work better, as moving images are more likely to capture our attention.
Sharing slides makes the faces smaller although usually you can see at least the face of the presenter. Losing the human faces makes it even more important that the presentation is compelling. As people are viewing screens of different sizes the usual advice about not overloading slides with text is even more important.
And… the big question about presentation spaces is are people watching? Or have they turned their attention to something else while still listening to the presentation?
These are spaces where participants move from passive to active. The simplest example is the chat box. You can add comments or questions in real time, and the chat box becomes part of the physical record of the meeting. Sometimes a virtual meeting goes ‘off track’ when discussion in the chat box takes off, leaving the main discussion among the ‘talking heads’ behind. You may decide to follow the energy of the group and encourage everyone to contribute in the chat box, or actively include the comments by reading them out and asking people to build on them verbally.
People can work together in collaboration spaces. Adding thoughts in writing to a discussion in the chat box or a shared document or template, a group can generate and gather ideas in real time. There are plenty of options including a slide or whiteboard, which people annotate using text. In the physical room many groups work with sticky notes to generate and cluster ideas. Tools such as Mural or Conceptboard do the same thing. Adding comments directly in writing or by drawing is more hands on and collaborative.
Pictures can be collaboration spaces: a map or diagram where people add symbols, drawings, their own photos, or images provided by the facilitator or found online.
Some apps provider spaces with floor plans. For instance Sococo and Remo put virtual office spaces on your screen, with desks, tables and meeting spaces. They give a sense of people moving from place to place backed by video conference and text options.
What types of space do you use in your virtual sessions? It would be good to hear.
Our new book Virtual meetings: a practical guide has more on virtual meeting spaces. It is available on Amazon and can be ordered here.