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Techniques: The need for teleconferencing

by David Blakey

Is teleconferencing a 'one size fits all' for remote meetings?

[Monday 16 March 2020]

There are times, such as the time when I am writing this, during the lock-downs imposed by governments to combat Covid-19, when organizations that do not usually hold remote meetings decide to adopt the technology of teleconferencing. They can be surprised at the ineffectiveness of those meetings. Here are some guidelines to make the management of remote meetings run better.

Omnibus meetings

In normal business life, people tend to schedule meetings so that each meeting deals with a specific topic. In one project, there may be different meetings that discuss testing, deployment and documentation. Because each of those areas may be owned by different people, it is useful for the project manager to have regular meetings on each topic with each team leader and less regular meetings to which everyone is invited. The small regular meetings are better for problem-solving: the manager can pass on any changes to specifications, budgets or timetables, and the team leader can make requests for time, people, budget or other resources. The larger meetings keep everyone involved in what is happening elsewhere in the whole project, but these omnibus meetings are not as effective for decision-making. Like an omnibus, they keep everyone headed in the same direction.

There is a temptation to set up an omnibus teleconferencing meeting without realizing that you doing so, when a series of smaller meetings would still be more effective for decision-making. There are some reasons why this happens:

  1. Teleconferencing is seen as the only option. There has been a lot of articles telling you that teleconferencing will provide for your communications needs. This is not so, there are other ways of holding meetings, all of which you probably already use.
  2. Teleconferencing is seen as the best option. You should consider whether you need to see the meeting participants. Think of some of the interactions that you normally have with your team leaders. There are some who will be happy reporting regularly by telephone, and you will be happy with telephone calls as well. There are others who prefer face-to-face meetings, and you will also be happier with face-to-face meetings. In some cases, this is a matter of trust. You would usually be happy to talk by telephone with some you trusted, and you may be happier being face-to-face with someone whom you did not trust so much. This is not a matter of your believing someone is deliberately dishonest. Why would you have them working for you? It is more a matter of whether that team leader will try to present a rosier picture than the cold truth. The fact remains that, for daily interactions, you will be happy with some team leaders communicating by telephone or email. There is no need to change that for remote reporting. For the rest, you can, perhaps, use teleconferencing.
  3. Teleconferencing is hard to set up. While this can often be true, it is not an excuse for setting up a single omnibus meeting rather than a series of smaller teleconferences, some of which may be one-on-one.

A way forward

You need to do some analysis and planning.

As a priority, aim to set up telephone meetings for as many one-on-one reports as you can.

Then list the people who need to talk face-to-face and decide whether this can be done by a set of small teleconferences.

Then set up your less regular omnibus meetings.

The most important aspect of those meetings is an agenda. Decide which items can be handled as consent agenda items. These are the items that will be reported and then the meeting will accept that report, instead of having to discuss and then agree on a set of proposals. The consent agenda items should be dealt with first.

Consider who can be released from the meeting early. If there is a team leader whose targets and outcomes do not affect any other team and are not affected by any other team, then schedule them early. This may be before or after the consent agenda items, depending on whether that team leader holds a consent agenda. Do not put them before the consent agenda if they have matters requiring decisions. Bear in mind their sensitivity if they do not leave the meeting after their contribution and then see and hear the consent agenda items; it could seem that you have downgraded the value of their project.

You agenda must be known to all the participants before the meeting, and it must be available to them during the meeting. If your teleconferencing platform has the capability of showing slides, then prepare a slide of the agenda.

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