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Webucator's Free Virtual Communications for Managers Tutorial

Lesson: Group Communication

Welcome to our free Virtual Communications for Managers tutorial. This tutorial is based on Webucator's Virtual Communications for Managers course.

Staff that is geographically disbursed often lacks cohesiveness. Staff members may easily neglect to inform each other of events and issues, and staff members' differing interpretations of information may not be known until a client complains that he or she received contradictory information. A manager should bring the team together periodically for group communications to ensure:

  1. All staff members have the same information.
  2. All staff members interpret the information consistently and correctly.
  3. Staff members are aware of other members' circumstances, actions, events, and issues.

This lesson discusses methods and practices that result in good, virtual group communication:

Lesson Goals

  • Learn the importance of avoiding "hallway decisions."
  • Learn the art of facilitation.
  • Learn how to manage time.
  • Learn how to proactively minimize problems.

Avoiding Hallway Decisions

One challenge when managing virtual teams is to avoid "hallway decisions." Hallway decisions are decisions made after informal, impromptu meetings. An example of this is:

  1. A manager running into a local member of his or her staff or a manager from a different department.

Hallway meetings are not limited to hallways. A hallway meeting may happen in any unplanned location, such as:

  1. The hallway (hence the name, "hallway decisions.")
  2. At lunch.
  3. After another meeting.
  4. As an afterthought during a phone conversation.

In hallway discussions, a quick discussion takes place about an issue, and a decision is made that affects the managers' staff. Unfortunately, it is very common for these informal decisions to be forgotten and not passed along to some or all of the staff.

In most situations, the best decisions are made when all thoughts are laid out on the table and everyone has had a chance to give input. Ad hoc decisions often overlook important considerations, and this can be avoided by intentionally including other personnel. Virtual group meetings are powerful tools to support intentional communication.

To avoid hallway decisions, managers must be intentional about communication. This means they will:

  1. Record all conversations that affect the team.
  2. Make hallway decisions only when necessary.
  3. Have a communication plan, which includes:
    1. Agreed-upon methods of communication.
    2. Regularly scheduled meetings.
  4. Communicate with their staff as often as possible.

Avoiding Hallway Decisions

Duration: 5 to 7 minutes.

Respond to the following questions about hallway decisions.

  1. Which of the following examples describe hallway decisions?
    1. A chat with all your staff.
    2. An agreement about a course of action that takes place randomly after an HR presentation.
    3. A change in corporate policies.
    4. A departmental decision made between a manager and a staff member during an impromptu one-on-one meeting.
    5. A supervisor giving directions to a staff member.
  2. Fill in the missing words:
    1. To avoid hallway decisions, managers must be _______________________ about communication.
    2. Intentional communication includes a ____________________ plan with __________________ _________________ meetings.
    .

Solution:

  1. B. An agreement about a course of action that takes place randomly after an HR presentation, and D. A departmental decision made between a manager and a staff member during a one-on-one meeting.
  2. To avoid hallway decisions, managers must be intentional about communication.
  3. Intentional communication includes a communication plan with regularly scheduled meetings.

The Art of Group Facilitation

One-on-one communication can take place easily on the phone or through e-mail. Questions are easy to address because there is no competition for the time or communication resources. Group communication is more challenging. Technology affects the type of exchange that takes place. The users need to know the basic mechanics of the system in order to hear and to speak. The facilitator needs to know how to direct the conversation.

There are different types of group communication, which include:

  1. Audio-only conferencing, such as:
    1. Teleconferencing, using wired or wireless phone systems.
    2. VOIP, such as MagicJack or Skype audio.
  2. Simple web conferencing, which includes both audio and video, such as:
    1. Skype.
    2. Facetime.
  3. Advanced web conferencing and video conferencing, which adds other features, such as desktop sharing, chat, and polling. Examples include:
    1. Web conferencing:
      1. Go To Meeting.
      2. WebEx.
      3. Illuminate.
    2. Video conferencing systems:
      1. Tanburg.
      2. Polycom.
      3. Cisco.
  4. Text-based systems, which include discussion forums (asynchronous) and chat (synchronous):
    1. Chat is less than optimal for larger groups because of:
      1. The potential for multiple concurrent conversations.
      2. The different speed of typing and reading among participants.
      3. The difficulty in facilitating the conversation.
    2. Discussion forums work well for conversations that are not time-sensitive, when the emphasis is on analysis and brainstorming.

Virtual group conversations can be very frustrating for people because:

  1. When voice is used, dominant people can monopolize the conversation.
  2. People cannot see each other in audio communications and presentation-based communications.
  3. People forget that they are visible in video conferencing systems.

The facilitator's role is to try to prevent these and other issues from taking place in the meeting. Ultimately, facilitation is simply ensuring that all members are respectful of other members and the conversation stays on track.

The objectives of facilitation are to:

  1. Promote quality communication.
  2. Encourage participation.
  3. Discourage control.
  4. Avoid and minimize disruptions.

When using discussion forums, disruptions and control are not often an issue because participants have equal opportunity to contribute, and they can contribute throughout the day around their work schedules.

Promote Quality Communication

Quality communication is informational, thoughtful, and respectful. The following are basic guidelines for the facilitators using audio and video tools:

  1. Make certain that everyone hears comments from others. This may mean the facilitator repeats the comments.
  2. Make certain everyone has a turn to speak.
  3. Make certain everyone announces himself or herself when they speak, so others can follow the conversation easily.
  4. Ask speakers to look at the camera, not the screen or monitor, in conferences that use video. The camera replaces the eyes of the other participants at different locations. From the other people's perspective, it can be distracting if the speaker is looking away from the camera.
  5. Move slowly and describe your movements when sharing desktops or other media, such as a document camera. It takes time for video signals to reach the other participants. Slow movement prevents the images from looking choppy, blurry, or distorted on the other end of the line.

As a manager, you are likely to be the meeting facilitator. Facilitators are tasked with making sure the meeting runs well and is productive. In online discussions, facilitators also need to:

  1. Moderate disagreements.
  2. Keep the conversation on topic.
  3. Direct discussions by asking for input from all participants and asking questions that encourage more thought and stimulate ideas.

Encourage Participation

In any synchronous meeting, three primary factors affect participation dynamics in meetings.

  1. The ability of some people to think before they speak.
  2. The dominance of people who naturally speak and think (or don't think) at the same time.
  3. The opportunity given to the participants to contribute.

Most techniques used to encourage participation in live, online meetings are the same techniques we would use in a traditional face-to-face meeting. People who process internally are not likely to speak up instantly. When the facilitator gives them time, even though it feels awkward, he or she can encourage the quiet participant to contribute to the conversation.

People who find it easy to speak do not usually need encouragement, but they should be acknowledged. After they have shared their thoughts, the quieter people should be offered adequate time to respond.

In some types of live exchanges, rotation is the best way to handle time fairly. Be sure to allow time at the beginning and end of the meeting for introductions and wrap-up, and allow time for questions and discussion.

A challenge to communicating in a virtual environment is that it provides the quiet participant a better chance to hide and avoid contributing because they aren't physically "there." This makes it all the more important that the facilitator encourages participation. Rotating from one site to another and asking a question like, "Does anyone in Cleveland have a response to the last statement?" may bring the participants to the forefront without addressing one individual directly.

Discussion forums are excellent for bringing out quiet participants. If you struggle getting quieter staff members to share, open a follow-up discussion forum if one is available to you. Solicit ideas related to the meeting topics. This will:

  1. Allow quieter participants time to think about the issue before sharing.
  2. Eliminate any intimidating factors that may be present in live meetings.

Discourage Control

There are certain people that tend to talk a lot, and some that simply like attention. These people can monopolize synchronous live meetings if not kept in check. The way to manage meeting controllers is to:

  1. Set a time limit on how long each person can speak.
  2. Remind the participants about the time limit at the beginning of the meeting.
  3. Enforce the time limits.

The last item is the most difficult. When a person known to be vocal is ready to speak, subtly remind them of the limit. For example, you might say, "Bob, the next four minutes are yours. What updates do you have for us?"

If the person is nearing the end of their time limit and appears to intend to go beyond that time, the facilitator needs to interrupt that person and remind him or her of the time constraint. Most people will wrap up at that point, but some will simply continue.

Unless the person is sharing critical information, the facilitator needs to stop the person. He or she might say, "Bob, I need to stop you here so others have a chance to speak. Let's write your topic down so we can hear more of your ideas if we have time at the end of the meeting, or in our next meeting."

Minimizing Disruptions

When a person is speaking in a live, virtual meeting, all other participants should be as attentive as possible to hear what the speaker is saying. However, little unintentional sounds and behaviors can interfere with the message, including things that wouldn't take place or wouldn't be disruptive in a traditional face-to-face meeting. Consider these noises that are picked up by microphones:

  1. Typing.
  2. Talking (side conversations, rude comments).
  3. Traffic.
  4. Children and pets.
  5. Ceiling fans and air conditioners.
  6. Shuffling papers.
  7. Breathing, coughing, and sneezing.

Behaviors can also distract. Listed below are four examples:

  1. People walking in and out of rooms during video conferences.
  2. Participants getting up and moving around during video conferences.
  3. Participants leaving the conference unannounced.
  4. Participants not waiting for the extended pause caused by delayed transmission, thus speaking over other participants.

And finally, meetings can be disrupted by avoidable technology issues, such as:

  1. Inferior equipment or setups which don't transmit voice or visuals well.
  2. Audio from the meeting, causing an echoing effect.
  3. A participant who does not know how to use the system.

To minimize these disruptions, create a list of expectations for the meeting, and communicate them to the participants. The list should include the use of the features available within the system being used, and should include the following:

  1. Turn off all cell phones during the meeting.
  2. In a teleconference, never put your phone on hold as your hold music might play.
  3. In a teleconference, turn off call waiting.
  4. When not speaking, mute your microphone.
  5. If you must step out, always inform the facilitator or another participant and say when you'll return.
  6. Avoid side conversations.
  7. When you wish to speak, announce your name.
  8. Always inform the facilitator as soon as possible if audio or video signals fade, die, or are not clear.
  9. Precheck the local setup to verify the audio and video are working well.

Additionally, you, as the facilitator, can minimize the time spent on problems by testing for technology issues. You should:

  1. Never assume you can be seen or heard.
  2. Always perform sound and video checks with every connecting site at the beginning of meetings.
  3. Occasionally and throughout the meeting, check with participants at each site to make certain the sound and video continue to be good.

Group Facilitation

Duration: 10 to 12 minutes.

Respond to the following questions about facilitating group meetings.

  1. List the objectives of facilitation.
  2. To which objective of facilitation does each the following descriptions relate?
    1. Setting time limits.
    2. Making certain participants can follow camera movements.
    3. Testing sound and video at the beginning of the meeting.
    4. Asking for input from all sites.
    5. Returning to a topic if there is time.
    6. Turning off cell phones.
    7. Repeating comments so that all participants can hear them.
    8. Rotating from person to person for updates and comments.

Solution:

  1. The objectives of facilitation are:
    1. Promote good communication.
    2. Encourage participation.
    3. Discourage control.
    4. Avoid and minimize disruptions.
    1. C. Discourage control.
    2. A. Promote good communication.
    3. D. Avoid and minimize disruptions.
    4. B. Encourage participation.
    5. C. Discourage control.
    6. D. Avoid and minimize disruptions.
    7. A. Promote good communication.
    8. B. Encourage participation.

Group Facilitation - Personal Application

Duration: 20 to 30 minutes.

Complete the following assignment.

  1. Think about your staff, and your next virtual meeting.
    1. List the tools that will be available for your use, such as desktop sharing, chat, etc.
    2. Describe the possible problems you may encounter.
    3. Now write a list of things you, as the facilitator, should do to ensure a smooth meeting:
      1. At the beginning of the meeting.
      2. During the meeting.
      3. At the end of the meeting.
    4. Describe how you will address possible technical issues.
    5. Write a checklist for all participants to follow both prior to and during the meeting.

Time Management

Time management is a challenge in any meeting, but it can be even more difficult in synchronous virtual meetings because we tend not to take into consideration how technology affects the interaction.

Technology can impact communication directly and indirectly. Direct impact includes:

  1. Technology may have momentary outages or interruptions.
  2. Interference (noise) may make it necessary to repeat things.
  3. Technology can fail.

Technology can impact communication indirectly in the following ways:

  1. Time is needed for audio and visual prechecks.
  2. Participants have to wait for transmission delays.
  3. Participants may not be adept at using the technology.

A prudent facilitator will plan extra time for these issues. Ten to fifteen minutes is normally enough to adequately compensate for this. Additionally, the facilitator should have a backup plan in case any component of the technology fails. Backups may include:

  1. Emailing the presentation document to the participants should the visual component of the presentation fail.
  2. Using a form of written communication, such as a chat, should audio fail for one or more participants.
  3. Resorting to asynchronous discussion should immediate connectivity fail.

When planning a meeting,

  1. Set an approximate time each person is expected to speak.
  2. Plan for questions and discussion.
  3. Add time for technical issues, as described above.
  4. Delegate a person in the meeting to be a timekeeper.

Delegating a person to be the timekeeper serves multiple purposes, as follows:

  1. A timekeeper helps to keep the meeting on track while the facilitator concentrates on the content.
  2. Announcing the timekeeper at the beginning of the meeting reminds all participants that there is limited time.
  3. Selecting a timekeeper creates buy-in from the participants regarding the schedule.

If you know that one of your staff members tends to use a lot of time, he or she may be a good candidate for the timekeeper role.

Using a Parking Lot

If something comes up in the meeting that is not on the agenda, but is worthy of addressing, put it in the "parking lot." The parking lot is a list of future agenda items.

By writing the issue down, a time can be planned to address the issue. If the current meeting's topics are covered before the planned ending time, parking lot items can be addressed during the meeting.

Group Facilitation

Duration: 5 to 7 minutes.

Respond to the following questions about time management in synchronous virtual meetings.

  1. Which of the following is not a true statement?
    1. Time is needed for audio and visual prechecks.
    2. Audio and visual prechecks eliminate technology concerns.
    3. Interference (noise) may make it necessary to repeat things.
    4. The parking lot is a list of future agenda items.
    5. A timekeeper helps to keep the meeting on track while the facilitator concentrates on the content.
  2. Which of the following are true statements?
    1. Technology has no effect on time in a synchronous virtual meeting.
    2. Time management is more difficult in asynchronous meetings.
    3. Technology affects communication indirectly if it fails.
    4. Audio communication is a good backup for a problematic chat.
    5. The "parking lot" is a place to put future discussion items.
    6. Chat may be a good backup for problematic audio.

Solution:

  1. B. Audio and visual prechecks eliminate technology concerns.
  2. E. Chat may be a good backup for problematic audio, and F. The "parking lot" is a place to put future discussion items.

Proactively Avoiding Problems

Proactive planning can reduce barriers and make meetings go smoother. A list of what should be done before the meeting follows:

  1. A backup plan should be drafted, to be implemented if technology fail, thus insuring that the meeting will continue. This plan should include:
    1. The amount of time you are willing to spend for technical trouble shooting before going to the alternate meeting plan.
    2. The number of interruptions you are willing to allow before going to the alternate meeting plan.
  2. The agenda and handouts should be made available to the participants in advance. This may be done through:
    1. Email.
    2. Inter-office mail.
    3. Posted on a shared drive or workspace.
    4. Any other method that works for all participants.
  3. A document or addendum should be included with the agenda explaining:
    1. The mechanics of communicating in the meeting.
    2. The meeting protocol (acceptable and unacceptable behaviors).
    3. The approximate time allowed for each speaker.
  4. The facilitator should arrive early to test equipment.
  5. When the meeting starts, the facilitator should:
    1. Test all connections for sound and visuals.
    2. Check with all sites to make certain they understand the mechanics of the system.
    3. Review the protocol.

Media Fundamentals

Duration: 5 to 7 minutes.

Respond to the following questions about media.

  1. Which of the following are good practices?
    1. Sending out handouts through inter-office mail.
    2. Informing participants of what constitutes acceptable behavior during the meeting.
    3. Sending out documents prior to the meeting.
    4. Testing all connections for sound and visuals.
    5. Trusting each site to test their own system.
    6. Knowing in advance how long you will wait for resolution, should technology issues arise.

Solution:

  1. B. Informing participants of the acceptable behavior during the meeting; C. Always sending out documents prior to the meeting; E. Testing all connections for sound and visuals. and F. Knowing in advance how long you will wait for technology.

Proactively Avoiding Problems - Personal Application

Duration: 10 to 15 minutes.

Perform the following task related to proactive planning.

  1. Building on the previous personal application exercise, create a plan that you can put in place should technology fail. Include:
    1. At what point you will move to the alternate technologies.
    2. How materials will be distributed.
    3. What, specifically, you will test prior to the meeting.