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“Can you hear me now?” – Tips to Improve Virtual Participation

Almost a quarter of the participants in the Canada Beyond 150 project live and work outside of the National Capital Region. They’re expected to contribute to the project in the same way their Ottawa- and Gatineau-based colleagues do, but the task hasn’t been easy. And for many of them, this isn’t a new challenge either.

Here are some do’s and don’ts we learned from working with our participants in the region.

Sorry, technology, but there is no substitute for in-person communication

If you can meet face-to-face, even if it’s only once or twice over the course of your working relationship, do it. Maximize those opportunities and connect with as many of your colleagues as you can – making that connection in-person will help you better connect with that person when you’re back in separate time zones. As one participant put it, “make hay while the sun shines”. It’s often when we engage face-to-face that we build relationships and find common ground – whether it’s a shared appreciation for 3-shot Americanos, karaoke, or reform of the government’s access to information regime.

Find the mix of tech that works for your regional people

Maybe it’s a videoconference via WebEx, or maybe it’s a teleconference. Maybe you all contribute to a shared spreadsheet or use tools like Slack or Mind42. Maybe you use a virtual telepresence robot.  It’s likely a mash-up of 2 or 3 different methods of connecting and collaborating, like a puzzle that has several components to give you the full picture. Experiment until you find the right combination.

Facial cues and body language are a huge part of communication – make sure you can see and be seen.  Many of our nonverbal behaviours – making eye contact, gesturing, smiling, raising your eyebrows, leaning forward – can say more than our spoken words. Turn on your camera so your colleagues can see your nonverbal cues, and you can pick up on theirs.

Get a room!

Leave your desk and book a boardroom, quiet room, or work from another location outside your office. Removing yourself physically from your everyday-desk will help you focus on what’s being said during the call, and will decrease the number of disruptions you may experience from your colleagues.

Don’t shy away from asking people to slow down or repeat what they said

It turns out that the biggest hurdle that our regional participants face when working remotely with their team is their own team. Sometimes, people in the room can forget the particular challenges of their regional colleagues. Seemingly innocuous things like having a side conversation with the person next to you, or not doing a roll call at the top of a meeting (annoying as they may be) can make following the conversation and contributing to it very hard for people connecting virtually.

Smaller groups work best.

Working in groups of 5 to 8 people is ideal overall, but for virtual participants, it means an increased opportunity to contribute and be heard. On the flip side, conversations with groups of 10 or more people are difficult for virtual participants to follow, especially over the phone.

Articulate and allow for pauses.

Leave enough time after inviting comments for people on the phone to un-mute themselves.

Use a roll call to invite comments and contributions.

By calling on every participant, you ensure no one’s views are left out. You might also encourage participants to start off with their name when participating ,at least for a few rounds. This would help those online start associating a voice with a person, which helps build stronger social bonds and recollection.

Resist the urge to talk over or interrupt the person speaking.

Although this falls under “good manners at any occasion”, please do remember that conversations where more than one person is speaking can be very hard to follow from a distance.  One option is to use a virtual talking stick.

Put yourself in their virtual shoes

The best way to run an effective meeting with a mix of people in the room and elsewhere is to understand their challenges – and the best way to do that is to try being a virtual participant yourself. Experiment with all-virtual participation. You may find it works best, and stick with it. And even if you don’t, it’s a great way to build understanding of the challenges your regional colleagues face every day.

For more tips on improving the virtual participation experience, check out these best practices.

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