Some thoughts for Chapter 5 of Seamless Teamwork … do you do things like this now, or have a different view?
We hold meetings for different purposes, and some of the meetings that we hold for in-person groups don’t make a lot of sense for virtual teams (and often they don’t make sense for in-person groups either!). Some of the reasons for holding a meeting when people can meet easily in-person are better handled in other ways for virtual teams. Let’s quickly review four different types of meetings:
2. Making a shared decision, or have an intense discussion
3. Giving and getting a status update
4. Social catchup and chit-chat
#1. Information-Transfer Meetings
Information transfer meetings provide a place for one person to pass on lots of information to an assembled group of other people. One person talks, everyone else listens. There are times when it makes sense to do this — a hostile bid has just been made for your organization, and the CEO is going to brief the company of the plan of response — but often times the calling of an information-transfer meeting strokes one person’s ego and wastes everyone else’s time. Within virtual teaming situations, given the difficulties of getting everyone together — even for a conference call — keep information-transfer meetings to a minimum. Actually, it’s better if you don’t do them at all. SharePoint provides so many ways of communicating information to others — through an announcement, through a blog posting, through a document in a document library — that as long as each team member knows where such information will be posted and knows that once it is posted they are expected to read it, that you can pretty much cut out information-transfer meetings all together.
Net-net: Eliminate information-transfer meetings and get the message out other ways.
#2. Discussion and Decision Meetings
Discussion and decision meetings are for highly interactive conversations and debate about a current pressing matter or a decision that needs to be made (yesterday!). Everyone gathers in a common place or shared virtual space — hopefully with a sense of what is going to be discussed and the ground rules for interaction (eg, critique the idea, not the person) — and then it’s a free for all. One person says one thing, another argues the opposite case, a third supports what the first said, the second points the flaws out … and so on … until everyone has been heard and all of the ideas have been critiqued and examined. At the end of the meeting, the decision as to “what now?” is made. Either people leave with more work to do, that is another task or action item, or a decision is suggested and people formally vote or informally agree or disagree. This is the kind of meeting where you want everyone together in one place, and when that’s not possible, the second best alternative is a shared virtual space like a conference call with screen sharing or high-definition video conference.
Net-net: Discussion and decision meetings are the heart of team work, both in-person and distributed.
#3. Status Report Meetings
Status report meetings are very helpful for keeping everyone on the same page. At such a meeting, which are ideally held everyday at the same time, everyone has 30 seconds to say what they are currently working on and any problems they are up against, and everyone else gets to hear what’s happening. This means that a shared cognitive picture of the work of the team or organization builds up over time, and if someone is working on something that piques someone else’s interest, an opportunity for spontaneous collaboration and greater value-add has been created. Again, given the difficulties of actually scheduling a regular conference call where everyone can dial in and have this kind of briefing make it impractical for some virtual teams. And in addition, these meetings work best as forward-looking statements of the work ahead for the day, an idea that doesn’t translate across very well to the virtual world where one person’s start time is another person’s end time. A much better option is for the team to use an announcements list in SharePoint, and for everyone on the team to make an announcement each morning about what they are planning on doing that day. Given the ease of subscribing to an announcements list by email or RSS, everyone else can be kept up-to-date and reap the same ambient coordination benefits of the in-person variant of this approach within their own work. If people subscribe to the announcements list by RSS, for example, every time they go into Outlook 2007 (or another RSS reader), they can see all of the quick status updates from the people on their team. Same benefits, minimal cost.
Net-net: Use a announcement list in SharePoint to provide regular status updates, and track what’s going on through RSS.
#4. Social Catchup
The final type of meeting is the social catchup meeting, where space is created for people to share recent experiences, to talk about ideas … to gather without an agenda but rather a willingness to talk, listen and see where the conversation meanders. These are really valid meetings to have — people can learn so much and get some great ideas — and they’re really easy to do when people work out of the same office. “Coffee, anyone?” is usually all it takes. It’s harder to do in a virtual team, but should be done because it can be even more rewarding … people that can’t see each other during the work week are able to hear about what’s going on, which allows them to form a mental picture about what work is like and the challenges in work for others. This contributes to developing shared understanding, and an empathy for others. Team members that have been keeping track of what others are working on through the announcement list in SharePoint can bring up some of those topics, for discussion and dialogue. When it comes time to have the actual social catchup, use a conference call and a screen sharing tool with the ability to give presenter rights to others if they want to show something from their computer to others.
Net-net: You’ll never have time for these meetings in virtual teams, but you have to make the time. They are important.
1. See Danny’s thoughts on this, and his “work execution” meeting type.