In our earlier blog post “Remote Civic Meetings – Empowering Municipal Governments During Crises and Beyond“, we took a high-level look at how remote meetings enable municipal councils to assemble virtually and achieve their mandates amidst the fundamental societal changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, making those virtual meetings efficient and effective requires more than just great technology. It also requires adapting your procedures – and possibly your thinking – to make the best use of the new medium while keeping control of the proceedings.
Just as owning a hammer and saw doesn’t make a person a skilled carpenter, simply acquiring even the best remote meeting tools doesn’t guarantee successful virtual meetings. In this article, we’ll briefly recap some key tools and outline some important considerations for conducting your remote meetings, with a preview of the procedural tips that guest speaker and Meeting Guru Debi Wilcox will present in our upcoming webinar of the same name
Tools of the trade
In our recent webinar “Working Remotely & Conducting Remote Meetings”, we introduced a few new and established technology solutions to help facilitate remote meetings. While web-based video conferencing services (such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx, GoToMeeting and the like) enable concurrent, real-time communication, additional meeting management tools are needed to meet public sector organizations’ requirements for public transparency, procedural management and citizen engagement.
To recap, some of the key technology considerations for remote municipal or board meetings include:
- Webcasting integration
Webcasting is an important element of many organizations’ transparency initiatives, and becomes even more crucial with citizens unable to attend meetings in person. While web video conferencing services typically offer options for live viewing by broader attendees and recording for subsequent on-demand viewing, the results lack the comprehensiveness that constituents may expect. For example, councils that use the eScribe platform to webcast their physical meetings often incorporate the display of motions and detailed voting results into their streams, and time-stamp key points in the recordings for viewers to jump to specific agenda items through the organization’s website. eScribe now offers a variety of options to help integrate remote civic meetings into rich webcasts.
- Electronic voting
While simple procedural votes could be conducted through a verbal roll call or show of hands in the video conference, a more efficient and effective method would be to use electronic voting through the remote participant’s device. When integrated into a complete meeting management platform, such voting tools incorporate roll call and pecuniary interest management; display the motion or amendment, as well as resulting votes for and against, as part of the webcast; and can automatically publish detailed voting results in the meeting minutes and online. The eScribe Vote Manager offers this functionality and supports multiple voting modalities (for jurisdictions that permit them) including simple majority, weighted, two-thirds majority, unanimous, tie breaker, multiple choice and secret ballot.
- Request-to-speak management
Just as multiple people talking over each other impedes productive discussion during an in-person meeting, a cacophony of voices can be equally disruptive in a virtual session. We have recently enhanced the Request-to-Speak feature in eScribe’s Vote Manager module to support the expanded needs of remote meetings. Participants’ submitted requests to speak are queued for the meeting chair, who can then “unmute” that individual’s audio when it’s his or her time to speak. Time limits can also be implemented, with remaining time displayed for easy reference.
- Citizen engagement
Public participation obviously becomes much more challenging when there are no in-person meetings for constituents to attend. eScribe’s new Public Comments add-on enables easy collection, distribution and publication of citizens’ input on agenda items before, during and after meetings, while the new Delegation Request Management option helps organizations efficiently manage citizen requests to speak during public meetings through an online form on their existing website.
- Webcasting integration
Unique challenges of conducting remote meetings
Once you have the technology tools you need to conduct a remote meeting, how do you put them into practice most effectively? While many of the principles of making meetings efficient and productive stay the same as their physical counterparts, virtual meetings have additional nuances that must be addressed to keep everything on track.
One of the most important considerations for virtual meetings is that they can be more grueling for participants than their in-person equivalents. Behavioural researchers, sociologists and the mainstream media have recently coined the term “Zoom fatigue” to describe this phenomenon, and while phrase unfairly associates the issue with that one particular platform, the problem really encompasses all video conferencing tools.
Even a one-to-one video call between just two participants requires more mental focus than a face-to-face conversation. Non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and speaking tone that are easily and subconsciously absorbed in person are harder to process virtually, and the body language that often speaks louder than words in physical meetings may be completely unavailable when you only see each other’s heads and shoulders. Now take the extra energy required for a virtual conversation with one person and multiply it five-fold or more for trying to focus on many council members simultaneously in the grid view of a video conference. It’s easy to see how virtual meetings can become exhausting.
Keeping your meetings efficient is thus more important than ever before, and shorter meeting duration should be among your goals. To help achieve this, meeting productivity expert Wilcox recommends adapting your council meeting agenda structure to the virtual venue with condensed timelines and a revised flow. In her experience, participants’ attention span in a remote meeting may be as little as one hour, so you should consider putting the most important agenda items first to ensure they get the appropriate level of focus.
To achieve more compact meeting timeframes, participants should be given access to the agenda as early as possible, so they have plenty of time to prepare. Electronic meeting management solutions such as the eScribe platform excel at making it easy to distribute agendas in advance and for participants to review them.
As another important step in pre-meeting preparation, all participants should take the time to test their own equipment shortly – but not too shortly – before each meeting. While dedicated meeting management vendors are cautious to ensure their software updates don’t interfere with the sessions they’re used for, general web conferencing tools and the operating systems upon which they run aren’t always as accommodating. It can be extremely frustrating for a participant if they fire up their laptop a couple of minutes before a meeting, only to be forced to wait while their operating system or conferencing tool finishes an update. Similarly, it can waste everyone’s time on the meeting if a participant needs to reconfigure their webcam or audio settings when the meeting has already started. Testing them in the software’s settings panel before the meeting can help minimize such occurrences.
Speaking of audio, having as many participants as possible using good-quality headsets can have a greater impact on the meeting than you may realize. The ability to hear each other clearly is an important part of all communication. Using just the webcam or laptop’s microphone and speakers can result in poor sound quality, echo, or significant background noise that all detract from what’s being said.
Some people don’t like being seen on camera (particularly by the public) wearing a headset, but poor-quality audio can undermine their public image far more. Even more important, using a headset can minimize unintended and often uncontrollable background sound. Most people using web conferencing pay a lot of attention to what can be seen behind them on video, but don’t realize that other participants or viewers can hear the barking dog, crying baby or laughing children from another room even with the door closed. And conversely, if you’re participating in a closed council meeting, the headset will prevent others in your household from overhearing private information.
Tune in for more tips
The above considerations were all fairly general, and mostly related to steps you can take before the meeting. There are many more meeting-specific procedural factors to take into account during and after the event. In our webinar Conducting Efficient & Effective Remote Meetings, Debi Wilcox will join us to offer specific procedural tips and tricks that you can use during the session from roll call to adjournment, including helpful pointers for the Chair, member participation and managing motions and voting.
The time you invest now in becoming a master conductor of virtual meetings will benefit you both today and in the long run. The impact of the COVID-19 crisis will be felt for years, and as with any major event, will change behaviour going forward. Even when councils are again able to meet in person and the public able to join them in the gallery, remote participation is likely to remain a significant and growing element in a hybrid physical/virtual approach. Register today for the webinar to get a head start!