‘You’re on mute!’ How can we make online meetings better?

Laura Sangha

I’ll keep this brief, I know you probably have a [Teams, Zoom, Skype, other] meeting to be at. Probably more than one. Is it about deferrals? Transition to online teaching? A viva? Personal tutoring? Decolonising group? Accreditation? Supervision? Wellbeing? Exam board? Deep dive lightning talk extraordinary forum workshop reading group paper sand pit?

Before this year I had attended online meetings for work on only a couple of occasions, but now it’s a rare day that doesn’t contain a couple of online meetings. Everyone I talk to in these meetings tells me they are spending too much time in online meetings. I am beginning to feel like each minute I spend staring at a pixelated reproduction of the shape of my colleagues is equal to a minute I will spend lying awake in bed, unable to switch off my fevered screened-out brain and escape into unaware oblivion (or at the very least a bizarre lockdown dream).

Evidently online meetings are inescapable, and they are likely to be for quite some time yet. But before resigning ourselves to our fate, a bit of reflection might be useful.

Is your online meeting … better?

When I suggested on twitter that my departmental Teams meeting was quite an improvement on the old face-to-face version, proving more efficient and incorporating a wider range of voices, the responses were starkly divided. Evidently the online format provides new opportunities, but also new pitfalls.

Better? having the ‘raise a hand’ and ‘chat’ function running alongside discussion often means that more people get to offer an opinion than in a face-to-face meeting. The chat in particular allows people to participate in new ways – by allowing people to explicitly show support for something being said (I agree with Ayesha/this is really important), or to use ‘thumbs up’ reactions to indicate consensus around a point. This can be much quicker than everyone taking turns to say something, and better than just the same few people saying something and everyone else remaining silent.

Worse? Yet a few people also said that the chat was distracting, liable to veer off the point, and in at least one case someone reported that the chat function was disabled in their meetings as a result. In her post for this series Jennifer Farrell also drew attention to the fact that in more open public meetings trolls might be lurking in the chat. Reactions were also presumably shaped by how bad/good the dynamic was in previous face-to-face meetings.

Making it work? Digital contact needs housekeeping rules. Just like with a face-to-face meeting, it seems that the role of the chair is key. S/he needs to explain at the outset what the function of ‘raise a hand’ or ‘chat’ will be (e.g. questions and discussion points, raise your hand; for points of information, to show support or to share resources use the chat). In some cases it might be useful to have a co-chair or moderator who monitors the chat and/or raised hands, freeing the other co-chair to pay closer attention to points being made. The success of the meeting also appears to be closely tied to its size – I’ve found huge online meetings much more difficult to participate in and the chat can become very unwieldy. The existing relationship between participants may also be key, since it can strongly influence how people behave once the meeting is underway.

Could your online meeting actually be … something else?

It’s easy to default to an online meeting when something needs discussing, but it may be that a different format would be more suitable, more inclusive of people’s current working patterns and more efficient as a result. Alternatives could be:

– an email. No really. If it’s long use bullet points so things don’t get missed by recipients
– for one-to-one meetings, a phone call
– a shared google doc to gather information, pool resources, or to ask people to respond to specific questions
– an online thread/chat (via Teams or whatever software your institution uses). This is a good way to avoid long email chains with lots of overlapping responses

Google docs and online chat threads have the advantage of being asynchronous and better for people with noisy households, caring duties or weaker internet connections. Many of us are currently contemplating new and innovative ways to interact with our students online in the autumn term, and many of those techniques could be brought in to other aspects of online scholarship too.

And finally: common phrases and scenarios for the uninitiated

  • ‘is she frozen? I think she’s frozen’
  • ‘you are on mute. you’re muted!’
  • **Buffering/pause/lag/glitch**
  • ‘is that a new hand, or a legacy hand?’
  • ‘will the person eating a bag of crisps please mute their microphone’
  • *pet/child intervention*
  • ‘can everyone please leave this meeting and join the people already in the other meeting’
  • doorbell!
  • *partner singing silly song in background not realising you were attending Senate at the time*

This post is part of our ongoing ‘#SchOnline: Scholarly Communities Online’ series – see the Table of Contents for more.

2 thoughts on “‘You’re on mute!’ How can we make online meetings better?

  1. The impetus for shorter, focused, effective online meetings is to have a special discount rate for connections for less than one hour, after which the rate increases (available from several telecomms providers). It doesn’t prevent HoDs asking for continuations, of course.

  2. Pingback: #SchOnline: Scholarly Communities Online | the many-headed monster

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