Seeing some of the enterprise-level distance meeting and videoconferencing technologies at the Web2.0 Expo recently, I've been thinking about what sorts of lessons should be taken away for running effective and emotionally engaging meetings in virtual environments.
Here's some of my thinking on the matter...
My colleague Joyce and I were wandering around the Web2.0 Expo floor, gawking at all the new tech and hunting for toys to play with. We wandered in the teleconferencing section of the exhibition floor, where I was immediately attracted to the LifeSize booth. They had a large conference table set up with four chairs surrounding a sleek-looking conference phone.
Facing the table were three large HD video screens displaying five life-sized people sitting around a very similar conference table. It took a few seconds for it to register that this was a live image, which became apparent as the people gesticulated to you and started talking to you by name. I soon found out from them that they were LifeSize employees in their Austin, Texas office.
The walls, table, comera angles, and surround-sound audio were set up in such a way that my brain was half-way convinced that these people were actually in the room with me, rather then a 800 miles away. It was the sensory combination of sight and sound that did it.
The sense of proximity and intimacy was such that after the perfunctory discussions about the technology, we soon had moved on to talking about the best barbeque joints in Austin and best hot dog in New York City. You could tell a joke and see the body language and facial nuances of who was amused, somewhat offended or confused by it. In other words, this technology appeared to have a high level of emotional bandwidth. That's what enterprise-level budgets gets you.
At Global Kids, we use a more consumer-level tech for collaborating remotely, from instant messaging to conference calls to Skype and iChat video calls. These work quite well for our purposes, and we're very good at using these tools. But there is also a significant amount of information lost amidst the staticky connections, packet loss, and noisy office environments.
Which brings me to virtual meetings.
If we are going to tout virtual worlds as places where real work gets done, and people can collaborate remotely, we need to think about how these spaces compare -- favorably and negatively -- to real world meetings. In a previous blog post, I mused about how they might be possible spaces for activist organizer collaboration. What I didn't talk about was the affective, psychological side of face-to-face versus virtual meetings.
Face-to-face meetings involve a lot of explicit and tacit information that is being passed back and forth among the participants simultaneously. I.e.
- Where people sit or stand: can communicate who is in charge, committed, opposed, checked-out, a newcomer.
- Eye contact: Eye gaze can indicate a challenge, a flirtation, a warning, boredom.
- Body language: slouching versus sitting straight up, fidgeting, tapping your pen
- Physical contact: a hand-shake, a high-five, a pat on the back
- Voice tone and volume: whispering to just the person next to you, shouting until the ceiling tiles vibrate
- Dress: A three-piece suit versus business casual versus clubwear
What was so impressive about the video-conferencing tech I saw at the Web2.0 Expo was that a lot of this tacit information seemed to be possible to transmit across distances, along with the actual explicit content of the meeting.
Similarly, many of these things can be currently simulated in virtual environments. Your avatar can be seated or standing, can be near the boss or at the back of the room. You can dress your avatar like a goth vampire or a polynesian warrior or just like you. Your voice can be projected into the room from your computer, and you can hear others voices surround you if you have a good enough speaker setup.
But generally you can not control very much about where your avatar is looking. Your "body language" is indicated more by the sit animation of the chair you are currently inhabiting rather than any mood or attitude you feel. You might run into another avatar, not as a sign of aggression but simply because your internet connection is flaky.
All of these things lead up to the feeling that the virtual meeting you have does not feel quite as real or psychologically relevant as a face-to-face meeting, and not as a engaging as a videoconference.
For some applications this is hardly an issue. If you are attending a lecture, you are probably more attentive to the information being imparted more than having an intimate connection with the speaker.
But for other scenarios, the lack of emotional bandwidth might present a real problem. I.e. a meeting where you are trying to convince three different parties with competing interests to work together and share information. Or a new initiative that you are presenting to your board for approval. Or a management check-in you are engaging in with your project team that hasn't met their latest deadline. These all require a certain amount of buy-in and trust that would probably be a lot harder to get to outside of a face-to-face meeting.
Which is not say that it can't be done. But it is harder and can take longer the less tacit information is exchanged between people.
I can't (yet) ask your avatar to look me in the eyes and promise you'll complete the project by the end of the week. Your avatar can't lean forward and shake my hand and tell me that it'll be done. That's what face-to-face meetings are for.