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On the Experience of Remote Meetings

Thomas Erickson




This essay comes out of my experience as a teleworker. At the time of the meeting described here, I'd been telecommuting to my job at Apple in California from my home in Minneapolis for a bit over three years.

I had a curious experience today. It changed the way I think about meetings, or at least it brought a number of things I appreciated at a tacit level into focus.

I was attending a meeting of people involved in user experience work at Apple Computer. I was 'sitting in' by phone, a normal occurrence since I live in Minnesota, whereas my Apple coworkers and meetings are in California. The only thing that made this meeting unusual in any way was the number and the set of people in attendance. I would guess there were twenty at the meeting, most of whom knew one another; however, this particular grouping had come together for just this meeting.

The important bit of background knowledge has to do with the mechanics of participating in a meeting by phone. The principle difficulty is that it is impossible to be subtle. One can not catch the speaker's eye, nod, raise a finger to reserve a turn in the conversation, or reliably predict when another speaker is about to stop. One can only blurt out what one has to say, and hope that one has inserted one's words of wisdom into a gap. Thus, it is easiest to be a phone participant in meetings that are relatively small, and with a group with whom you've met before. All of this is to make a simple point: the meeting which I was 'sitting in' on met neither of these 'ease of participation' criteria, and consequently rather than participating in the meeting, I observed and reflected upon it.

What caught my attention was the way the meeting ended. The majority of the meeting consisted of open discussion. One person would say something, another would respond, someone else would bring up a new topic, and so forth. In general, the meeting was quite focused, with only one thread of dialog. As the appointed end of the meeting drew near, the leader wrote down a few last points, made a call for final comments, and concluded the meeting by thanking everyone for coming.

Now, normally, at this point, I'd say goodbye, or someone in the meeting would say goodbye to me, and the phone connection would be terminated. However, that didn't happen. Instead, I got to experience the 'after-meeting' from a rather unusual vantage point: the remote end of a speaker phone with very good, omnidirectional microphones.

As the organizer of the meeting was thanking everyone for coming, I was reflecting on some things that had been said and thus missed the 'blurt gap' into which I could have said goodbye. Indeed, the blurt gap was very short, because no sooner had the organizer 'ended' the meeting, than there was an up welling of conversation. And I don't mean just two or three conversations. It sounded to me like everyone in the room burst out talking at once. I was struck by the change in -- for lack of a better term -- the energy of the meeting.

As I listened I made up a story about what had happened. As the official meeting progressed, one person talking after another, various issues were raised without being entirely resolved, and various pairs and small groups of people began building up a set of potential conversations. When the meeting 'ended,' and the one-person-at-a-time constraint was released, the pent up conversational potential was released in a babble of conversations. And indeed, as I listened I heard people arranging meetings, clarifying points, or talking about related matters.

In fact, I heard something quite relevant to me. I heard a colleague start to describe a meeting he had been at the previous day in which I was very interested. But I couldn't quite follow the thread of the conversation--there were too many competing conversations. And also I didn't feel sure that it was quite proper for me to listen without being visible, even though the conversation was occurring in a crowded room. I wondered how I could make my 'presence' (in *that* conversation) known? If finding a blurt gap among the turns of a serial conversation in an orderly meeting is difficult, joining one of many parallel conversations is nigh impossible when you're on the other end of a phone line. About the only option is the virtual equivalent of jumping up on a table in the midst of a cocktail party and shouting at the person with whom you wish to speak. So I remained silent.

But that was really fine, because what was happening was quite fascinating on a couple of different levels. First, it struck me that this after-meeting was enormously productive in promoting the interchange of ideas and the coordination of activity. Probably more interactions happened (or were arranged) in the five minute after-meeting than in the previous week. This is not to say that the meeting itself was not worthwhile: to the contrary, it brought together the people and raised the conversational potential to make it all possible. This is really just the micro-analog of the truism about professional conferences: all the good stuff really happens between the talks.

Another interesting aspect of the after-meeting was how engaging and relevant the fragments of conversation seemed. I wished I had been able to record the babble, and play it back later. It seemed to me that if I could have recorded the five minutes of the after-meeting, it would provide a very good summary of both the meeting itself, and of the state of the community for those who knew the participants and understood the context. (Of course, privacy stands in the way of any general implementations of such ideas; even though all these conversations were being carried out loudly in a public space, transforming ephemeral conversation into persistent recordings is a very fundamental shift.)

The moral of this story has to do with the interaction of language and technology. First, note that normally, thanks to technology, I would have missed all this. I usually 'arrive' when the meeting 'begins,' and I 'depart' when the meeting 'ends.' I miss the after-meeting. And I miss the pre-meeting. In reality, groups coalesce gradually, and disperse gradually, and a lot of interesting and subtle things happen in these periods. Technology, on the other hand, is all or nothing. It doesn't support the gradual ebb and flow of groups that characterizes groups (nor does it do that well when suddenly everyone begins talking at once!). But it's not just technology that's to blame. The notion of a meeting as a discrete entity, with definite beginnings and endings is embedded in our language, depicted in our calendars, and assumed in our work practices. Normally this isn't a problem, because the mundane artifacts to which we are accustomed can be shifted and redeployed to accomodate new circumstances. The problem here is that technology has a peculiar rigidity which makes it much poorer at accommodating the unremarked ambiguities which permeate our daily lives, and until we understand how to make technology that is more pliant, we need to take great care about how our words are reflected in our designs.


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