Effectively including online participants in onsite meetings

By Participants in the SESYNC Theme “Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science”

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Author details

With increasing interest in online participation in workshops, meetings and classes, are there useful protocols to ensure that online participation is effective? Mixed onsite-online meetings are probably the hardest to manage well. How can you effectively include online participants, so that they don’t feel marginalized and ignored? How can you ensure that everyone has a chance to share their expertise and perspectives, and benefits fully from the meeting?

We draw on our experiences in four different interdisciplinary academic teams which held three-day meetings across wide time zones. We provide a protocol for effectively managing meetings rather than the necessary technical requirements, and welcome comments on the latter. Different technological set-ups will have different strengths and weaknesses, so some of our lessons will require modification depending on the exact circumstances. Many of our suggestions are also relevant to online only meetings.

Set-up

  • Ensure that the technology is up to the tasks required, especially that there is excellent audio and preferably also video.
  • Ensure that a technical expert is on hand to check that everything is working properly onsite, and to help online participants handle any glitches that arise.
  • Have a practice run beforehand!
  • Make it easy for everyone to identify everyone else – if you don’t already know each other, consider providing:
    • a list of photos and names
    • large nameplates that can be read by online participants and visible name identifiers for online participants.
  • Decide if any ancillary technology (eg., Google docs) will be used ahead of the meeting and make sure everyone has access to it.
  • Plan small group work ahead of time and think through what’s necessary for online participants to be full members. For example, will you divide the online participants and have them join different small groups, or will they form their own small group? How will the technology work in each of those situations? Bear in mind that while two onsite small groups can work in the same room, this often does not work well when there are also online participants (see notes on soundscape below).

Tips for onsite set-up

  • Ensure that the screen showing the online participants includes them in the meeting eg., don’t have onsite participants sitting with their backs to the screen.
  • Delegate someone to manage what the online participants see and to use the technology to its full capacity, eg., if online participants can only see part of the meeting room, make sure the camera moves to take in where the discussion is occurring and if there is a zoom capacity, zoom in on the person speaking.
    • If possible, delegate this task to a someone who is not a meeting participant, so that they can focus on it fully.
    • If this task is undertaken by meeting participants, rotate it amongst the participants.

Tips for online set-up

  • Ensure that your computer audio is up to the task. If it is not, invest in a microphone.
  • Use headphones to enhance your ability to hear; make sure they are comfortable, especially for long meetings.
  • Review how you appear on-screen. Cameras built into computers often show you at a poor angle; consider investing in a separate camera that you can look into directly. Adjust the camera distance and angle so that your face is well-centred on the screen and a good size (not too small or too large). Be aware of what viewers will see behind you

Participation

Remember:

  • It is harder to build relationships when you are not interacting face-to-face.
  • There is often a time lag, especially when online participants speak.

Tips for onsite participants

  • Make space for the online participants to contribute.
  • Make eye contact with online participants as well as those onsite.
  • Monitor how the online participants are going. This can be done by:
    • regular check-ins, including monitoring the chat (commenting or messaging) system
    • a buddy system pairing online and onsite participants, who connect during breaks and also via chat or e-mail during the meeting.
  • Record shared ideas in a way that is accessible to everyone:
    • use an inclusive technology eg., have someone record ideas on their computer, which is both projected into the room and screen-shared with online participants
    • note that online participants generally cannot read what is written on a whiteboard or flip chart
    • if you must use a white board or flip chart, delegate someone to take photos and to share them with the online participants.
  • Organize a process for filling-in online participants on important onsite conversation outside the meeting eg., over dinner or lunch.
  • Be mindful of the soundscape and your contribution to it. Microphones do not filter sound in the same way that your ears do. Online participants can hear everything that is happening in the room, including the side-conversations. If there are too many side conversations, clatter from cups or plates, paper shuffling, or there is background noise (machinery, for example) this is much more disruptive for online than onsite participants.

Tips for online participants

  • Treat the meeting in the same way you would if you were present onsite:
    • if there is a time difference, adjust your body clock and meal times
    • allocate time to the meeting appropriately eg., do not try to do your day job as well as participating in the meeting
    • if you cannot be present the whole time, let the chair or facilitator know.
  • Become adept at muting your microphone when you are not speaking and turning it on before you do.
  • Participate! Recognise that it is harder than being in the room and push yourself a little more to have your say.
  • If you miss something, ask for it to be repeated.
  • Liaise with the other online participants and speak up if something is not working with either the technology or the way the meeting is being run:
    • the chat function is useful for checking in with other online participants.
  • Be mindful of what the onsite participants can hear and see:
    • if you are wearing headphones you will not hear background noise at your end and the noise may be disruptive for onsite participants
    • if you eat during the meeting, mute your microphone and turn off the video.

Tips for chairs and facilitators

  • Ensure that the tips above are implemented.
  • Ensure that the times listed on the agenda reflect all the times zones across which the meetings is held.
  • Be clear about how you want to manage the flow of conversation and turn-taking. Make sure it works for the online participants eg., if you want people to raise their hands, make sure you can see when online participants have their hands raised.
  • Do not try to do everything yourself, eg., get others onsite and online to monitor when people want to speak and how the meeting is going.
  • Alternate between online and onsite participants when calling on people to speak.
  • Invite everyone to reflect on the process at the end of the meeting to build additional learnings.

What has your experience been with mixed onsite and online meetings? Do you have additional tips to share? Do you have examples of when things have worked well and when they have gone badly, along with lessons learnt?

Authors: We are a subgroup of the members of the theme Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in Annapolis, Maryland, USA. For all but one of us, clicking on our names in the author list below will provide links to other blog posts we have written for this blog, along with our biographical details. An additional biography and two updated affiliations are also provided.

The combined image of all the authors can also be opened via the this link (PDF 192KB).

Top row (left to right): Gabriele Bammer, Sondoss Elsawah, Pierre Glynn, Joseph Guillaume
Second row (left to right): David Hawthorne, Antonie Jetter, Rebecca Jordan
Third row (left to right): Kirsten Kainz, Bethany Laursen, Allison MetzGraeme Nicholas
Second last row (left to right): Michael Paolisso, Katrin Prager, Laura Schmitt-Olabisi
Last row (left to right): Val Snow, Eleanor Sterling, Cristina Zurbriggen

Additional biography: Pierre Glynn PhD heads the Hydro-Ecological Interactions Branch in the Water Mission Area at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). He also serves as the Water Mission Area representative to the USGS Science and Decisions Center.

Updated affiliations:
Graeme Nicholas is now a consultant.
Katrin Prager is now in the Geography & Environment Department, University of Aberdeen, UK.

Fifteen characteristics of complex social systems

By Hamilton Carvalho

Author - Hamilton Carvalho
Hamilton Carvalho (biography)

What is it about complex social systems that keeps reproducing old problems, as well as adding new ones? How can public policy move away from what I call the Mencken Syndrome (in reference to a quotation from American journalist Henry Mencken) – that is, continually proposing clear and simple solutions to complex social problems – that are also wrong!

With this goal in mind, I have compiled a list of fifteen major characteristics of complex social systems based on the system dynamics and complexity sciences literatures, as well as my own research.

  1. Networks of heterogeneous social actors. In all social systems, the people involved can be thought of as networks of heterogeneous social actors. Not only are individuals different from each other, but they also constantly interact within several spheres of life (eg., natural, technological, cultural, social, political). Information percolates at different speeds and under the influence of specialized social actors (eg., influencers, information brokers). Typically, the available information is so huge that it can only be sampled by the social actors, so that communication is based on these samples.
  2. Emergence. Some complex system behaviours are underpinned by simple rules governing the actions of social actors. Hence, the behavior of the whole system is different from that of individual social actors and can be said to emerge from the behavior of social actors.
  3. Endogeneity. The dynamics of systems arise spontaneously from their internal structure. Self-reinforcing and balancing feedback loops define how the system behaves over time. Small, random perturbations can be amplified by the system’s feedback structure, creating patterns in space and time.
  4. Nonlinearity. Effects are rarely proportional to causes. Instead, nonlinearities are the rule. What happens locally in a system, near the current operating point, may not apply in other parts of the system.
  5. Scaling. The Pareto principle, or “80-20 rule” is useful for explaining why problems such as income inequality persist. More generally, most social problems are caused by a small percentage of groups or individuals.
  6. Different time scales. Changes in systems occur on many different time scales, and such scales sometimes interact among themselves. For instance, a long-term policy for developing biofuels may have weak consequences for food production under normal circumstances, but the strike of a hurricane may change everything, leading to food shortages.
  7. Path dependence. Decisions alter the state of the world, causing changes in the system and triggering other social actors to act. The new situation then constrains the path for subsequent courses of action. Hence, choosing a path often leads to irreversible consequences that determine the fate of the system, making it history-dependent.
  8. Delays and accumulation of stocks. Actions and policies usually require a long time horizon to manifest their results. Material stocks (eg., financial resources, people) and non-material stocks (eg., reputation, human capital) accumulate over the continuous passage of time. Moreover, delays in recognizing problems and changing the course of policies create strong inertia in social systems. Think of all the CO2 trapped in the atmosphere or the ‘stock’ of poor people with low educational levels.
  9. Adaptation, learning and exploitation. Capabilities and decision-making rules employed by social actors change over time. Adaptive systems may balance exploitation and exploration. Many social actors strive to find points of exploitation in the system.
  10. Presence of surprising and counterintuitive behaviors. Causes and effects are distant in time and space. The natural tendency of human beings is to pay attention to symptoms. Causes are often buried under deep layers of systemic structures. Thus, effective policies are often not obvious.
  11. Policy resistance. The complexity of systems overwhelms our ability to understand them. Many seemingly obvious solutions fail or worsen the situation, since systems counterbalance the forces applied to them.
  12. Temporal trade-off. The long-term response of a system is often different from its short-term response. Effective policies often cause worse-before-better behavior, while superficial solutions tend to produce small improvements and then make the underlying problem worse over time.
  13. Resilience. Complex social systems have different degrees of resilience. They typically absorb most of the ‘normal’ disturbance from the outside, but resilience is lost when tipping points and thresholds are crossed.
  14. Local rationality. Bounded rational social actors strive to reach their own goals, which often are in opposition to the goals of the entire system.
  15. Balance of power and narratives. In any social system, a balance of power favors some class or network of social actors. The groups who have access to political and economic channels often control the societal mechanisms of sense-making – perceiving and interpreting problems, opportunities and pressures for change.

Do these characteristics of complex social systems resonate with you? Do you have others to share? Do you have examples from your experience where these characteristics were essential to explain what is going on?

To find out more and for references to the ideas cited, see:
Carvalho, H. C. and Mazzon, J. A. (2020). Embracing complex social problems. Journal of Social Marketing, 10 (1): 54-80. (Online) (DOI): 10.1108/JSOCM-03-2019-0049

Biography: Hamilton Carvalho PhD works for São Paulo State government in Brazil. His main areas of interest are complex social problems and social behaviours of public interest.

How can expertise in research integration and implementation help tackle complex problems?

By Gabriele Bammer

author - gabriele bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What is expertise in research integration and implementation? What is its role in helping tackle complex societal and environmental problems, especially those dimensions that define complexity?

Expertise in research integration and implementation

Addressing complex societal and environmental problems requires specific expertise over and above that contributed by existing disciplines, but there is little formal recognition of what that expertise is or reward for contributing it to a research team’s efforts. In brief, such expertise includes the ability to:

  • identify relevant disciplinary and stakeholder inputs
  • effectively integrate them for a more comprehensive understanding of the problem
  • support more effective actions to ameliorate the problem.

Continue reading

A framework to evaluate the impacts of research on policy and practice

By Laura Meagher and David Edwards

author-laura-meagher
Laura Meagher (biography)

What is meant by impact generation and how can it be facilitated, captured and shared? How can researchers be empowered to think beyond ‘instrumental’ impact and identify other changes generated by their work? How can the cloud of complexity be dispersed so that numerous factors affecting development of impacts can be seen? How can a way be opened for researchers to step back and reflect critically on what happened and what could be improved in the future? How can research teams and stakeholders translate isolated examples of impact and causes of impact into narratives for both learning and dissemination? Continue reading

Theory U: A promising journey to embracing unknown unknowns

By Vanesa Weyrauch

author-venesa-weyrauch
Vanesa Weyrauch (biography)

How can we best live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world? How can we shift from a worldview that looks to predict and control what is to be done through plans and strategies to being present and flexible in order to respond effectively as unexpected changes take place? How can we be open to not knowing what will emerge and embrace uncertainty as the opportunity to co-create and learn?

One powerful and promising way forward is Theory U, a change methodology developed by Otto Scharmer and illustrated below. Scharmer introduced the concept of “presencing”—learning from the emerging future. The concept of “presencing” blends “sensing” (feeling the future possibility) and “presence” (the state of being in the present moment). It acknowledges that we don’t know the answers. Staying at the bottom of the U until the best potential future starts emerging requires embracing uncertainty as fertile soil. Continue reading

Transdisciplinary action research: A guiding framework for collaboration

By Steven Lam, Michelle Thompson, Kathleen Johnson, Cameron Fioret and Sarah Hargreaves

author-steven-lam
Steven Lam (biography)

How can graduate students work productively with each other and community partners? Many researchers and practitioners are engaging in transdisciplinarity, yet there is surprisingly little critical reflection about the processes and outcomes of transdisciplinarity, particularly from the perspectives of graduate students and community partners who are increasingly involved.

author-michelle-thompson
Michelle Thompson (biography)

Our group of four graduate students from the University of Guelph and one community partner from the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, reflect on our experiences of working together toward community food security in Canada, especially producing a guidebook for farmer-led research (Fioret et al. 2018). As none of us had previously worked together, nor shared any disciplines in common, we found it essential to first develop a guiding framework for collaboration. Our thinking combined the following key principles from action research and transdisciplinarity: Continue reading