Restoring empathy during meetings

Trust is expensive to build and easy to destroy, which is why it’s rare. –Scott Berkun, The Year Without Pants

It has now been three weeks into my month of 100% mobile remote work. I think I’ve participated in enough meetings remotely (well over 50 according to my calendar) to sufficiently annoy people back at HQ :), so I wanted to pause and reflect on what makes these meetings difficult in general.

I have found that almost all of the issues I have experienced with remote meetings seem to stem from a lack of empathy between participants. It’s difficult for people in the office to understand all the chaos that might be going on around a colleague on the road, and it’s difficult for the remote worker to capture all the nuances of human behavior back in the meeting room and the supposedly 93% of communication that is non-verbal.

Of course, this is all due to the unfortunately inherent missing elements of face-to-face communication that remote workers endure. But I’ve explored ways to mitigate the negative impact of not physically being present at meetings, and have a few tips that might help those trailblazers who often telecommute.

You dial in

It is magnitudes more effective for everyone in a meeting if the remote worker is the one who dials in or initiates the call. Asking a room full of coworkers to take 5 minutes of the valuable meeting time to enter an arcane series of digits into a phone to connect to a conference line is just overwhelming. By the time a connection is finally established, the amount of patience left in the room is already far too low and any empathy for the remote worker will be hard to come by.

That’s why I preloaded the direct phone numbers of all the conference rooms at HQ into my address book before I left – the goal was to make my arrival at a meeting as instantaneous and seamless for the people in the room as it could possibly be.

Don’t drop off

Ensuring a stable connection is key. Because I have been often moving between customer offices or in places without public WiFi, I found myself depending heavily on a flaky 4G LTE Verizon MiFi card. When it runs out of power, overheats, or has poor reception, my connection becomes toast and VoIP/video calls suffer.

Nothing destroys the illusion of a remote worker being present faster than stuttering voices or glitching video. To ensure you remain as life-like as possible (and thus maintain empathy), a dedicated office-grade WiFi connection is best.

Listen and be heard

A good mic and headphones go a long way to making sure conversations are crystal clear, so invest in some good audio hardware for your setup if you can. This is important on both sides – people back in the office can only be heard on good conference devices (like Polycoms) and only if they are close enough to the microphones.

Box wisely stocked each conference room with professional grade conferencing equipment, including extension mics so even people at the end of long tables can be heard properly. But not everyone is used to using them, so some reminders to “speak closer to the mic” are sometimes necessary. As both parties get more familiar with the equipment, being understood and attaining empathy for your message should get easier.

Use video whenever possible

There’s a reason why futuristic tech visioning projects always feature videoconferencing. It’s because it adds a whole other dimension to remote calls and instantly/drastically increases empathy between people. It’s as close as we can be to true face-to-face communication without holograms, it seems.

Of course there are options like Skype and Google Hangouts, but when you’re ready to take it to the next level you could try something like the Double robot:

Almost as good as being there in person!

Focus on who you’re meeting with

When you’re in a voice (or even video) call, it’s often tempting for remote workers to wander around or do other tasks when the conversation becomes uninteresting or irrelevant. However, that is the exact fear and stereotypical expectation from people back at the office, and contributes to that nagging feeling that, “this person isn’t really here“.

To counter this, I try to make a point to be the most invested and attentive person in the room at all times. I’m not checking my email or going through my browser tabs while I’m in a call – I’m looking straight at coworkers and jumping into conversations as necessary. Knowing that you’re there and engaged keeps your team’s empathy levels with you high.

I clearly still have a lot to learn about how to do remote work efficiently based on how the average remote meeting has been going for me. But I still have one week left on the East Coast with about a dozen more meetings planned. So I’ll continue to strive to be the first to dial in, maintain a steady connection, use good audio equipment, leverage video as much as I can, and focus on people even more to exercise my ability to be as present as possible while I remain 3000 miles away. And hopefully, there will still be some empathy for me by the end of it all. 🙂

Have you ever tried to participate in meetings remotely? Feel free to share your own experiences and tips with me anytime!

By the way, I’m going to be speaking at the October NY Enterprise Meetup about considerations taken when building enterprise mobile apps – if you’re in NYC on the evening of Oct 16, you should stop by! Register here:

October 2013 NY Enterprise Technology Meetup

Wednesday, Oct 16, 2013, 6:45 PM

1114 Avenue of the Americas New York, NY

145 Enterprise Technologists Went

Join fellow technologists, entrepreneurs, and investors for the NY Enterprise Technology Meetup’s (NYETM) October meetup on Wednesday 10/16/13 from 6:45pm-9:00pm!For our October meetup we have two company demos and 2 special presentations:• NopSec – NopSec helps enterprises transform security data overload into holistic vulnerability management …

Check out this Meetup →

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