My First Face-To-Face Meeting in Four Months-It CAN be Done! If you’re in the midst of debating whether or not to hold your next meeting in person, this article should help you think it through . . . I don’t pretend that just any organization can duplicate the circumstances that led to this successful meeting. My intent is to “lift the curtain” on this particular one to give you an idea of what’s possible.
A] The Engagement:
I was contracted in December 2019 to facilitate a Board/Executive Team Planning Summit, scheduled for June 2020. At the time of contracting, no one had heard of COVID-19 (now affectionately referred to as “the good old days”)! By the time we (me and my primary client contact) began designing the meeting, we found ourselves in the midst of the COVID-19 disruption–the only thing we knew for certain was that . . . nothing was for certain.
We started designing the meeting to deliver the outcomes the Board and Exec team wanted to achieve. Our decision was to plan for the content and conversations to be developed in modules. In that way we could proceed with either a single face-to-face meeting or a series of six-90 minute modules to be delivered over a period of days. The final decision on format would be based on:
- Guidelines from the Provincial Health Officer regarding what was considered safe as of the scheduled meeting date (keeping in mind those guidelines could change one way or another with next to no notice);
- Willingness of attendees to get together, even if it was deemed safe by the health authority;
- Availability of a facility that could: (a) provide a healthy, safe meeting environment that met or exceeded provincial guidelines; and (b) had a reasonable cancellation policy, should more restrictive provincial health guidelines be imposed with very short notice (a distinct possibility).
B] The Decision
In late May, the decision was made to proceed with a face-to-face meeting. There was definitely a need to have the meeting in June for a number of sound business reasons. It is important to note that (as far as I could tell as an outsider), there was absolutely no pressure (overt or covert) for individuals to attend. If they had any hesitation about attending, for any reason, we would have found a way to accommodate them as effectively as possible. Meeting space was booked, and planning progressed rapidly.
The meeting was 1 ½ days long and was attended by 15 people in the ballroom of a conference centre. [Upon my first look at the room, I had to suppress a wee gasp!] As you can see, there were a few logistical challenges to be embraced. A day or so before the meeting, it became impossible for one individual to attend in person. A small client team cheerfully (really!) swung into action to make the appropriate arrangements for full participation from afar.
Needless to say, the meeting was a wonderful success in many ways (otherwise I probably wouldn’t be writing this article). The following are some of what I consider to be the critical success factors. Some are “hard” factors related to the meeting, while others are less tangible. The intangible ones are the ones I feel are most important to pay attention to when considering a face-to-face meeting.
C] Critical Success Factors (Tangible)
Availability of a suitable facility:
(a) well-spaced out seating (b) separate area for eating and/or small group conversations (c) flexible, customer-oriented staff (d) great food provided in individual servings (sorry, no buffets) (e) room acoustics that allow participants to be heard clearly from a distance (without shouting).
(a) Presentations were run through Microsoft Teams. This enabled the remote participant to be fully engaged (unfortunately that individual had to be on the self-serve plan for coffee and food!). Because the room was so large, it was impossible for many participants to see the screen. Fortunately it was very easy for them to follow the presentation on their tablets or computer. This worked well as long as they had their microphones and speakers turned off.
(b) A Logitech “Rally” video conferencing system enabled the remote participant to see and hear everything that was going on in the room. In this case, and because of the last minute adjustments required, the client provided their own system and tech support to get this set up the night before. Most conference centres should be able to provide this type of equipment, given sufficient notice. We were prepared with several wireless mics . . . that we ended up not needing. That was partly because of good room acoustics and partly because of respectful behaviour on the part of participants.
D] Critical Success Factors (Less Tangible)
- Everyone wanted/preferred to be there in person, provided it could be done safely. People had an opportunity to not attend if they felt that was best for them.
- Great attitude/willingness of the organization’s staff to embrace change. For example, when there was a last minute change required to accommodate a member of the team who was unable to attend in person, the tech support person made himself available the night before the meeting. He took on the challenge with good spirit and enthusiasm. Everything was working before he headed home that evening. And then he showed up the next morning to ensure all was still good!
- Individuals were very respectful of keeping safe distances from each other, as difficult as that was.
- Many of the attendees had been working together for years. Their different governance and operations roles were well respected and they happened to be good friends who cared about each other as individuals.
- We engaged participants on three separate opportunities using Thought Exchange (www.thoughtexchange.com) in the weeks leading up to the meeting. We gathered their input and ensured everyone was fully engaged before arriving at the meeting.
- The individual who participated remotely for the full 1.5 days was incredibly present for the full duration of the meeting. I would love to develop that capacity myself!
- The Board Chair and CEO worked well together—both modelled the mutual trust, acceptance of change and need to be flexible in such unpredictable times.
- Great working relationship between the facilitator (that would be me!) and the primary client (a senior manager who is not on the Exec team . . . yet!). We were equally invested in making the meeting valuable to all participants. Changes and hiccups were cheerfully embraced, shared and resolved;
I hesitate to say the attitude of the participants was one of the greatest success factors in this meeting. However, it was! They had a deep understanding of the challenges and uncertainties in the economy, and the need to go with the flow.
E] Where to From Here?
A number of my clients and colleagues were curious about how this meeting went—I hope this helps satisfy that curiosity. I will continue to facilitate a variety of online meetings for the foreseeable future; however, I really enjoyed the opportunity to work in person, as relatively awkward as that might have been!
I’m happy to chat about any meetings you’re thinking about holding, should you wish to think through the best format for achieving your desired impact. I am even happier to work with you to design, develop and deliver one of those meetings (online or in person—the greater the challenge the better)! David Gouthro + firstname.lastname@example.org + 604.218.2877