Remote Meeting Management 101

Meetings with remote participants are harder than other meetings.  We humans are better at conducting conversations when we have the full range of information from body language and facial expression to work with. But sometimes we have no choice but to communicate with our colleagues who cannot be together with us — and if we value their contributions, we’ll find a way to make this work.

There’s a range of variables that can make this easier or harder.

– Technology.  Ease of use of the technology, fitness for the purpose you’re using it for, and the participants’ familiarity with the tech in question are all aspects of this question.

– The purpose of the meeting – is it one way information dissemination, or do people need to come to new agreements?

– Time zones.  My nightmare scheduling scenario has people in India, Israel, US East Coast, and US West Coast.   Unfortunately, sometimes that’s team I need.   The best you can hope for is to make everyone equally unhappy with the scheduling.

– Is everyone remote?  In my experience, it seems easier to get remote meetings to work out equitably if everyone is working at the same level of remote-ness or technological access.  It is very difficult not to over-privilege the people who happen to be in the room if  some are together and some are far away.

Here are a few things I try to do when remote meetings are necessary.


On a broad, cultural level, an organization that wants to include remote participants needs to become convinced that this is going to incur extra cost (both in people’s effort and in investment in technology) and that these expenses are worthwhile investments at the organizational level.    The remote people should not be the ones incurring all of the expense in addition to the disadvantages of being remote.    The goal is to include them as valued colleagues and collaborators.

Define the communication technology you’re going to use and reach out about that early enough that people can correct their access issues if possible.  If the meeting is important, it might be possible to set up a prep meeting in which the communication can be tested or trained on.

If at all possible, make that communication channel use video.  A technology that makes it clear who is present in the meeting and who is not is preferable to one that allows for silent lurkers and other unacknowledged participants.  It’s difficult to make space for contributions from people when you don’t know they are present.

The Meeting Itself

Meetings with remote participants may need some more structure than other meetings.  All of the things that make a meeting successful go double for remote meetings: thus, agendas, note takers,  and meeting minutes are a key part of the success of the meeting.  If you are leading the meeting, consider having someone who has a side channel to you (private chat or co-located) who can be deputized to be observer and time keeper and notice if someone is falling through the cracks.

Try to have a shared artifact – an electronic whiteboard, a Google doc, or something, in which the progress of the meeting can be made visible.  This may give another channel for people to make contributions in parallel to the conversation.

It’s really important in remote meetings not to interrupt or talk over the ends of other people’s sentences.  Without the support of body language to help with turn taking and with the likelihood of more variation between conversational cultures [citation needed], it’s much harder to recover people’s participation if they feel sidelined.

If it’s a come-to-an-agreement kind of meeting, it’s extra hard to know whether you’ve got buy-in or just silence.  Call on people by name,  ask each person to chime in to their assent on the agreement specifically.  The recap at the end of the meeting, with actions and follow-ups and agreements made, is a good point to check in on this.  Leave twice as much time for this as you’d leave in a similar face to face meeting; if there are too many people to call on by name, it indicates that you may have too many people for a working meeting anyway.

Avoid ending the technologically accessible part of the meeting and then continuing with the “after meeting” discussion with just the people physically present.

Good luck! This is just the 101 and getting this right for your organization is not trivial or easy.  It is important work though and work that dramatically expands the pool of allies you can gather to conquer the world, run a con, or whatever other task you have set for yourself.


Toolbox: Getting Blame Off the Table

Blame distracts from finding useful solutions that make the systems we operate within safer, and interferes with productive change by causing defensive behavior.  That’s very logical and business-like, if that reasoning appeals to you.  But if you’ve ever been hit with that stick, you know blame hurts, and for me, that’s a good enough reason to try a different way.

There’s three tip-offs I know of that blame is going on and that focusing on individual behavior may be short-circuiting  investigation of the systems generating the problem.  By listening for these clues, it’s possible to get back on track.

  • Hindsight bias.  When hindsight bias is part of our discussion,  knowledge of what occurred as a result of an action influences the understanding of what was known and understood at the time of the action.  There are some clues in our language that this is going on.  The phrases “would have”, “could have”, and “should have” often indicate judgements about the past from the standpoint of the present.
  • Use of the phrase “human error”.  It’s not that people don’t make mistakes.  But the conclusion that “human error” is the cause of the problem distracts from looking at the system that allowed the error to occur, and focuses on who to blame. Here’s a diagnostic question to get back out of this trap: “Would another reasonable person in the same situation have made the same mistake?”  If the answer is “yes”,  then that’s a clue that more investigation of the surrounding system is needed for safety.
  • Fundamental attribution error.   When we’re explaining our own actions, we often find external causes for our choices, yet believe that other people’s choices came from unalterable internal characteristics.  Imagine the case in which a step was skipped in a set of instructions.  If we did that ourselves, we might extend explanations such as “time pressure” or “confusing instructions”. Yet if another person does the same thing, particularly a stranger,  we may leap to explanations that represent their personal failings as the source of their actions,  such as “sloppiness”.   The presence of attribution bias makes it hard to respond generously and with respect to people who may be very unlike ourselves, and it’s also hardest one of these three to spot and  challenge. A question that might help detect this is, “Would I believe this explanation if the person being criticized were my best friend?”

It’s hard to avoid blame and even harder to recover from the damage it does to trust and cooperation.  There’s no shortcut to rooting it out of  difficult discussions, but with awareness of the factors above it gets easier to spot and turn around.



Adding to the liturgy of safety

These are things for which no limit is prescribed: writing unit tests;  running meetings with a clear agenda;  talking to stakeholders; acts of kindness; and the study of safety
These are the things which not only profit one in the immediate moment but build up a safety culture for the future:  refactoring one’s own code;  reviewing a peer’s code; establishing test systems;  conducting blame-free incident reviews;  documenting processes;   increasing the diversity of your teams;  resolving differing mental models;  and the study of safety engineering principles surpasses them all.

This riff on Mishnah Peah was inspired  by a new safety teaching program we’re beginning at work,  a stray comment about the “safety liturgy” and some demonstrations of the same by friends,   and also by  this reframing of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths.


What can we do locally about the attacks on immigrants?

Attacks and threats on immigrants are here, and with Trump’s 10 point program seem set to increase exponentionally in the New Year.  What can we do locally in response?   Here’s one tiny thing, but if more people made this comment perhaps it would have weight.  To send a comment to Gov Baker, go to his contact page.

Dear Governor Baker,
In just the first few days after the election, Trump has declared his intention to pursue a vigorous and harsh policy on immigration.  The enforcement of this policy will cause harm and destruction to individuals and communities across the Commonwealth.

Even under the Obama administration, there were substantiated issues about recklessness and lack of due process within ICE.    The Trump administration will have no interest in reining that in or providing judicial restraint and appeals for people who may be wrongly and unfairly targeted.

Last spring, you announced a policy of cooperation between the state police and ICE.  Our state police  should be protecting and defending the people of the state.  No cooperation should be made with climate of xenophobia and recklessness encouraged by the new administration.

This would be an appropriate time to walk  that policy back and insist on due process taking place without assistance from the state apparatus of Massachusetts.    Please consider other measures as well to protect vulnerable immigrants and communities here from harsh and reckless policy changes at the Federal level.

Rachel Silber

The Grammar of Process Definition

When it comes to grammar, I am more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist, though I can be persuaded to tell you how I would have done it.   Your way is OK with me, though we might have to compromise if we intend to communicate with each other.

It turns out that the same range of approaches applies to process definition, and there too I fall more in the descriptivist camp.  Process documentation bears less relationship than it once did to what the people who execute the process actually do?   Time to rewrite the doc, believing that the people on the front line know what they are doing.

But, once we’ve garnered agreement that what we’re doing is what we intend to do , there will need to be some balance, some process governance to keep us aligned with those intentions.   Challenge accepted!

Pep Talk

No kidding, it’s all true.

1. This too shall pass.  Full of hurt/overwhelm/frustration as you are, right now,  no feeling has ever lasted forever.   Today is hard but there have been good days before and there will be good ones again.  Breathe.

2. You are awesome and you’re here for a reason.   You are doing good work, and we need you and we’re glad you’re here.  You make our world better by being here.

3. It really is that hard. You are not wrong to perceive that there’s more work to do than one person can do alone, more to learn than will fit in a lifetime,  and hard hard choices that have to be made.   No one knows all of it, no one is really on top of all of  it all the time.  Those elegant swans are paddling frantically below the surface, and what’s more, they’ll admit it.  Hang in there.

4. You aren’t alone.  Everyone hits the end of their rope some days. These feelings, they’re all part of being human, and so far, that’s all of us.   But there are sources of support in the world.  Thank you for letting me be one for you.

Resources for Convention Harassment Policies

I’m just about to moderate the Wiscon panel on Convention Harassment Policies, and there’s a few links I know I’ll be mentioning to the attendees.

So here’s the link to all of them at once.

Con Anti Harassment policies:
The battle plan for creating your own and links to the con policy database for many examples

Back Up Project:
The Back Up Project fills a different niche than a con harassment policy and is no substitute for having one, but it has had an effect on the conversation and should be taken into account

Ada Initiative:
In the technical community similar challenges and issues arise, lots of good resources here.

Geek Feminist Wiki:
Many stories and viewpoints available here. Includes both fannish and technical communities here.

Arisia Code of Conduct:
This is the latest version of what we actually have done. As of this writing, May 2014, needs to be updated to reflect our recent updates to corporate policies.

Readercon Safety page:
Readercon took a from-scratch look in 2012 and came up with another approach.

Wiscon Rules:
The Wiscon policies, latest version.


Nametags matter.

I made a point of having nametags for everyone at all of last years convention meetings.   It seems like a little thing, but it sends an important message.  That message is, Even if you don’t already know everyone here, you are still welcome here. We want to know who you are.   All by themselves, nametags won’t solve the problem when our organization is perceived as being insular and unwelcoming to new people, but even small symbolic things count.

Nametags also remind the people who are already on board that new people are joining and not everyone knows who’s who.  When we put on a badge that says “Hello, my name is …” there’s an implicit promise to be approachable.  It’s a good reminder that being a welcoming and inclusive organization is ongoing, not just something we can check off.

Communications Plans

I’m working on writing up a framework for a communications plan for the next convention. We’ve never made an organized list of all the things that need to get told to people and when they have to get said. Probably that’s because we’ve bought into a mindset that it’s a trivial step along the way.

Here’s the takeaway: telling people things is real work. It takes time and planning and attention to detail.  The bigger the organization gets, the more work it takes to just tell people things.

Yes, I suppose there is a lot more of substance to say here, but one of the things we have to do is convince people that telling people things is real work. Otherwise they’ll look at this request for a plan and go, oh we’ll just do it when we get to it.  Because that’s worked so well for us in the past.


dealing with problems on the spot

I figured out just the other day that there are at least two different kinds of “hey I need help!” issues that could come up to a staff member at con.   One is a convention safety issue — someone is causing me grief or there’s a situation that’s unsafe.  The other is  what’s known as a service recovery event,  otherwise known as “feedback”.

Usually the “feedback” is some form of “hey you guys, it’s BROKEN here”.  The pattern for dealing with that is:

* apologize

* don’t try to justify why it’s broken or insist it really isn’t broken

* provide the customer with a remedy, with as much flexibility as you can

Good service recoveries can generate more good will than if everything had gone smoothly in the first place.

But if you’re dealing with a safety issue, it’s different.  First of all the first step is not “apologize”. It may be to enforce a rule or to get help or even give sympathy.   So the very first step is to filter the significance of the upset person in front of you: is this a safety issue or a  customer service problem?  Very different paths to follow depending on what you choose.