The Secrets of Large Skype Meetings

Since late last year the UKOLN remote workers have been having a weekly (Tuesday morning 10am) Skype ‘catch up’. Ed Bremner, one of my UKOLN remote working colleagues, was the originator of the ‘catch up’ idea.

Ed and I worked together on the IMPACT project where Skype telcons were a daily activity. During this time he built up a collection of tips to ensure a happy telcon for all, and he’s sharing them with us.

Ed is a veteran home worker having worked for himself and in consultancy roles for academia and the museums, libraries, archives and galleries sector for many years. Ed works in the field of technical imaging, media production and online learning. Currently his work includes projects with the ISC at UKOLN, the University of Bath and an associate lectureship at the University of Plymouth. He works from home on the banks of the Tamar River in South East Cornwall and dreams of the promised advent of ‘superfast’ broadband to all of Cornwall. Contact him via his web site, Twitter and Instagram.


For the remote worker, attending meetings can often mean a great deal of very time-consuming travelling, followed by a short meeting and then a second dose of frustrating travel again, leaving us exhausted and potentially unproductive. It is therefore not surprising that we are often the first to ask our colleagues whether some of these meetings would or could be better held online.

Online meetings, or tele-conferences are not always popular with many staff who associate them with bad experiences of being clustered around a small speaker on the table, trying to make sense of the garbled noise echoing around the room. But things have changed and now with improved VOIP technology and more available bandwidth, online meetings using Skype have become a regular part of our working lives. It is true that there is still some reluctance to this, with many people considering that although one-to-one calls work well with SKYPE, larger meetings are far from satisfactory.

The truth is that Skype can work well for larger telecons, but that you all have to know how to get the very best out of Skype to make them work.

I have broken down what we learned from these telecons into a few sections:


  • Use the most up-to-date version of Skype. Updates are pretty regular and often deal with possibly security issues, so it is imperative to make sure you have the latest version.
  • Video and screen-sharing works well for one-to-one calls, but currently you have to upgrade to Skype premium to use this functionality in groups – avoid media and video in group calls.
  • Reliable Skype meetings depend on good sound quality, so always use a good microphone, preferably in a headset. You may find that good laptops give acceptable sound quality from their internal mics and speakers, but only if you are in a room by yourself without any background noise and especially nobody else on the same call as you. Headsets that connect via USB tend to be much more reliable and easier to set up. Keep the headset mic about an inch from your mouth. If you have it too close, it will pick up your breathing and make you sound like a ‘phone-stalker’.
  • Don’t group together and share a mic or use conference mics/speakers, they are hard to work very well and you lose the advantage of seeing who is speaking. One person per account works best.
  • Maximise your bandwidth and if possible connect to your network via cable rather than wi-fi .
  • Call quality is dependent on the bandwidth available to the computer than convenes the call and how powerful it is. This is normally someone sitting on an institutional internet backbone, but surprisingly these can sometimes suffer from very heavy traffic and a personal account using ADSL can actually give a better connection.
  • According to Skype the limit of numbers on a Skype call is for 25 audio connections and 300 instant messaging connections. In reality the maximum will depend on the available bandwidth to the convenor and the power of their computer.
  • Skype is very memory hungry. If you leave it on, you will need to restart your computer every now and again to stop Skype hogging too much memory. If you are convening a call, it can help to restart your computer before you call and make sure you don’t have too many other programs working at the same time.

The UKOLN remote worker group on Skype (as seen from Marieke Guy's machine)

Personal Etiquette:

  • Always mute your mic when not talking, especially if you are also typing or want to talk to someone in your own room.
  • When you first come on line, say hello and if it is a big call, give your name, so the convenor knows you are connected.
  • When the call finishes, always remember to check that the convenor has closed the call and if not disconnect yourself.
  • If you have other topics to discuss with someone in the meeting, don’t stay on the call, but close the call and start again.
  • Do have and use a good Skype avatar image. On large calls, not everyone may know what you look like and the Avatar is a big help in improving communication.
  • Watch who is speaking by seeing their avatar ‘flash’, and if you want to talk to one person in particular, start by saying their name. If it is off-topic, could it be done better by IM?
  • Start Skype at least 5mins before the call and mark yourself as ‘online’.

Running Skype Meetings:

  • Create a Skype group with all participants in it, this is useful for instant messaging, to re-connect and run further meetings.
  • Larger Skype meetings work best if they are kept pretty formal and stick to a known format, with agenda. You certainly need to have a ‘Chair’, ‘Secretary’, and ‘Convenor’, who invites everyone and deals with any connectivity or technical issues.
  • 5 minutes before the call send an instant message to the group with a reminder that the meeting starts in 5 minutes. This IM should include links to any necessary papers or presentations. It is also possible to send these files via SKYPE if this is easier.
  • Larger meetings may benefit from a quick round of introductions.
  • If you wish to send any messages outside the normal flow of the meeting, use the instant messaging, either to the whole group, a sub-set or an individual.
  • If you are using any plugins, such as Mikogo, then the convenor should make everyone has the required software and it works.
  • Chair:
    • Don’t be suckered into worrying about fixing other peoples technical problems – this is not your responsibility.
    • Start on time, be firm and keep everything on time. People timetable telecons much closer than real-world meetings and if you go late, they will drop out of call.
    • Before you move on, be sure that all interested parties are happy with a decision and understand it fully. Without body language, it is much harder to notice when someone dis-engages from the conversation.
    • Minutes Sec:
    • Do turn off your mic, when not talking! Headsets are better at not picking up the noise of typing.
    • If you want to record the meeting, for which there are many tools, do tell everyone first.
  • Convenor:
    • Make sure you have already got the contact details of everyone before the meeting
    • Contact everyone by IM 5 minutes before the meeting to remind them of meeting and make sure they have all the necessary papers.
    • Take responsibility for decisions regarding call quality. If you want to re-establish the call, it is up to you.
    • Keep your cool! If you are having technical problems, try and fix them without disturbing the meeting too much. Use IM to contact everyone when needed.

Taking it further:

  • On the whole, if you want to do anything more ‘advanced’ in your meeting, you may well be best off using other software more designed for webinars rather than meetings. For instance both Blacboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect will allow you to share a presentation, or video; however if these are not available, there are a few things that you can do to extend your use of Skype.

When it goes wrong:

For group Skype calls to work well the convenor needs good bandwidth and a powerful computer. If you are having problems with a call, it often helps to just restart the call and try again. If that doesn’t work, stop the call, restart your computer and try again. Failing that, see if there is anyone else who has better bandwidth than you or has a less congested network and a more powerful computer.


My Thoughts on running an Elluminate meeting

Way back in February I mentioned that I’d been tasked with organising an online meeting. Time just seems to have disappeared between then and now but on Wednesday I finally had the chance to run the much anticipated JISC Observatory Moot using Elluminate.

It all sounds very grand (‘moot’ has two relevant meanings here: “to present or introduce (any point, subject, project, etc.) for discussion” and “a gathering“) and it did end up being more than just an online meeting. In this post I’d like to share some of my thoughts on the meeting itself and lessons learnt.

JISC Observatory

First a little background – The JISC Observatory is a JISC-funded initiative to systematise the way in which the JISC anticipates and responds to projected future trends and scenarios in the context of the use of technology in Higher and Further Education, and Research in the UK. It is a collaboration between the two JISC Innovation Support Centres: CETIS and UKOLN. With JISC, UKOLN and CETIS that makes for quite a large virtual team. The moot was an opportunity to discuss possible topics for TechWatch reports. Our first on Augmented Reality for Smartphones has recently been released.

It was likely that there were going to be a fair number of people interested in this and so an online meeting seemed like a sensible option (to save costs, be greener etc.).

Here’s some of the steps I went through:

Choosing Elluminate

Participants boxAfter looking at some different online meeting/conferencing services (Gotomeeting, JANET Videoconferencing Service (JVCS) ) I opted for Elluminate. The first reason being that I already have experience of using Elluminate, the second being that the University of Bath currently have an Elluminate pilot running
so licencing costs would be covered. I also felt that Elluminate would offer the functionality that we would require, and hopefully the scalability.

Getting a Team on Board

Although I’d used Elluminate a fair amount as a presenter and a participant this was to be my first stab at moderating and chairing a session. We have a really good e-learning team at the University of Bath and it seemed a shame not to use them. I asked Julian Prior from the Learning & Teaching Enhancement Office and Marie Salter (e-learning Developments Manager) if they could give me a hand. They were great support and did a lot of the ‘backroom’ stuff e.g. they set up the meeting, offered technical support, monitored audio levels etc. I also had support from my colleagues Paul Walk (UKOLN deputy director and responsible for UKOLN’s role in the JISC Observatory), Brian Kelly and Thom Bunting who all helped discuss ideas and test the set up.


Prior to the meeting we made sure that we clearly define responsibilities. A possible list of responsibilities might include:

  • Defining purpose and outcomes of session
  • Preparing main ppt
  • Preparing schedule
  • Organising date
  • Listing any web tours or urls needed
  • Chairing session
  • Sending out intro info on Elluminate
  • Sending out guidelines and agenda for meeting
  • Scheduling meeting room
  • Ensuring all users are set up correctly
  • Preparing and facilitating warm up session and Elluminate training
  • Recording session
  • Facilitating questions
  • Supporting the whole session (monitoring hand raising, controlling use of microphone, managing text chat, managing poll and publishing results)
  • Watching for technical problems
  • Capturing feedback on session

For the meeting itself we needed an agenda and a team of ‘champions’ who would present TechWatch report topics. The topics and champions were agreed – they were each asked to prepare a 3 minute pitch and we would allow time for brief questions. After some consideration it was decided that for the meeting to be a success the key was strong moderation and chairing, in other words we wanted to retain control over the session.

An agenda was put together and all the slides were combined to avoid having to open up different sets of slides. It was agreed that only the moderators would have microphone privileges and that we would assign the use of the mic to other speakers when appropriate. This would avoid significant audio problems. Users of Elluminate will know that the most common audio problem is an echo caused by people leaving their microphone on when not speaking.

It was decided that I was to chair the questions and answers. I would do this by encouraging people to raise their hands and then inviting them to speak after assigning them the microphone. This worked well, though I probably should have asked people to introduce themselves just for clarity. In Elluminate the name of the person who is speaking is highlighted, this is fine as long as the speaker has picked an appropriate user name!


Introducting Elluminate functionality

Before the moot we had quite a few discussions on use of chat, polls, video, break out rooms etc. It was agreed that as this was a first effort we should keep it simple. Chat was encouraged as a ‘back channel’ and was used very effectively during the session. Video was avoided, primarily to avoid bandwidth issues. The same went for break-out rooms, though I have seen these work really well (at the OU Online Conference last year). We decided to present a brief introduction to Elluminate and it’s functionality at the start of the session. This also gave us the opportunity to get people using the whiteboard and marking up where they were joining us from.

We also needed to have some form of voting system and would have liked to use the Elluminate polls. Unfortunately the polls only allow people to choose from up to 5 options (and we needed 8 ) and didn’t allow for any form of preferencing (or AV). The easiest option seemed to be having a timed private ballot where people clicked the green tick if they wanted to choose a topic. We also suggested to people that they try to limit themselves to 4 votes, primarily to avoid having a full-house of ticks for all the topics.

During the moot there was a little confusion initially and we ended up calling the first vote a trial run but after that people seemed to get the hang of things. I was concentrating on facilitating the votes and the other moderators were locking the votes and totting up the scored using the polling features. There is an option to publish the results to the whiteboard but as we’d carried out 8 votes it made more sense for them to rush into my room and hand me a piece of paper with the scores on. It made for a dramatic end to the session!

I’d have to say that we still have a fair amount to learn when it comes to using Elluminate’s polling and quiz facilities, maybe something to try out next time?

Encouraging participants to use the whiteboard


Overall I feel the session went really well. We had 27 participants and almost all were connected the whole time. There was a good deal of engagement and I think most people took the opportunity to ask a question or write something in the chat box. I’m sure that a lot of the panic (hopefully that was primarily in my head and not heard by the participants) will fade as I get more experienced at moderating sessions.

I made sure that I wrote some fairly comprehensive notes that I could read out during the session when explaining things. I also had a list of points that I needed to mention at various times, for example it was important to explain that the session was being recorded but would only be shared internally, and that the voting would be secret.

I hope that we’ll be able to run a similar online meeting sometime soon and we’ll be able to use our experience, and expand on it.

A few other things

While researching the moot I found the following JISC document very useful: Designing for participant engagement with Elluminate live’.

It has some excellent mind maps of how you can engage with your audience and make sure that the sessions are interactive. Interactivity is definitely the key to keeping your audience awake!

One of the TechWatch topic pitches

One of the TechWatch topic pitches

GoToMeeting Time

So we are all trying to save money, and one of the easiest ways of cutting costs is by slashing the travel budget. If people need to get together there are plenty of ways they can do it that don’t involve travel, or even leaving the office.

Although I’ve been involved in lots of webinars and have participated in many Skype meetings I’m still a relative novice when it comes to large-scale online meetings. I’ve been tasked with facilitating a 2/3 hour online meeting for up to 16 people so have been looking at some of the options out there. The first service I’ve looked at is GoToMeeting.


GoToMeeting is a part of a suite of Web-hosted services created by Citrix Online. It is a remote meeting and desktop sharing software. I’ve talked about Gotowebinar before, which is a very similar service to Elluminate. Having used webinar software more than online meeting software I was surprised at how simplistic Gotomeeting was – but I think that’s the point. Why have all the bells and whistles if they distract from actual communication. It turns out that GoToMeeting took the remote access and screen sharing technology from GoToMyPC and GoToAssist and have extended it for their collaborative meeting software. The idea is that GoToMeeting accommodates larger audiences. This is something I’m particularly interested in as I feel Skype really doesn’t scale up well and Elluminate (and other webinar services) is ineffective when more than one or two people need to talk.

Getting a free 30 day trial version of GoToMeeting was fairly easy and the whole thing is easy to download and set up. You can connect by VOIP using a mic and headphones or using your phone and dialling in. The meeting is lead by an organiser, who schedules the meeting, and a presenter, who can share their desktop contents, they can also allow others to share their desktop, use the mouse and highlight or draw on what ever desktop is up using the drawing tools. The presenter can change during the meeting.

Although I only had myself to talk to (I set up 2 laptops and a PC to try the service out) and would need to do some testing with others I found the service really intuitive and straightforward. It is easy to invite people and easy to record all that happens. My twitter friends also rate it. On the downside the standard edition has a 15 attendee limit (you can go up to 25 if you are a corporate customer) and there is currently no video conferencing option. I also believe that some features are disabled for the Mac – which could be a problem.

There is a useful introductory demo available from the GoToMeeting site.

There are a number of GoToMeeting plans and you can purchase the service for just one month at a cost of £34.80 – if you compare this to the cost of travel and room hire it is an appealing deal.

VenueGen: The 3D virtual meeting platform

In the past I’ve talked quite a bit about virtual meetings. However at the moment the public sector is just not playing in the same field as the commercial sector when it comes to facilities and programmes. Last year I wrote about how the University of Bath virtual meeting room was underused and sadly needing a little TLC (Reviving Video Conferencing). However it’s likely that cuts in the sector will mean a significant reduction in travel for staff, which might possibly result in a real virtual meeting revival. The public sector will have to start thinking more like commercial companies and trying to make remote business and meetings work.

There are some interesting innovations in this area if you look around the corporate arena. One of these is VenueGen, a browser-based 3D immersive internet meeting platform. It’s almost like a cross between SecondLife and a virtual meeting, a 3D virtual meeting platform:

It’s a place where business colleagues meet, collaborate, share and present information in board rooms, training rooms, and meeting halls. Users simply select a meeting room, upload their content, and instantly enter a virtual room with directional voice where they can hear colleagues around the room! Engaged, active and immersed attendees communicate, make decisions, learn faster, and are more productive than with online alternatives. No more boring conference calls, no more travel, and no more expensive, complex video conference systems. VenueGen is “Business Ready”.

VenueGen have passed on a Q&A with their CEO David Gardner. The interview helps give a feeling for what VenueGen means for online meetings in general and the next generation of business use for Second Life concepts in the future.

1. Is VenueGen the death of the webinar?

David Gardner: Not necessarily. Different modalities are good for different uses. Well, the Internet certainly has revolutionized the way people consume media. The Internet is interactive, and so is the VenueGen virtual meetings platform. Virtual meetings are used for three things: everyday meetings, training, and events. Meetings and trainings are highly collaborative, and VenueGen provides a highly collaborative platform to meet this need, whereas webinars have been utilized largely for passive events, like watching TV. So, in short, if companies want Webinars where audiences are passive listeners, they can select a passive platform. If companies want a virtual meeting that encourages participation, then they can select an interactive platform. Our view is that webinars and events will become highly interactive – that’s where it’s all heading.

2. How do 3D meetings work? How is VenueGen different from other webconferencing programs?

David Gardner: VenueGen creates a TelePresence-like experience while running in your browser. No video equipment, no cameras, no special rooms – no big expense. In VenueGen, the online meeting’s hosts select one of our virtual venues and invite others to join, which is similar to joining a WebEx meeting, only you appear in a 3D environment as an avatar. You hear sound directionally and you can turn you head by dragging your mouse around to see others and to interact with content. It is very simple and easy to use.

3. Who needs virtual meetings?

David Gardner: Anyone meeting, collaborating or learning online needs VenueGen. It is extremely similar to the real-world experience of sharing a physical space together. Meeting hosts who want to create more engaging, personal and productive events online will try VenueGen and will never go back to flat 2D screen-sharing technology.

4. MIT, Berkeley, and Stanford already offer online education—there are even classes on iTunes. Will VenueGen “classrooms” with student & professor avatars holding discussions and writing on blackboards lead to a new kind of academic campus?

David Gardner: Yes. There is nothing in education as powerful as a skilled teacher facilitating a class full of engaged learners. As instructor-led distance learning continues to grow the 3D modality will become the standard. There’s tons of great research on this showing that learners immersed in a 3D environment show dramatic improvements in participation and retention over those using 2D online platforms. We currently run a pilot with Duke University.

5. Can folks without broadband still participate?

David Gardner: VenueGen’s core functionality requires minimal bandwidth because only highly optimized positioning data is being sent and received. However, some features of VenueGen such as real-time screen sharing may not work well in low bandwidth settings. That said, unlike any web conferencing tool on the market today, VenueGen has the ability to pre-distribute content to online attendees and then simply control that content running locally. This model requires almost no bandwidth and makes VenueGen a viable option where screen sharing-only tools cannot work.

6. Will your children even know what a webinar was?

David Gardner: They will probably call it television. In the not-so-distant future, the 3D web will be very commonplace. There are certain internet activities such as online learning, collaboration and social networking that will be performed almost exclusively in 3D. Other asynchronous and individual activities will remain 2D. Anything involving interacting in real-time with other people on the web that is not in 3D will start to look like the black and white television, or radio—not very appealing or interactive.

7. How does VenueGen change the playing field for unified communications?

David Gardner: Unified communications involves the convergence and integration of many meeting and communication modalities. 3D will be the least common denominator for UC because everyone can use it and other modalities such as VoIP, video feeds, chat, etc. can be brought directly into the 3D environment. Although 3D is only one of these modalities, I believe VenueGen will become the presentation layer or central HUB for UC platforms. 3D environments don’t required special hardware or cameras or lots of bandwidth like video applications do. This makes 3D the richest experience with the least barriers.

8. Second Life has exited the enterprise virtual meeting space. How does VenueGen see this as an opportunity?

David Gardner: SL leaving the enterprise space was not a surprise to anyone. SL was designed as a consumer’s virtual world and never really understood the needs of the enterprise. A company and technology has to focus like a laser to solve a business problem. SL never had that focus and unfortunately SL is the only 3D experience most enterprises ever piloted. I’d have to say that SL’s entry and exit of the enterprise space has done more to hurt the adoption of serious 3D modalities than anything to date. Second Life required customers to spend hours learning the platform – no one has time to do that today. Customers who experience VenueGen indicate a remarkably different experience. The platform was built with enterprise in mind. It takes a few minutes to get up and running. Users are immediately productive and running effective 3D meetings and training events.

9. When will you bring VenueGen to the iPod and Android?

The iPad and iPhone will be our first mobile deployments because we already have a version of our client 3D engine that runs on these. Eventually VenueGen will run on most mobile computing devices.

10. Is there anything else you would like to share?

David Gardner: All of the analysts have said something similar but Forrester said it best, “The Internet is on the verge of its next major evolution.” 3D is coming and as with all new technologies, early adopters will gain competitive advantage and differentiation. Anyone who has had the VenueGen experience understands what I’m saying and will never go back to using legacy web conferencing tools. Companies considering videoconferencing, spending hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, they find that their workforce is distributed and mobile and can’t physically get to these rooms. They might be better served by considering VenueGen as an online virtual meeting platform.

Top Tips for a Successful Virtual Meeting

I met Clare Aitken (@LibClare) at the Cambridge Cultural Heritage Web 2.0 workshop I ran earlier this year. Clare is an information specialist working for a global Fortune 500 company. She runs one of the company’s research libraries, based in Cambridge, UK, as well as contributing to a small multinational team offering virtual library services to their 70,000 employees of 140 nationalities in 80 countries.

Last Week Clare attended a virtual meeting and has jotted down her thoughts and advice for us.

I attended a two-day meeting as a remote participant last week. In a different time-zone to my own. That sounds like the definition of hell doesn’t it, but it was a surprisingly positive experience. I tweeted about this a few times during those couple of days and as a consequence Marieke asked me to write this post. I thought it would be a very good opportunity to reflect on the experience as although I have attended quite a few webinars and teleconferences in my role as a librarian in a multi-national company (mostly training sessions from our US vendors), I had not attempted to attend a professional meeting in this way.

The meeting was organised by one of our small specialist vendors, and was hosted in the US. I’d gone to a meeting (face-to-face) they organised a few years ago and found it well worth attending – it was set up as a forum for fellow librarians in the same industry to share experiences and best practice. So I felt it was worth the effort to dial in.

A lot of credit must go to our hosts, who recognised that many potential attendees were not able to travel for budget, time, or other reasons (child care, for example). They signed up with a web conferencing service with the aim of not only hosting this meeting but holding virtual training sessions throughout the year. They took the trouble to arrange a practice meeting a week beforehand so that we all (there were six groups or individuals calling in) could make sure we were comfortable with the technology, the features of this particular system, and the ground rules for the meeting itself.

So, here are six tips for making the most of remote meetings:

  1. Take it seriously
    It’s tempting to feel that as no one is watching you can multi-task throughout; answer emails, make tea, work on that next project. I must admit I tend to do that. But I found in this case, with a small group of participants (the six dialling in and about the same attending in person) it really didn’t work. I found that if I didn’t give a session my whole attention I didn’t get any benefit from it.
  2. Plan, and be prepared to contribute
    In this case a schedule was provided in advance. But your meeting organiser may not have thought to send you a virtual pack so you may have to retrieve documents from various emails and websites ahead of time. Decide which sessions you want to attend, as for any conference. Our organiser helpfully chunked up the teleconference into four different segments over the two days, so we could pick and choose if we wished (I think it’s also related to the charge made by the web conference vendor). As it was a small focused meeting I liked the look of everything so I did attend each session. However the advantage of not being seen can become a drawback, as the host can suddenly decide to ‘go around the table’ and start with you (I’m alphabetically disadvantaged in that way). One thing the organisers could have done was provide a table plan (including the remote participants), as I never quite got the full ‘picture’ of who was in the room. All in the meeting were experienced teleconferencers and mostly remembered to say who they were when they chipped in with a comment, even if they were in the room, but that wasn’t always the case. One session consisted of a round-table where each person gave a short account of their library’s activities in the last year. Each account lasted several minutes and when it came to my turn I felt very conscious that I was broadcasting to a room full of people who may be bored, interested, amazed, or incredulous at what I was saying, and signalling it in outrageous mime-style to each other, but I wasn’t getting any of those cues. Not quite the same as a telephone meeting where all are in the same boat. I know I’m being overly sensitive about this but it’s fun to imagine too!
  3. Make sure you have a decent technical set-up
    I recognise that I’m fortunate to have an excellent IT environment where I can download the conferencing software plugin without resorting to grovelling to IT, I have a good quality telephone headset (which I use all the time, not just for teleconferences – I cannot imagine not having one), and a fast network connection. However I also joined the afternoon sessions from home as it was evening UK time, and the speeds provided by my ISP were fine to carry both the presentations, and the audio, which I then selected to take through my computer. That did lead to my one technical hitch of the two days, where I found that my computer headset wasn’t working correctly and no-one could hear me. I then had to type my responses into the chat box, and then hear the host read them out (which is an odd experience).
  4. Practice beforehand
    As I mentioned above, a familiarity with the software and the conventions from all participants helps a great deal, as it’s just as impolite to be late joining a meeting online as it is in person. I find that setting a calendar reminder at least 10 minutes before a meeting starts helps me to get organised to click-in and dial-in. And making time to get a mug of tea to hand, of course!
  5. Keep to the teleconference conventions
    The big one is to mute your phone. Mine has a big red button that makes it really easy, but it’s sometimes necessary to find the key sequence needed – usually *6 to toggle on and off. The next is to take turns and not interrupt – that’s made much easier with a virtual table plan as I mention above. And don’t shout “helloooo” as soon as you are placed into the teleconference, particularly if you are late, as you may be interrupting the Provost of the University giving 5 minutes of his valuable time with a welcome message (as an unfortunate participant did this time).
  6. Accept that you won’t get as much out of it than going in person
    When you ask someone about the benefits of conferences, they say “it’s all about the networking”. Yes, you do miss out on those chance conversations. But – you will avoid all those travel hassles, sore feet, and being laid low by a hessian bag full of vendor literature that you ditch at the first opportunity. You can use the travel time productively, wear your killer heels (or whatever you want), switch seamlessly between parallel sessions, and there’s still that Twitter back-channel!

I’m not able to attend the SLA annual conference in New Orleans in June, but they are offering a virtual option. That sounds like a real challenge, but after this positive experience I may give it a go!

Stay Grounded and Video Conference

With all UK flights grounded for second day due to the volcanic ash from Iceland many are wondering what sort of effect the situation will have on the economy. Transportation of goods, especially perishable ones, is obviously an issue.

The reduction of flights has meant that stranded passengers have begun to use other modes of travel. The BBC Web site states that Eurostar trains reported a complete sell-out of its services to Brussels and Paris for the second day on Friday. For those who can’t find alternative travel they will have to stay where they are for now. Many a business meeting has has to be cancelled and as with other situations that are out of our control (e.g. the weather, pandemics etc.) people begin to look at other alternatives to travel.

Of course we all know that aviation is one of the biggest contributors to our CO2 emission problem. Despite work on greener fuel it is quite likely that we are all going to have to travel less in the future.

Green Thing, a public service that inspires people to lead a greener life, has recently released a great video encouraging people to videoconference more. The video ties in with their ‘stay grounded’ suggestion – one of seven things they say you can do to live a greener life. The video stars Fay Ripley and is both funny and relevant. Have a watch!

Video conferencing and how to bridge the cultural gap

It’s been a while since I published a guest blog post. After chatting about the merits of video conferencing earlier this month at my local environmental group a fellow member, Mike Boyce, made some interesting comments about the cultural issues he’s faced when having online meetings. Not one to miss an opportunity I asked him if he could jot down any tips he had and share them with me.

Mike is the global Environment, Health and Safety Manager for a US Energy Engineering Manufacturing Company. They use video conferencing a great deal to support international business transactions and Mike has spent many years working with different video conferencing technologies and with people from different cultures.

mikeMy company has business activity worldwide and my job has 2 main functions. Firstly to review and screen new and unusual or innovative business development projects to ensure we will meet all Environmental Requirements when they are built (this includes Wind Farms, Solar farms, Carbon Sequestration and Power projects). 90% of this work concerns non-UK projects due to the restrictive planning processes in UK that kill off many renewable energy projects. The main offices which I support are Schenectady, New York, Bracknell UK, Florence Italy, Singapore and Sydney, Australia. The second role is managing a Global Logistics Safety and Environment programme that moves about $20Bn US value of cargo, spending over $1bn US doing this. In this job I support teams in Greenville (South Carolina), Glasgow (Scotland), Prague (Czech Republic), Belfort (France), Rheine (Germany), Dubai (UAE), Chennai (India) & Shanghai (China). I am involved in qualifying and auditing road, rail, sea and air carriers; investigating accidents, improving processes and promoting reductions in carbon footprint. I have local colleagues supporting me in US & China.

So you guessed it….I travel a lot. I spend about 50-60% of the month overseas primarily in the US, China and mainland Europe. When I’m at home I telework as otherwise I’d have a 170 mile round trip to the nearest UK office my company has. My carbon footprint is bad enough already and being a staunch believer in reduction of CO2 emissions avoidance of the M4 is worthwhile for the planet and me.

Video Conferencing Tips

A typical day may start at 7:30 am with conference calls to China and end with the same activity at 7:00 pm to Greenville South Carolina or our HQ in New York State. There are so many great tools out there but my top tips are:

  1. I telephone with a mute button (so no one can hear my dogs barking (I know Marieke has recently posted about animal noises!) or me typing my notes as people talk). I have a team of about 30 people globally I support. My closest colleagues know about my dogs barking, so I am not too embarrassed now. When I meet them they all want to see pictures!
  2. Telephone with a head set so you don’t have to hold the handset for hours. Some calls I make last up to 3 hours long.
  3. I have a software programme and subscription to WEBEX. It’s a cool system. I can upload slides for a meeting, run them so they appear on colleagues’ screens, hand control to a colleague in China or Australia, run agenda summaries, keep track of who joined, send private messages (like shut up and let the others talk) or provide info privately to colleagues when we have suppliers or customers online.)
  4. Video conferencing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Bandwidth often means you can either talk or move your arms but not both…unless you have a system called telepresence, but that’s usually only available only in an office.
  5. To avoid the calls in the pyjamas syndrome, get up get dressed, go out and come in again like you would do in a real office. Take the dogs for a walk.

Weird Work Locations

I’ve had a lot of funny work locations and should probably enter the Extreme Conferencing Survey. I have made conference calls from a park, in a cave in the Malvern Hills, on a beach in Greece, at the side of an Extinct Volcano (planned a recruitment campaign in France, Puys D’Auvergne) in Killybegs harbour, County Donegal, Ireland (watching seals) and in a former warzone in Croatia, surrounded by burnt out/bombed houses.

Cultural Issues

Over the years I’ve spent making conference calls I’ve come to a few conclusions: Conference calls with the US are no problem as it’s a way of life out there. Conference calls with other English speaking countries such as Singapore and Australia are fine. They are getting used to the idea and we normally have good meetings. However conference calls with non-English speakers spells trouble. Firstly you have to speak perfect English, be respectful, no slang, don’t mumble etc. Also as you move eastwards, personal relationships get more important. You need to make the effort to meet folks you will speak to regularly. This really helps because when you next get on a call with them, they will know you and the barriers are removed.

I recently had a great call with a supplier in Kuwait because we already knew each other. However it is worth remembering that you should avoid Thursday nights, Friday and Saturday in the Middle East and never ever have a conference call late Friday afternoon in China. Friday evening is a sacrosanct family or social time.

Also remember, no one can see your body expression, you can’t see hand movements, so forget jokes etc. This brings me to my last point: to get on you need to figure out the social business culture of the folks you speak to. My company uses a really good site called Globe smart for this, however you may need to subscribe to use it. It enables users to find out what the business culture is in different countries around the world and so find out how counterparts would behave and adjust your behaviour accordingly. You can log in and by answering questions your personality profile is plotted against other nationalities. You can see how you are in comparison to members of your selected target cultures on various preferences such as direct/indirect communication style, individual/group orientation, egalitarian/hierarchical structures, task/relationship approaches, and tendencies toward risk/caution. For example you might find that you are very direct (like the Germans and Dutch) or very heirarchical like the Japanese. I’ve recently used it for doing business with people in Vietnam and it helps me avoid embarrassing faux pas. This is very important as none of us want to look a fool or upset people!

Reviving Video Conferencing

Last week I had a look at the University of Bath’s video conferencing suite situated in the BUCS (Bath University Computing Services) building.

Video Conferencing Suite

The facilities comprise:

  • A Tandberg 6000 MXP Codec video conferencing system including P/T/Z/F controllable colour WAVE camera, dual 33″ monitors with Tandberg Natural Presenter Package (NPP) and MultiSite (MS) Packages. This runs over IP only.
  • Laptop, DVD player, VCR, overhead projector, interactive whiteboard, projector etc.
  • Screen
  • Seating for up 25 people

Despite considerable money and effort having been spent acquiring it, the kit is currently under-used. There were originally two dedicated rooms for video conferencing but university requirements for more space has meant that one of these has now been returned to staff use.

Martin Stone, who gave me a tour of the facilities, explained that the room was well used for a brief period while the University had been investigating having Oakfield campus as an extra university site in Swindon.  Short meetings between colleagues on the two sites had been the perfect material for the video conferencing suite. Now the room is primarily used by Human Resources as a way to interview overseas students for university places and by schools for e-learning activities.

Martin and I speculated on reason’s for the suite’s lack of use. We came up with:

  • Low level of promotion of the resources by BUCs and the university.
  • Expense – at £25 for half an hour the cost does seem high. A day’s use of the room would work out at quite an expense. However the cost is relative and fairly low if you compare it with the cost of flying a staff member out to a meeting.
  • Reluctance by staff to forgo travel opportunities.
  • Technical issues – To use the system, both ends need have appropriate facilities in place.
  • The increased use of free and low-cost software applications that allow peer-to-peer video contact e.g Skype.
  • Better options – despite being bespoke, costly and purchased only a few years ago the system is already out of date. Many newer teleconference systems offer visual options like life-size images of attendees. The experience could be a much better one than that offered by Bath.

It seems a real shame that room isn’t being used more and I have to admit to feeling a little sad about the situation. The University is currently taking part in Our Big Energy Challenge and could quite easily do more to promote the suite’s use  from an environmental perspective.

Are other Universities finding that their video conferencing suites are sitting empty? How can we get people to embrace the technology?

Further information on video conferencing in Higher Education is available in the form of a briefing paper by JISC’s Tech Learn.

Remembering the Value of Face to Face

To date I’ve remained true to the primary focus of this blog and have avoided areas like e-learning and distance/remote learning (mainly because they are big topics and I don’t know where to start!)

However on reading the Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World report written by the Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience (CLEX) I couldn’t help but consider some of the overlaps.

The report provides a “coherent and accessible account of the potential for Web 2.0 technologies in higher education” and makes for a very good read.

One incite that struck me was something that Andy Powell also pointed out in his blog post. When discussing whether there is still a role for universities in a Web 2.0 world Andy concludes that luckily for universities “there are strong hints in the report that aspects of the traditional university, face to face tutor time for example, are well liked by their customers“.


The report repeatedly makes the observation that “face to face contact with staff – the personal element in study – matters to students“. When considering student expectations before enrolment, face to face teaching was found to be preferable to that via technology. This is to some extent directed by the influence of the school model where face to face teaching is the norm. Not only this but personal teaching is something fee paying students expect as part of their ‘purchase’.

However physicality isn’t always possible (or desired). When talking about ongoing drivers to change the CLEX report talks about diversity in the learner population and makes the observation that:

e-Learning incorporating Web 2.0 offers the sense of being a contributing member of a learning community, which is one of the hallmarks of higher education. For learners unable to participate in an actual community for some, or even all, of the time – notably part-time, distance and, increasingly, work-based – Web 2.0 may be a reasonable proxy.

Of course for most learners the use of ICT and Web technologies will go hand in hand with personal contact, which is the ideal solution.

Remote Workers

The need for that personal contact resonates strongly with many remote workers. A quick look at the guest posts will confirm. Although remote working is for many a lifestyle choice it is also quite often a necessity. Despite the advantages it brings most who have tried it will acknowledge that sometimes nothing compares with meeting with people in the flesh. For many of us much work can be carried out in front of a PC, some work can be carried out using social networking tools but for other tasks (notably those that require quick interaction -like a meeting) the preferred option is face to face.

The extinction of face to face meetings has been predicted many-a-time (along with the paperless office and a world without books). Back in 2005 Alan R. Winger wrote an article for Business Horizons entitled Face-to-face communication: Is it really necessary in a digitizing world? in which he argued that despite changing technologies it was still the best way to communicate for two main reasons:

First, being physically close brings into play in a robust way all of the senses: sight, sound, smell and touch. There are more than a few differing types of contact. Messages can be expressed vocally, the content of which can be the outcome of rational thought. Vocally, the content can express feelings both in terms of what is said and how it is said. Perhaps even more important is the ability to see another when face-to-face, which brings nonverbal cues such as body gestures and facial expressions into the fray. Many consider these to be critically important in business communication. Being near also permits touching and smelling, both of which can provide important clues in some discussions.

Second is the matter of speed. Information communicated in a face-to-face setting is instantaneously received, as is any resulting response. In this sense, speed is argued to contribute significantly in situations where the problems to be dealt with are best addressed with knowledge contained in the minds of those working to find solutions, i.e., tacit knowledge.

So now we remote workers are in a predicament. Face to face is preferable for some tasks but often not possible. Luckily the CLEX report concludes that if face to face is not possible “ICT (can be) accepted as an adjunct if managed well“.

My previous Ariadne articles have offered suggestions (such as virtual meetings) and I hope in the near future to write more about the use of video, which is one possible approach.

I suppose as remote workers with limited time and limited organisational budget for travel the trick is identifying which face to face activities hit the biggest score productivity wise.

For now I’d argue those that:

  • include problems that need people to use tacit knowledge to find solutions
  • pack the most into the shortest time (conferences)
  • include the most opportunities for networking
  • can’t be well replicated using video or audio
  • are mission critical to a project

should be first on the list.

Any thoughts?

Also any thoughts on the connections between remote and e-learning and remote working. How about remote research? I’d be happy to broaden my scope if people are OK with it.

A week of Remote Working

logo-smlAre you working from home as you read this? Work Wise UK, a not-for-profit initiative which aims to make the UK one of the most progressive economies in the world by encouraging the widespread adoption of smarter working practices, have been running their annual Work Wise Week and today is National Work from Home Day.

The week runs from Tuesday, May 12, until Monday, May 18. This skewed ‘week’ is to emphasise the need for flexible working practices. There are a number of themed days:

Mobile Office Day (Tuesday, May 12) – encouraging people to work while on the move, instead of travelling to a central office.

Remote Office Day (Wednesday, May 13) – encouraging people to use remote offices instead of travelling to a central office. These would include serviced office space, touch down centres or even hot spots such as coffee shops.

Virtual Meeting Day (Thursday, May 14) – encouraging people to conduct meetings by audio or video conferencing or go online instead of travelling to meetings. have been offering organisations the opportunity to take part with a free trial of its WebEx virtual meeting service.

National Work from Home Day (Friday, May 15) – this will be the fourth time this day has been run. It will encourage people to work from home instead of commuting to their usual place of work.

Smarter Travel Day (Monday, May 18) – the concluding day of the week will encourage people to travel outside peak times. Coming into work an hour early, and then leaving an hour early at the end of the day, or going an hour later, and leaving an hour later. This will reduce the peak rush hour, and make the commuting experience far more bearable for many.

Slipped the Net Here at UKOLN

Somehow the Work Wise Week details had managed to avoid my daily trawl for remote working information. I have a feeling that last year the National Work from Home Day was bigger business, maybe the recession has had some effect on enthusiasm to try out new things. Or maybe it’s just me that’s missed it? We haven’t managed to organise anything here at UKOLN but it might be a bit like preaching to the converted as UKOLN already supports flexible and remote working. It’s some of the bigger ‘more conservative’ businesses who could do with a bit of gentle persuasion that remote working is good for business.

Has your organisation or company been doing anything special for Work Wise Week?