Are You Organising Your Online Meetings In A Train Carriage?

When you’re organising an in-person meeting, you probably know that space matters – a lot. People think and behave differently in different kinds of spaces, so you choose carefully. Bright spaces with high ceilings for “blue sky” thinking; rows of theatre-style seating for information downloads; smallish stand-up spaces in front of a whiteboard for planning the work.

How does this apply when you’re organising a meeting for remote participants? My guess is that you’ve never thought about it.

But it does apply. People refer to their internet experiences in terms of space. The “internet experience is like a physical space” metaphor is so solidly embedded that we’ve stopped noticing that it’s a metaphor. 

To test this out, try writing a sentence or two about shared online experience without using a spatial metaphor. You “meet” in an “online space” such as a “room”, a video call brings you “together”, you “send” emails… I’ve just gone back through the last few lines aiming to take out the spatial metaphors that I’d used inadvertently. “Online”. “Remote”. “Meetings”. It’s really, really hard!

This effect happens because human beings are fundamentally embodied creatures, evolved to live in a physical (spatial) world. And we also evolved to think in metaphor, at a very fundamental level. Metaphor is the native language of the unconscious mind, the stuff of thought.

And so a new idea, such as the internet, can only come to life through metaphor.

Given that people do think about the internet in spatial terms, there’s an important implication for meeting organisers – and their employers.

If you moved to a new office, how would you spec the meeting rooms? If you’re in a creative, collaborative business such as software development, you’d probably make sure there would be lots of them. They’d be clean and inviting. They’d have lots of light, shiny whiteboard walls, flip charts and post-its galore. The furniture would be configurable for different kinds of conversations.

And your online space? In too many organisations, it’s as if the meeting rooms are designed to be as uncomfortable as possible.

In many companies, the rigid, one-size online meeting environment feels something like a train carriage. Only the four people at your table can be seen and heard, but you’re expecting the rest of the carriage to be part of the meeting, to contribute and to stay engaged.

If people want to speak, they have to wave a hand above their head and hope that you spot them, or just shout! Notes are shaky. Any documents blow about and get lost.

And that’s before we even mention the background noise! People dial in from open offices with interruptions galore, or literally from public transport with all its bings and bongs.

It really doesn’t have to be like that!

And great online meeting spaces don’t have to be expensive. But they do need to be thought about, specced and designed to deliver the results you actually want. Of which, more in a future post…

  • What kind of online spaces have you designed? And what effect has that had? Please comment below.

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  1. Pingback: The Secret Metaphors Inside Your Remote Meetings Toolkit - Judy Rees

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