Online Meetings: How Settings Set The Scene

As you can imagine, I’ve been crazy busy recently. It’s an interesting time to be an expert in highly-participative online events.

In the last few weeks I’ve trained dozens of trainers, facilitators and meeting-leaders how to get their groups engaged, showing them how the kind of approaches they rely on to make it happen in the room, such as small group work and physical activities, can translate to the online space. 

My tool of choice, for many years, has been Zoom. It still is, despite the security scares of recent days. Let me explain.

Zoom’s breakout rooms feature was a game-changer for online training and facilitation, because work and learning always happens in small groups. The breakout rooms feature makes splitting a roomful of people into small groups easy. It makes our Web Events That Connect model straightforward. 

But the feature is not enabled by default. You have to switch it on.  

For a trainer and facilitator like myself, that initially might seem strange. But as a reader of this blog, you’re probably well aware of the nudge effect of defaults. People tend not to change defaults, which means they can be a powerful lever to help people to do the “right” thing.

Zoom has always been about making things super-simple for users, and that’s how its defaults were set. Enabling breakout rooms by default would have added complexity for new users, and so the feature was hidden.

The idea was that it was super simple to join a Zoom meeting. The app downloaded to your machine so smoothly that you didn’t know it had happened. One click, or one nine-digit number, and you were in. Maybe a quick check that you knew you’d be on video. No hanging about in cyberspace. No check on your identity.

Participants arrived looking relaxed, ready to join in creating a friendly, egalitarian atmosphere, rather than frazzled and frustrated.

What could possibly go wrong?

Not much… while most of the organisers of Zoom meetings had some sense of that openness.

The thing is, organising a Zoom event with those defaults is like getting your group together in a village hall. There’s a door, you open it, you walk in. It’s brilliant for accessibility. But there’s nothing to stop a gang of troublemakers bursting in and wrecking the party.

Is that a bug, or is it a feature?

When I ran the first Metaphorum online open space event, four years ago, I was afraid of what is now known as Zoombombing. I had a team on standby to deal with gatecrashers. They weren’t needed, thank goodness, and they’ve never been needed in any of my events.

Now, Zoom has changed its defaults, adding passwords to meeting room links, enabling “waiting rooms” and so on. In the current situation, with lots of people using Zoom for the first time, that’s probably the right thing to do.

But it changes the metaphor: instead of a village hall, we’re in some kind of official building, maybe a hotel or co-working space, with a reception desk and all that palaver.

What you do with your Zoom settings is up to you. It will change the experience that your group members have as they arrive, and that, in turn, will change how they behave. Do you want a comfortable village hall, or a more formal space?

For most of my online classes and events, I’ll be keeping my settings super-open, super-friendly. No waiting rooms – even if I’m not on the call yet. And definitely no bings and bongs when people join or leave the call, making it sound like A Conference Call In Real Life.

But I’m making these choices consciously, knowing that they mean I have to take some extra care.

  • I don’t share Zoom meeting links publicly or on social media. People have to register for my classes and events, and receive the link via email or a calendar invitation
  • I have a list of participants’ email addresses close at hand. In the event of something untoward happening, I can close the call and contact them quickly with a new link
  • I know who’s on the call, and participants aren’t allowed to “lurk”. It’s video and audio on, all the time, unless there’s a very good reason for an exception
  • If I re-use meeting links, such as my personal ID, I know I’m increasing the risk of people joining the call when they’re not supposed to be there, whether accidentally or deliberately. I balance that with the convenience of using the same link, say, for a series of classes.

That’s for classes. If I was organising the meetings for the government, or the criminal courts, I’d make different choices. Formal would be the right thing. I might even choose a tool that didn’t offer breakout rooms. (Here’s how to simulate breakout rooms in Microsoft Teams.)

I might also tweak my settings slightly for larger Web Events That Connect. A little formality is probably appropriate when you’ve got more than a couple of dozen participants.

And, I’m looking out for alternatives to Zoom, just in case. Circles and Videofacilitator both look promising.

3 thoughts on “Online Meetings: How Settings Set The Scene”

  1. Yes, adapt settings to context 🙂

    For users that know their Zoom settings and meeting controls Zoombombing was never an issue. I’ll keep my defaults on village hall settings. Just sayin’ 🙂

  2. Well, that is if you haven’t seen the newest settings for Zoom yet with tons of things to turn of or off, only the description of what they mean is to be derived from the title. I was happy with my free account. But this, so far, gives me a headache to set up.

    I’ll keep reading and going to the zoom site to see whether I can make some headway.

  3. Long time user of Zoom and will continue to be. I did find I had a person jump into a room, that was a private 1 on 1 meeting and another 2 days later. I discovered this as I have emails set to let me know when somene is waiting. Guessing they chose a random number and landed in the room. I don’t advertise Zoom ID’s online. I immediately changed settings to be PW protected.
    Love the metaphors here an the focus on the experience.

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