Public meetings—"virtually” painless?
On March 20, 2020, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order suspending any statutes that required public meetings in the state to have a physically present quorum. This opened the door for virtual meetings to be held at various levels of government. Similar orders were issued in many states, including Tennessee and Nebraska, and many regular meetings with municipalities have gone virtual as well. Project selection committees have been meeting virtually as well. I have several ongoing projects for which, aside from a few site meetings, I haven’t seen the project team since March.
As municipalities made the shift to virtual meetings, many had to scramble to determine the right platform to use, install the appropriate software, and get the correct information out to the public. As expected, this process was not without problems early on. These ranged from issues getting people logged on to people joining meetings with the sole purpose of disrupting them. We experienced some of these challenges ourselves—members of our team participated in a project selection interview and gave an entire presentation only to be told during our question and answer session that none of the selection committee members could see our presentation.
While many of the early kinks have been ironed out, one persistent issue has been controlling when people unmute their microphones. This issue probably isn’t going away—it’s always been a problem with teleconferencing, as we lose social cues that let us know when it’s our turn to speak.
A return to town halls
The governor’s executive order expired on November 1, 2020 and physical quorums were once again required for Florida public meetings. However, the expiration of the order has not resulted in a complete return to normalcy, and many municipalities are having hybrid public meetings. Some meetings include the required governing board attending in person with all other attendees joining virtually; others have limited in-person seating to adhere to social distancing guidelines, with options for attending virtually as well. As we enter 2021, I don’t see there being a real hurry to bring regular meetings back to conference rooms. We should probably be ready to continue virtual meetings with our clients.
Making the best of it
It is undeniable that virtual meetings have their benefits. Reduced or eliminated travel time allows everyone to be more productive and may allow more participation. The key to reaping these benefits is making the most of virtual meetings—which does require some effort. Some best practices for virtual meetings I’ve learned include:
- Clearly define the purpose of the meeting and outline your objectives. (This is great for in-person meetings too!)
- Establish roles for your team before the meeting, including a leader, timekeeper (very important for timed presentations) and note taker to track action items. When making presentations, I also like to assign someone to watch the video feeds to get an idea of how people react to points that are made. It’s not always possible, but it helps provide feedback from body language and facial cues, which can easily get lost in a virtual meeting.
- Establish ground rules upfront. A good example would be, “Everyone must be on mute when not speaking.”
- Develop good visuals representing the work or topics of discussion to keep people interested and engaged.
- Consider scheduling meetings for 5-10 minutes less than the standard half-hour or hour increments to leave break time for those who get several meetings scheduled consecutively.
While virtual meetings can present challenges, they can also provide several advantages. Virtual meetings will most likely continue beyond the immediate future, so understanding best practices for how to implement them successfully will allow us all to benefit from them moving forward.
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