3 reasons not to meet in a virtual world

I get invited to a lot of virtual meetings. Every week, I’m on conference calls, video calls, and in in-world meetups.

Lately, because of the particular projects I’ve been involved in, the proportion of virtual meetings has gone up. In many cases, the proponents were lobbying for a particular platform in order to promote it.

Sometimes, the virtual environment helped. More often, however, it just got in the way and left me with a bad impression of their platform. Here are five times when a virtual meeting isn’t the way to go.

1. You’re just going to talk

If you just plan to have a conversation with someone ask yourself these three questions:

  • Are both of you already inside the virtual world, and talking there is easier than picking up the phone?
  • Is the virtual world the only way you have to contact this person?
  • Does the other person prefer not to use the phone, or online chat or telephone systems for some reason?

Unless the answer to one or more of these questions is “yes” then just use a telephone!

The telephone is right there. You can just reach over, and pick it up. (Image by Richard Stebbing via Flickr.)

The telephone is right there. You can just reach over, and pick it up. (Image by Richard Stebbing via Flickr.)

For most business related conversations, a telephone is fast and easy. And, these days, very cheap. For international calls, or text chat, Skype and Google Hangouts offer Internet-based chat and voice for free.

If you have several callers you want to get together, many large companies I talk to use FreeConferenceCall.com. There’s no stigma attached to using this free service, and it works smoothly, easily and conveniently.

The worst case situation is where the meeting organizer has me use an online meeting platforms that takes me through a cumbersome registration process and then has me download and install new software before I can even get to the virtual meeting — then after I go through all this, the system tells me to pick up a phone and call in for the actual conversation.

Really? We couldn’t have skipped all that virtual meeting rigmarole and went straight to the phone? Really? Do you realize that I now hate your online meeting platform?

That happened twice to me recently. Twice.

2. You’re mostly going to talk, but also show some pictures

I have email. You can email me the pictures.

Or paper. You can still mail paper to people. It's still a thing, and gives cats something to sit on. (Image by Patrick Calder via Flickr.)

Or paper. You can snail mail paper to people. It’s still a thing. And it gives cats something to sit on. (Image by Patrick Calder via Flickr.)

I understand that companies and organizations have to “eat their own dog food.” But sometimes you’re just not that hungry.

Last week, for example, I was in an organizational meeting for a non-profit, planning a virtual conference. So it kind of made sense to at least tour the virtual space we were going to have the conference in. Except that we’d already done that, at preceding meetings, and, in fact, in the previous year’s conference. We weren’t learning anything new by having follow-up meetings in the same spot.

The meetings involved several people discussing online documents. The entire meeting could have been done by emailing the links and scheduling a conference call.

Instead, we waste a lot of time waiting for people to log in, teleport over, find the meeting space and, invariably, at least one person will have voice problems.

Unless you’ve got one of three exceptions from above, there is no reason to go into a virtual world just to look at a picture or document.

3. You need to show slides or do a screenshare

I’ve become a big fan of Google Hangouts lately. If you’re using Gmail as your primary online “home” — as I do, being a Google Apps for Business user — setting up a Google Hangout is ridiculously easy. I can pull one up instantly by mousing over the other person’s name on my Contacts list then clicking the little video camera icon.

Once in the Google Hangout, mouse over to the far left of the screen and an app bar will pop up, with little icons to open up a chat pane, a screenshare, or pull up a Google Doc.

I love using the screenshare tool. I’ve used it to practice a slideshow presentation. And I’ve used it to help a friend with some website issues. You can even see where their mouse is, so you can say things like, “Press the Save button. It’s the green one on the right. A little further right. Now move your mouse down a little bit. Right there!”

With my friends and non-profit groups, Google Hangouts and Skype are the preferred options. Corporate calls with slides usually involve a more enterprise-friendly platform, such as WebEx or GoToMeeeting.

Unless you’re dealing with one of the three exceptions again, there’s really no reason to go into a virtual world just to show some slides.

One of the many things that can go wrong when giving a speech in-world -- your clothes might never arrive.

One of the many things that can go wrong when giving a presentation in-world — your clothes might never arrive.

Also, really think about whether you need those slides at all. If you’re using them to convey some critical data, put it in an email, and save your audience the hassle of trying to copy it off your slides.

If you’re using the slides to jazz up whatever it is you’re saying, and the slides don’t add any actual value, then all you’re really doing is annoying people by forcing them to use whatever slide viewing tool you picked. Keep it simple.

So when should you hold a virtual meeting?

The rule of thumb is to use as little technology as you can to accomplish your goals, since every additional layer of technology adds complexity, adds potential points of failure, and adds confusion for the participants.

Email and telephones work great. If you can get things done just by email and phone, do that.

If you are holding a meeting in a 3D virtual environment, that virtual environment better offer the attendees something that they need and which they can’t get in any other way.

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Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China. Follow me on Twitter @MariaKorolov.

7 Responses

  1. sjatkins@mac.com' Samantha Atkins says:

    These make great sense if one is a strict augmentist concerning virtual worlds, that is one sees them as just another communication tool. But if you are sold on the idea of a metaverse and really enjoy doing thing immersively in 3D worlds, even if you look like a bit of a stilted toon, then why wouldn’t you hold a meeting in a virtual world? Why wouldn’t you show slides and do other meeting activities?

    GoToMeeting is not the same as being present in a 3D environment as an avatar with other avatars. It is not even close.

    • I’m personally totally sold on the metaverse, and would prefer to hold my meetings in-world whenever possible. But, for some reason, when I’m attending *other people’s* meetings, I prefer convenience!

      See I’m already in my own virtual world. I already have my avatar set up, my voice working, etc… It seems a no brainer to invite people to come over and join me so we can discuss our latest project.

      But when I’m the invitee — especially if I haven’t used their particular platform before — I have to download the software. Create an avatar. Figure out how to upload whatever content I plan to bring to the meeting. Get my voice working. Arrgh!

      Even when its a familiar platform, like, say, Second Life or OSgrid, I still have to budget enough time to launch the viewer – and, if it’s in Second Life, enough time to install whatever update they’re pushing! And, also if it’s SL, time to log in and out a couple of times until voice clicks in. Then to get dressed — do I have an appropriate outfit on? Or am I still wearing party clothes from some themed event I went to last? Then the teleport link won’t work, and I have to track down the organizer for a teleport invite — while every other attendee is struggling through the same issues. Then — according to Murphy’s Law — the grid or region will go down for a backup, or because some script suddenly decided to spin out of control.

      Now, I did list three exceptions — if everyone is ALREADY in-world, if everyone PREFERS to meet in-world, or if you can ONLY reach them in-world.

      But if you’re a company, and you’re trying to promote your virtual environment to a journalist, and then you have them come in to your virtual platform and then YOU DON’T USE IT FOR ANYTHING VIRTUAL — just to talk and show some pictures — then you’ve wasted an opportunity, wasted the journalist’s time, and made your platform look bad. Because — even though I’m a big fan of the metaverse and KNOW what you can do in virtual environments — I’m still left with the impression that THEIR virtual environment is only good for showing pictures and sitting on virtual chairs.

      • sjatkins@mac.com' Samantha Atkins says:

        Many good points there. So those of us that are software techies should dig in and fix some of this. Especially things like making sure voice just works. I think for each type of world or other venue there should be a no-zip get me up and running as something reasonable kit. You could even just beam a newbie in an avatar and outfit they can live with directly into a chair in the meeting, conceivably.

        I could see a virtual meetup.com type company that allows people to find one another by interest worldwide and set up meetings in any online or virtual world desired. Each type of venue has a setup kit for first timers. Perhaps some entrepreneurs would rent out virtual meeting venues with various accoutrements and characteristics.

        • ilan@kitely.com' Ilan Tochner says:

          Hi Samantha,

          Kitely’s original vision, and one we’re close to be able to finally execute, was to enable people to get the perfect virtual environment for their desired group activity. A type of YouTube for virtual environments where you can find pre-made environments for anything you want to do and easily share a private copy of that environment with the people you wish to interact with. You can see me discussing this concept in the first half of this video interview from 2011: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3t2s47TAiI4

          • seren.seraph@gmail.com' Serendipity Seraph says:

            Cool. But is the interviewer holding his camera phone in your face? That is up close and personal. 🙂 I would love to have a web viewer. SL had an experimental one once that wasn’t bad.

  2. j_nickence@hotmail.com' Joey1058 says:

    This is good advice, primarily if your business is conducted in Physical Reality.

  3. adaradius@gmail.com' Ada Radius says:

    Virtual meetings work very well for our small non-profit (New Media Arts, Inc.) and its projects, primarily for reporting on projects to each other and doing group planning in Talk. We use both Second Life and Kitely, depending on the project. We use emails and forums and GTalk to set the meetings up.

    For a group larger than four, Skype doesn’t work well, and if people aren’t familiar with each other’s voices, we need the visual cue of seeing the little green flashies over our heads. To keep some of the chaos under control we’ve instituted some
    conventions, such as arranging our meeting chairs in a circle so we can
    talk in turn, moderated by the leader of whatever project we’re working
    on. We use mostly Talk, but also text Chat and occasional notecard passing to keep communications straight. No one cares what form our avatars take, and we make sure to have
    Tiny seats available, at least in the SL grid. Since our business is arts in virtual worlds and other internet platforms we obviously need to be there to execute our projects, but it works well for admin as well.

    I agree on the tech difficulties, especially with invitees who haven’t been inworld often, or at all. Meetings have to be scheduled ahead, and the participants have to budget enough time to load whatever software they need to get inworld to be on time. It’s a short commute, but still a commute. Our typical meetings have participants from all of the US & Canada continental time zones, Australia, GMT and CEST – tech issues aren’t the killer, finding mutually acceptable times is.