Forget everything you know about virtual meetings. Imagine being able to engage with others, from anywhere across the globe, just like you would if you were sitting across the room from them. New technologies can make this happen.

In this special episode of The Business of Learning, Matt Giegrich, chief executive officer of The Inception Company, and Shaun Urban, president of The Inception Company, share insights including:

  • How the coronavirus was a wake-up call.
  • Why technology still isn’t everything (the importance of social banter).
  • What makes a virtual meeting successful.
  • How emerging technologies overcome the common challenges of virtual meetings and remote learning.

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The transcript of this episode follows. 

Sarah Gallo:
Hello and welcome to the Business of Learning, the learning leader’s podcast from Training Industry. I’m Sarah Gallo, an associate editor at Training Industry,

Taryn Oesch:
And I’m Taryn Oesch, managing editor of digital content at Training Industry. Before we start, we’d like to thank The Inception Company for sponsoring this episode.

Speaker:
The Inception Company builds engagement products and services. Our newest innovation, Pando, bridges the gap between traditional virtual and in-person meetings by integrating a full studio production with remote participants displayed on a 40-foot video wall, in-person moderator or moderators, and seamless onboarding support to deliver the experience and impact of an in-person meeting. For more information, visit www.pandomeetings.com or www.inceptioncompany.com.

Sarah Gallo:
Forget everything you know about virtual meetings. Imagine being able to engage with others from anywhere across the globe just like you would if you were sitting across the room from them. New technologies can make this happen. To learn more about virtual meetings, today we’re speaking with Matt Giegerich, CEO of The Inception Company, and Shaun Urban, president of The Inception Company. Matt and Sean, welcome to the podcast.

Matt Giegerich:
Thank you very much.

Shaun Urban:
Thank you. Great to be here.

Taryn Oesch:
This topic has, of course, become even more relevant than it was when we planned this episode. As we record, more and more companies both in the U.S. where we’re located, and around the world, are moving work online as much as they can [due to COVID-19] — and of course that includes hosting virtual meetings. Even in situations that aren’t quite as extreme as this one, why might a company decide to host a virtual meeting rather than an in-person meeting? Matt, why don’t we start with you?

Matt Giegerich:
Sure. It’s hard not to answer that question in the context of what’s happening right now with [the] Coronavirus, but I think in a very general sense, people are looking for virtual alternatives to live meetings for a couple of key reasons. One is expense, and the other is just time and complexity and logistics. And more and more people are with dual-income families and [face] pressures of childcare and home care, they’re finding it difficult to get on a plane and fly somewhere for a day-long meeting. Virtual meeting alternatives are of course rising in general, but now in the face of [the] Coronavirus, it’s become a national imperative, even a global imperative, that we find a way to keep the world of work alive and moving despite the challenges presented by the disease. But I do think that it’s going to continue as a trend and accelerate well beyond [the] Coronavirus [pandemic], because this has been certainly a wake-up call for many.

Taryn Oesch:
And Shaun, anything to add there?

Shaun Urban:
I think the only other thing to add is that we’re also finding, in having discussions with our clients, [a desire] to keep their staff members and team members local within their sale territories, [and] local within their businesses, to keep the business operating on a day-to-day basis rather than taking them away to fly to some other location that’s going to take them away from their business or their sales territories for a day or two, and also away from their family. And so keeping people working within their businesses — and not consuming them with all the travel that goes with it — becomes a very, very important decision point in doing virtual trainings and meetings.

Taryn Oesch:
Thanks. So the next question, then, is what makes a virtual meeting successful?

Shaun Urban:
I can start with that. I think historically, the problems that have incurred associated with virtual meetings have been a handful of consistent ones — [with the] number one [being] technology challenges. Oftentimes virtual meeting platforms will acquire a plugin or a download to connect to the virtual meeting platform. There are [also] onboarding challenges, challenges with technology savviness to get connected to the platform. Oftentimes there [are] audio and video problems [not associated] with the meeting, [but with] web cameras not being compatible or shutting off and [other] bandwidth challenges. So on some platforms, requiring too much bandwidth for doing a virtual meeting in the environment, whether it’s an office, a hotel or the convenience of someone’s home [can cause challenges]. And so technology challenges have been really, really problematic up to this point. Also, the virtual meeting platforms today, even [with] some of the more progressive video conferencing platforms, it’s been very, very difficult to lead those meetings and really drive engagement along the way. It’s hard to see people in thumbnail sketches or prints on your laptop, desktop or iPad. You can’t read body language or gestures as much as you would like to. And so, as a result, you really can’t tell if people are engaged in that virtual meeting or if they’re distracted. We also know that a lot of these platforms, in the past, really have insufficient [engagement] tools, so they [are not] multi-modal in nature. And so, for all of those reasons and probably more, the [virtual] platforms that people have used historically have really, really fallen short and the marketplace has demanded more — and better [options], and companies have been trying to evolve [their] technologies to address many of these shortcomings.

Matt Giegerich:
And I can certainly pile on there with the word “engagement.” What makes the meeting successful is if the attendees are engaged in that conversation fully. And we all know the primary challenge of virtual meeting platforms, at least [with] the traditional [platform] choices, is that people do a very predictable thing when they’re on a conference call or Zoom call. You name it: They tend to put their phone on mute and lean back and multitask, [and] check their email. And so they’re kind of participating; they’re kind of listening; they’re kind of engaged, but they’re not fully engaged. And that really is the difference between a great meeting and one that’s only half-fulfilling, if you will.

Sarah Gallo:
Definitely. And how would you say technologies are overcoming some of these challenges and limitations that you both have mentioned about virtual meetings, such as engagement? Shaun, do you want to start us off?

Shaun Urban:
Sure. I think technologies are evolving and new platforms have surfaced where there is a high level of production value associated with the virtual meeting platform or technology. So, [for example], using television studios to produce a virtual meeting where a technical director, director, producer, robotic camera operators and sound engineers are all working together to take the technology [to the next level]. [These new, integrated platforms] in essence, [can take virtual meetings] out of the leader’s hand, out of the presenter’s hand, and [can] constantly switch that program [to show] how the conversation is organically flowing and giving individuals an experience that is almost entertaining in nature. You’re seeing large video walls being built in studios where individuals are life-sized so that trainers and leaders and facilitators of these meetings can see life-sized mannerisms, body language [and] facial expressions to know if people are engaged or not. We’re seeing technologies build polling and spontaneous survey capabilities into the platform to reaffirm that people are understanding the points or the information or content that they are engaging with. We’re also seeing white glove service really being applied to more progressive and innovative platforms in terms of the onboarding experience, where help desk staff are literally connecting right into the individual’s computer, laptop or desktop, making sure that their internet connectivity is strong, checking their web camera settings, their local audio levels and staying with that participant throughout the course of the entire virtual meeting …. [This way], if any technology issues arise, they’re [able] to triage those issues. We’re also seeing that engagement is being able to specifically be measured in more of the advanced platforms, [there’s] lots of data on folks [that] come to these virtual meeting platforms, and it’s important to be able to measure how engaged people are throughout the course of a training or a meeting for a variety of reasons. And so, more progressive algorithms are being built to specifically calculate engagement scores for each individual who participates in a certain virtual meeting platform. And those are just a handful of ways that we’ve really seen the technology evolve to one that is much more innovative, progressive and easy to connect to today.

Matt Giegerich:
I think there is a tendency in the technology world to think that the challenges of virtual meetings are going to simply be solved by technology. And Shaun just gave us some great examples of how things have changed for the better, but we also see it running in the opposite direction, where platforms are relying on artificial intelligence in effect to help manage a meeting. So, just as a small example, allowing for if somebody starts talking, well suddenly they take over a screen, etc. And that’s where technology gets in the way. And having a human intervention, the skill[s] of a producer or director involved in a program can take it out of technology’s hands and put it into somebody’s hands who understands the objective of the meeting [and] the role that people are playing, [who] understands how an organic conversation flows, [and] how to follow that conversation in a logical and even exciting way. And that can’t be done easily by robots. It’s important to have a human element [in virtual meetings], and not think that technology is going to solve everything.

Taryn Oesch:
That’s such a great point. As remote work continues to rise, especially in light of the Coronavirus, and teams are increasingly dispersed across the globe, what tips do you have for leading successful virtual meetings and keeping employees engaged in those meetings?

Matt Giegerich:
I’ve found over the years, [having been] both been a participant and now [a leader at] a business focused on virtual meetings, that one of the best ways to engage people in a [virtual] meeting is to treat it like a live meeting. Treat it like a social moment. It’s not just about the agenda and the content and the presentation and the dialogue. Sometimes it’s about getting to know each other, and feeling comfortable and confident with each other — and that means social banters. So one of the things I recommend is building social moments and social banter into the agenda. Don’t start the meeting at exactly 1:00. Start the meeting at 20 after 1:00, and spend the first 20 minutes asking people how they’re doing, how the weather is if they’re in Denver [and] how they’re dealing with whatever the crisis of the moment might be. Ask about their family, [or] ask about their favorite football team, and pull people into that conversation by virtue of welcoming them as humans first and as meeting participants second.

Shaun Urban:
The other thing that I would just add on to that Matt, and I couldn’t agree with you more in terms of integrating the social aspect into virtual meetings, is the facilitator and presenters’ [role] within virtual meetings. They have to bring, really, the same amount of energy that they would to an in-person meeting to a virtual environment. Their level of engagement and energy and excitement becomes really, really important in order to keep the virtual participants leaning in and engaged throughout the course of the meeting. And also, from the presenter or moderator’s point of view, leveraging the multi-modality engagement tools and aspects of the platform that they’re using to the fullest extent [is critical] so that you’re using different techniques and tools at your disposal to keep people connected to you and the content that you’re delivering.

Sarah Gallo:
For sure. That connection is just so important right now, especially. As we do move into the future of work, how do you both see virtual meetings impacting the way that employees learn? Matt, do you want to start us off?

Matt Giegerich:
Sure. I think [there’s] going to be a comprehensive impact, because more and more learning is going to be occurring in virtual environments [in the future]. People still yearn for live experiences and live instructor-led sessions. They yearn for on-the-job training. But increasingly, and as we’re seeing right now with some imperative behind it, people are being forced to go through learning processes or cycles online, and it’s just going to become part of everyday work culture even more so moving forward, and it’s a muscle that has to be flexed along the way. It’s not something everybody is good at, and I mentioned being distracted and multitasking as a universal problem. People have to focus on and learn how to be intensely engaged in a meeting even though they’re alone somewhere in their home or [working] remote. They need to practice and learn how to remain attentive and focused, [how to] take breaks when they need to, [and how to] make sure the environment is appropriate for spending an hour or two hours in that learning session. Over time [virtual meetings are] going to become more and more second nature for everybody, and the intensity required for it to be effective is going to be more second nature I think.

Shaun Urban:
I think the encouraging thing is that, with the [new] generation now entering the workforce, they’re digital natives by heart. They’ve grown up around technology their entire lives. So, their ability to evolve their learning style and capabilities within a digital environment is going to be [very high]. And we’ve seen [these employees adapt] much, much quicker than perhaps folks in my generation or Matt’s generation. And they’re almost expecting for digital and technology [applications] to be at the core of how they’re trained and how they learn. I’ll give you a real-world example in my household that just happened last night. I have a five-year-old daughter and, even at five-years-old, we’re limiting the amount of time that they’re spending on their iPad to 30 minutes a day. And last night before I was putting her to bed, she said, “Daddy, when are we going to go to a state fair?” And I said, “Well Riley, how do you even know about state fairs?” And she goes, “Well, I learned about state fairs, daddy, on YouTube.” So, even the most rudimentary learning is happening digitally via YouTube and other channels in the most formative stages of our children. So I think technology and virtual training solutions are poised to really be effective with the digital natives that are in the workforce today and that will be in the workforce tomorrow.

Taryn Oesch:
That’s such a great point. I see that with my niece and my godchildren as well. [They] are definitely already digital natives at a young age. So, we know that employees today are increasingly looking for flexible work environments, but I would love to hear how you think that virtual meetings can promote flexibility in the workplace and help that employee desire. Shaun, do you want to start?

Shaun Urban:

Sure. It’s hard to not put this in the context of COVID-19 and the pandemic that we’re experiencing right now, but virtually all of our clients, including our company itself, has moved to a work from home policy during these times. And so we are seeing literally an influx of meetings that were scheduled to be in-person and live being transitioned to some sort of virtual meeting environment and platform. And we’ve been there for our clients to be able to provide a multitude of virtual meetings [and] solutions for their events and we’re really, really focused on marrying the right content [and] the right type of meeting that they desire with the right virtual meeting platform and technology. Understanding the content [and] the environment that the participant is going to be taking the meeting in, [and] understanding the technology hardware and internet connectivity that the participants will have in the environment that they’re going to be participating in the meeting in becomes really, really important in making the appropriate technology recommendations — and in formatting and designing the curriculum for the particular meeting…. So it’s never been more omnipresent then right now, with the situation that we’re faced with.

Matt Giegerich:
Yeah, and I think flexibility in the workforce has been a growing need. Dual-income families, the changing nature of work, [and] the role of technology [are] all conspiring to create a different expectation of what it means to be a worker. In the past it [work meant being] at a location from 9-5. Time and space have now busted wide open, and we have to figure out, as humans, how [to] incorporate work into our world when there are no real boundaries anymore. We don’t have to be physically in one place [to work], and there’s really no such thing as 9-5 anymore. So, how does work expand to fill flexible needs and different situations that everybody finds themselves in? Also, how do we work somehow to contain work so that it is not 24/7, occupying us at all times? [This is] just a small anecdote, but I know lots and lots of people who take their phone with them to bed, [and] their phone is sitting alongside them in the bed. [Their phone is] the last thing they look at [before sleeping] and the first thing they look at when they wake up. I’ve made it practice, for whatever reason, years ago of never bringing my phone into the bedroom and leaving it like it’s shut off [so that] part of my life is no longer engaged. I’ll engage it when I take the dogs out and get a cup of coffee later in the morning, but we have to decide that with flexibility comes also the opportunity for complete encroachment and being overwhelmed by work, and we have to figure out a way to tamp it down in the right ways and in the right places.

Sarah Gallo:
For sure, it’s definitely important to find that balance. Do either of you have any thoughts you would like to leave us with about virtual meetings or virtual meetings in the future of work?

Matt Giegerich:
I’ll start by saying that these last three weeks, [or] two week period, has been a wake-up call for the world of work. And it will be a double-crisis if we simply revert back to the way we were working and using virtual technologies in that somehow we don’t learn from this, it will really be a double crime. Companies have to now think forward … not just for preparedness in the event of a disaster and how to we move the world of our office to a virtual environment. [Companies] should be thinking way more proactively than that. How can we operate virtually and minimize the likelihood of there being any real material change in what we expect, how we deploy, how we communicate and engage, etc.? And we do think that’s where this is going to go. And, what will be the collective impact of Coronavirus long after it’s gone, is that it will have changed the way people think about their working world and how technology and virtual engagements can be a part of a solution.

Shuan Urban:
And within that vein, we also believe [that] as we come out of this crisis, the increase in leveraging virtual meeting platforms and technologies for many of the reasons that Matt just expressed is going to be required in these economic times that we are facing. And we see virtual technologies actually allowing our clients commercial budgets, training budgets, etc., to be extended further in these economically suppressed times, which is going to be really, really important to help companies stand up more quickly in face of not only this health crisis, but [in what] will be some significant economic difficulties that a variety of business sectors will face in the coming weeks and months ahead of us.

Taryn Oesch:
Alright, well that wraps up this special episode of the Business of Learning. Matt and Shaun, thank you so much for coming and talking with us today on this very timely, very important topic.

Matt Giegerich:
Thank you so much. It was great to be a part of the discussion.

Shaun Urban:
Yeah, thank you so much.

Sarah Gallo:
For more insights on virtual meetings and other remote work topics, check out the show notes for this episode at trainingindustry.com/trainingindustrypodcast.

Taryn Oesch:
And as always, if you’re enjoying this episode and our other episodes, we encourage you to rate and review us on your platform of choice to help other learning leaders find us.

Sarah Gallo:
Until next time. If you have feedback about this episode or would like to suggest a topic for a future program, email us at info@trainingindustry.com or use the contact us page at trainingindustry.com. Thanks for listening to the Training Industry podcast.

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