Overcoming the challenges of virtual meetings

For all their benefits, virtual meetings are not without their challenges, some of which are beyond the control of meeting attendees. Most crucially, humans have no built-in tools to guide or build virtual relationships. Nor can they make connections or deductions without the plethora of non-verbal communication cues that are hidden from the camera.

Since it is going to take a while to rewire thousands of years of relationship evolutions, let us consider the next most significant issue faced by virtual meetings – that of background noise.

Background meeting noise

Working from home brings with it dogs, children, neighbours, and a host of other environmental sounds that are often beyond the control of meeting participants. And while some external noises can be dampened or controlled, like it or not, background noise forms part of almost every online meeting today.

To counter the noise nuisance, companies can approach this from two perspectives.

Firstly, background sound can be reduced using noise reducing software. This kind of software works in real-time and tries to intercept background noises before they are sent to the meeting. Which is a technical tour-de-force of no small order!

The AI system must determine the difference between an attendee’s voice and unwanted sounds as the voice is being transmitted. If this process takes too long, a time-lag is introduced; if the software gets it wrong, the speaker’s voice is removed.

An example of this is the Krisp app (https://krisp.ai/) that is available for Windows or Mac. Krisp has some competitors, which you can find by Googling the phrase ‘krisp competitors’. Also, some virtual meeting software comes standard with a ‘remove background noise’ feature but the effectiveness of this function is often quite variable.

There is a free version of Krisp, which currently provides 240 minutes of noise reduction per week. This should be enough to get most people through the noisiest times of the day. However, the full version is only $5 per month for unlimited use and could be a worthwhile investment for people who spent most of their days in virtual meetings. It should not be that difficult to convince the IT department to purchase a company license. Not only is this a great solution to clean up conversations from the home office, but it also works well for those occasional coffee shop or airport lounge calls that cannot be avoided.

Secondly, beyond the software route, there are some other practical interventions that mitigate the impact of background noise. An obvious starting point is for attendees to wear headsets and stay muted until they need to speak. Moving to a quieter part of the home or asking cohabitants to keep it down, also helps. Meeting participants should also check if any of their devices are generating noise such as a laptop fan or the like.

Speaking turns

Beyond the background noise issue, a significant drawback of current e-meeting technology is that only one person can speak at a time. To my mind, this is an impractical downside to meeting virtually. In the not too distant past, people used to sit around a boardroom table and could easily speak to the person next to them. It was easy to ask a question during a presentation, without a silly emoticon of an upheld hand appearing next to your name. Today, you must endure an almost endless delay before your raised hand is noticed. And then the chair will ask everyone to mute themselves so you can ask your question.

Often, a meeting participant interrupts another participant who is speaking. When this happens, the audio software dutifully mutes the current speaker and turns on the audio of the interrupter. Which surprises the interrupter, who immediately stops speaking. The interrupted speaker starts talking again, only to be interrupted a second time by an apology from the interrupter. All this vocal tap dancing makes for disjointed meetings and frustration all round.

Yes, the modern virtual meeting environment is not an easy one to navigate. And while technology is available that help reduce background noise and improve the process of managing meetings, we still have some way to go before we can completely discount having face-to-face meetings.

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