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June 30, 2020Jane Owen - AFM Symphonic Services Division Negotiator
Just as the workplace for musicians has changed from concert halls to virtual rooms, meetings for orchestra committees and contract negotiations have converted from face-to-face deliberations to virtual conversations. Whatever your choice of online meeting space, whether Zoom, Webex, Skype, FaceTime, or Google Meet, these platforms offer both challenges and advantages for organizing and negotiating as we work our way through this unique time.
There is a great deal of advice out there for running virtual meetings. My experience has mostly been with Zoom and here are some things I have learned:
• If possible, it is best to schedule meetings 15 minutes before or after the hour to avoid internet traffic on the hour which can slow connections.
• To ensure secure meetings, invite attendees by email (not social media), and provide a meeting ID and passcode. These will be available in the invitation automatically generated by Zoom which will also indicate the correct time zone for the invitee.
• Establish ground rules early. Only one person can talk and be heard at a time, and it’s best to stay muted if you are not talking. As a host, you can mute the other members on the call. If you have several new Zoom users, explain the basics of turning on their audio, sharing video, etc.
• When you are leading a meeting and want to share documents with meeting attendees, pull the material up on your computer screen before you start the meeting, then minimize it. Once you have started the meeting, hit the green “share” button, and click on the document you wish to share. You can permit attendees to share documents also.
• If you are working with an FMCS Mediator, they have the capability of providing a meeting through RingCentral, which offers secure “rooms” in which the parties can caucus apart from the main meeting.
• There is a chat feature which can be seen by all attendees to the meeting. This can be helpful for questions or comments during the meeting, and the chat can be saved later. However, this feature does not offer secure caucusing in a general negotiation meeting. With some groups, we have found it useful to have another avenue for comments and questions just for the committee during negotiation meetings, usually by group texting via iPhone, WhatsApp, or Google Hangouts. This can provide secure communication for only the committee, since communication on the screen or in Zoom chat is seen by everyone.
• I often run an additional separate meeting just for the orchestra committee for secure caucuses when the general session is on a break. A separate meeting can also be used for a sidebar discussion if necessary, as can the secure separate rooms offered in the Ring Central meetings which FMCS can access as described above.
• Meetings can be recorded by the host. I prefer not to record because of security issues, and FMCS does not allow meetings held by their mediators to be recorded for the same reason.
It is important to take breaks to avoid the particular fatigue that virtual meetings can cause. As described in the Wall Street Journal’s May 31 article, “Why Does Zoom Exhaust You? Science Has an Answer,” by Betsy Morris, in most circumstances the sound in virtual meetings does not coordinate with the visual images we see. We therefore do not experience the synchrony of sound with body language cues that we rely on for communication in person. Also, the lags which occur before a response and inevitable internet glitches interrupt the normal cadence of speech. Our brains are working overtime to interpret the message. For this reason, I try to follow the musicians’ industry standard of not going more than 90 minutes without a break during long negotiation sessions whenever possible. If you can spend a few minutes outside, changing the focal point for your eyes, and getting in some activity during that break, all the better.
There are differences between meetings in person, telephone conference meetings, and virtual meetings. For negotiating and preparing for negotiation, in-person meetings are always preferable. You sense the feeling in the room and get visual cues you need from both your own committee and that of the management. I find I prefer virtual meetings to telephone conference meetings, as there is no confusion about which person is speaking and you do get some visual cues about attendees’ reactions. One difference is not being able to communicate visually as easily with your own committee or exchange non-verbal cues. The use of a separate texting group on phones as I mentioned above can substitute for that interchange.
In some cases, emotions seem to manifest more strongly in a virtual meeting. This could be a result of the times, or it could be that the distance component of the meeting reduces inhibitions about speaking more assertively and taking firmer positions. When negotiating in person, seating arrangements are made carefully, with the primary negotiators usually seated across from each other. In the virtual meeting, we are equalized in boxes of the same size, and the arrangement of faces is always changing. This disruption of place may lead some to act with heightened expression in both negative and positive ways. Resorting to a sidebar, either by phone once the main meeting is over, or by using a separate and secure virtual “room” if available, may reduce that reaction, just as can happen in person, by having a smaller group and fewer distractions.
There are advantages to the virtual meeting place. I find the fact that only one person can speak at a time facilitates discussions, especially for negotiation. It is more difficult to interrupt a speaker, and a conversation can be more easily moderated by reminding participants that they will be better heard by speaking one at a time. When working on a proposal as a committee, revision can happen on the screen with all participating.
Most important, however, in this time of isolation for many, especially difficult for musicians who are used to working regularly with their colleagues, these meetings give people an opportunity to check in, visit a little, and just see each other again. This seemed especially effective for the orchestra meetings I was able to attend to give updates on negotiations or review a tentative agreement. Even though schedules are not as full, the ease of meeting from home is certainly an advantage for many. It’s also great to experience the inevitable but humanizing interruptions of family, kids, and pets, even at the tensest moments of discussions.
Just as for musical performance, planning and practice make for a good virtual meeting experience. Have an agenda planned for any meeting with your committee or orchestra, with the materials you want to share readily available. But also allow time for social interaction, have patience for any experiencing the medium for the first time, and enjoy our best avenue for getting together and staying healthy.