John Michaelis, New South Wales Regional Meeting
Concern for earth care, the cost and time of travel are strong motivators for Quakers to supplement face-to-face meetings with alternative methods of meeting using phone conference calling or the Internet. Combinations of Internet, phone and face-to face meetings can allow the participation of people who are not able or willing to set themselves up with the latest technology. These alternative ways to meet are always cheaper than driving or travelling by public transport.
Building a sense of Worship
In my experience of using phone and Internet conferencing for AVP and Quaker committees a concern has been to establish and maintain the sense of connection, worship and caring for each other that is so important in any Quaker gathering. I have found some processes very useful.
I begin with a round of “What’s on top” or “What’s uppermost on your mind at the moment”. This takes the place of the chit-chat that naturally occurs between Friends before the start of a meeting and helps put aside the thoughts that preoccupy us, enabling us to be more fully present. It helps build empathy among the Friends attending. We then move into a time of silence and begin the meeting out of the silence as is normal Quaker practice. When formal process is needed the convener can ask Friends to type a request to speak in the message box. Friends can type in a message box to raise questions of process, or as the online equivalent of raising your hand.
How to structure a call:
In the paragraphs below I outline methods that I and others have tried and tested over more than 100 committee meetings, internationally, within Australia and around Sydney.
The latest version of Skype – a free Microsoft product that facilitates conference calling on the web and between phones – seems to provide better quality sound in most situations than phone conferencing, is easier to manage and is free for those with access to an Internet connection. For those with no Internet access, Skype allows free or low cost connections via phone. If you need to include Friends with mobile phones, the quality is reduced and the cost is higher. Google+ Hangout is a recent alternative to Skype, but is not reviewed in this article.
Getting Skype to work for the first time requires some setting up as described below:-
- A headset with microphone is preferred. The A 4 Tech HS-7P. described here is an example. A laptop with an internal microphone plus earphones will work but background noise may be higher. Loudspeakers cause echo or feedback and should be avoided! If a headset is not immediately available, turn the loudspeaker volume as low as possible, don’t put the microphone near the loudspeaker and mute your microphone unless you are speaking.
- Download the latest version of Skype and set it to upgrade automatically in the future. Skype is available for Windows, Mac and other operating systems.
- If you are new to Skype, choose a Skype name to identify yourself (you will be asked for one as part of the Skype installation process).
- After you install Skype, call a friend or use the automatic test call option (Call ‘Echo / Sound Test Service’ in your Skype contacts).
- The committee must choose someone to host the call and at least one backup host (see below). Each host should email their Skype name and email address to all committee members.
- Important: Add each host Skype name to your contact list well in advance of the meeting (click the ‘Contacts’ tab at the top and choose ‘Add a contact’). Each time you add a contact, Skype will send a message to that contact. The hosts must accept your request before they can include you a call.
- If you add a photograph then during the call your photograph is displayed and highlighted when you speak. This allows Friends to see who is speaking. Click the Skype tab (top left), select ‘Profile’ and add or change your photo.
At the time of the call:
- Be on-time! Late arrivals may need to be added separately to call.
- Try to be in a quiet environment. Switch other phones to silent
- Don’t use video. It degrades the call.
- If you are late and come on line the system may add you automatically. If not, send an instant message (IM) to the host – Right click on the host’s contact and choose ‘Send IM’. The host will add you to the call. Avoid calling the host on Skype – it interrupts the call.
- If you are disconnected, wait patiently for reconnection.
- If you are in a noisy environment or are interrupted, mute your microphone! (click the microphone symbol at the bottom next to the + sign). Don’t forget to un-mute when you wish to speak.
- If there is an agenda or minutes for the call, have them available.
If you must attend by telephone:
- Ensure that all the hosts have your phone number and area-code well in advance of the call.
- If you have access to a land-line, use it. The sound is much better than a mobile phone and the call is less expensive.
- If you use a cordless or mobile phone, please make sure the battery is fully charged.
- Be ready on time and wait for the host to call you. In case of problems, try to have a back-up communication option to the host/s, such as texting between mobile phones.
- If you drop off the call, wait for the host to call you back or contact them using your back-up communication.
Don’t bother with this section unless you have been asked to host a call!
- One person should host the call but there should be at least one back-up host in case one is unavailable or has Internet connection problems.
- In addition to all the recommendations for participants stated above, all the hosts should:
- Determine who will be on the call – you don’t want to ring people who cannot attend, particularly if their connection is by phone.
- Well in advance of the call, send an email to all participants with each of the hosts Skype names and instructions how to add the hosts as contacts. When participants do so, a message is sent to each host. Press the contact Request button above the contact list to see the requests and accept all the valid requests. Check that you have requests from everyone and chase up those who haven’t sent a request. Once this is done it doesn’t need to be repeated unless there are new participants or new hosts.
- Before each call, each host must set-up or update the group, even if you are a backup host.
- Use the ‘Group’ button next to the ‘Add a contact’ button underneath the contact list.
- If you need to include people who only have a telephone connection you must buy some Skype credit. Typically a call may cost anything from zero to a couple of dollars. You may set this up is to arrange automatic top-up in case credit runs out mid-call. Computer-to-computer calls are free, as are most Computer-to-phone-landlines that are in the same country as the host. Computer-to mobiles are more expensive. The prices can be checked on-line.
- If your committee meets frequently, you can open a dedicated Skype account paid for by the committee. This can be used by whoever is hosting the call.
- Familiarise yourself with the operation of Skype. Set up a test call between the hosts to achieve this. Find out how to add people to the call (the large + sign at the bottom of the call window). If people call in that you want to include, there is an ‘Add-to-conference’ button when you answer their call.
- It is more flexible to add separate contacts for participant’s phones than to add their phone numbers to their normal Skype contacts.
- I enter participant’s Skype names and phone numbers as separate contacts, so that Skype does not automatically divert to phone if someone is not online.
- Start on time. If the call begins late, participants start calling to see what the problem is and chaos can ensue. If the host does not begin on time a backup host should initiate the call.
These processes will help Friends enjoy fruitful committee meetings and help all of us care for our planet. Most of this article has focused on techniques, but the technology is useful only if it enhances the working of a committee, and enables us to conduct meetings in a Quakerly manner. We are adapting Quaker process to benefit from new opportunities for communication among friends.