Standardization and conformity assessment work during the Coronavirus crisis

A technical committee chair discusses the challenges of online standardization meetings and reveals some of the successes.

Mike Wood, Chairman of IEC TC 106

A priority for businesses and other organizations around the world, during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been to minimize the impact on public health while continuing to work in order to limit disruption to the economy. For its part, IEC has been finding new ways to collaborate with an international network of more than 20 thousand experts, in order to continue vital standardization and conformity assessment work. IEC experts usually come together several times a year, in hundreds of different committees and working groups, for essential face to face meetings that not only build working relations, but also help them to reach consensus decisions. 

Mike Wood, who is based near Melbourne, in Australia, is a good example. Wood is Chairman of IEC Technical Committee (TC) 106. In his day job, he works for the telecommunications company, Telstra, as Principal for EME Strategy, Governance and Risk Management. The dozens of experts in TC 106 prepare international standards on measurement and calculation methods to assess human exposure to electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields.

In a revealing interview, Wood offers a rare look behind the scenes. He identifies some of the challenges that experts are currently facing, including the very different situations in the many countries where they are based. Wood also explains how TC 106 have a focus on helping their people and tried to make their meetings more social. He also calls on other chairs and convenors to share their experiences.

The pandemic has had a massive impact on travel and the way we work. What are the challenges of chairing a meeting when it is online?

A lot of technical committees and a lot of teams rely on meeting face to face a number of times each year. The remote sessions build on that, but you've already got the rapport. When you're facilitating and chairing a pure remote meeting, you can't read the room as well if there's no visual contact. People may not be as engaged. You're really down to just talking about some technical content, but you can't really engage with people on a personal level. 
When you've got some video connection, at least you can see people and people are more engaged in the content. But of course, you can't have a coffee break, or sit down for a face to face discussion. Its difficult to structure the meeting in a way that you can deal with certain topics, have a break, take some issues offline and have some further one on one discussions. 
The advantage of face to face meetings is that you can address a range of different aspects of your work in a range of different manners. When you're just online, things really change — typically, most online meetings focus on one or two particular areas. But we're in a situation this year where we don't have a choice. It’s a case of finding out what does and doesn’t work. Of course, what works for some teams might not work for others. 

You recently had your first online technical meeting this year. What worked for you?

Yes, we were due to all meet in Canada in April but converted the series of Working Group and Project Team meetings to occur the same week but all online.  One of the best parts of it was a virtual coffee break in one of the larger Working Groups, where we stopped for 15 or 20 minutes and we just went around the group. There were 30-odd people and we were just talking like we were sitting next to each other and sharing not our work, but just sharing our local experiences. You could see the room ‘light up’, you could see the faces get more engaged. The meeting changed after that because people were actually more engaged in the overall process. 
Hats off to the convenor of that particular session because it was a very warming atmosphere. I've taken part in meetings where you're just talking technical content and you can lose concentration. There'll be some things that work really well, while some things will be real challenges. As leaders, it's up to us to read the room and structure the meeting so that we can engage with people.

In terms of keeping everyone engaged, what is the most common problem you encounter and what’s the solution? 

When there's a lot of people, you also need to reach out to those that aren't speaking. Some people with English as a second language might not contribute as much online, whereas in a face to face meeting, you can have separate discussions. 
I think we're all going to learn. One of the groups I like to turn to in these sorts of scenarios are our IEC Young Professionals because they've grown up online and do a lot of their work online. We're going to learn a lot from them too. But, as chairs, we should also speak to each other and come up with ideas that work and focus on the things that are going to really help us this year. 

Would I be right in thinking that project work is easier because you have always done a lot of that online?

You certainly are right. We’re used to that. You've got a dedicated set of tasks and you've got actions and one step leads to another. A lot of companies do it online. In Australia, for example, we have online and video meetings every single day. 

The challenge is when you're setting up projects and you've got a team discussion where you're reviewing comments on a committee draft, or a document that requires some in-depth conversation. That's not just routine. The convenor and the facilitators have to have personal skills. How do we do that online? Do we make some smaller groups? For example, if a national committee has a number of issues with how something is been drafted, do I actually meet with them first? Because in a large group you might find that they're not speaking up and some other country is dominating the discussion. 

So, it may be that we structure the way we do it differently and I think we're going to learn a lot of this kind of thing this year. I'm excited about what we can learn. But we've really got to look after our people. That’s what I wrote to my Technical Committee, TC 106, just prior to our meeting. We are a virtual family. We've got to look out for ourselves, look after ourselves and support each other through this.

In practical terms, what does “supporting each other” mean?

If you look at the IEC and the experts, we've got regulators, we've got test houses, we've got operators, and we've got academia. We come from diverse backgrounds, but we're a global family. In the meetings we had recently, we had every single continent represented. It means respecting that. We're experiencing the COVID-19 issues and lockdowns differently. Our emotions are going to be very different. I sometimes wake up wondering what's going on in this world. It's taking me a while to come to grips with what's actually happening. In Australia, we're very, very lucky with our current situation. I look at the US, I look at Europe and it's so different. 

Then, when you talk to people, you can tell that some people are just feeling really down about being locked in an apartment, or not being able to see their family. But when you've got these virtual meetings, we don't need to talk only about the technical content. We can just park that for a bit and ask someone how they’re doing. We can have a separate discussion and reach out to them. They are our connected family. So to me, that's probably the most important thing. 

If we can help people in that journey, then they'll want to be part of the ongoing discussions. Some people might switch off and say that they’re doing voluntary work and it will have to take a backseat. And that's fine if it happens, but how can we help? 

It's our great IEC family first. Then it's about not trying to do as much as we normally do in our meetings but kicking off with the tasks that we can do and prioritising. I think in some cases we may achieve more!  Convenors need to step back and think about how they’re going to get their projects to work with these circumstances. You might not have all the answers, so reach out to another convenor. We — the technical committee chairs and the other group chairs — can leverage some of this information and share it.