Traditional face-to-face meetings are unlikely to cease any time soon. Despite the reasons we’ll cite next, there are simply some situations where being physically present with other parties is essential. So why have virtual meetings all but replaced traditional meetings as the preferred mode of collaboration in many corporate settings?
Traditional meetings are costly
Bringing a dozen people together from as many countries (or cities) can quickly eat into the company budget. The rising cost of travel could make some resist meeting at all, limiting opportunities to network, collaborate, or share information.
Traditional meetings waste time
Flying to meet with colleagues in another city can rarely be accomplished without loss of at least a day, including time in the traffic and the airport. Yet the meeting itself may be over in an hour.
Technology has made virtual meetings easy
Communication via the Internet and shared computer screens make virtual meetings easier than ever before. Dozens of new tools are being developed.
Unforeseen circumstances can prevent face-to-face meetings
Sometimes it’s just not possible to travel, for reasons we could never have predicted. Penny Pullan, for the Project Management Institute, tells how outside factors back in 2001 forced her to use virtual meetings against her will. In the midst of a global project requiring lots of international travel, terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers. For several months, air travel was not an option. Unable to meet face-to-face, she and her colleagues scattered over the globe just got on with the job, using tools that we would now regard as primitive.
Invest in the right virtual meeting tools
Choosing the right virtual meeting tools for your organisation depends on what features you require. Many applications are available for a monthly fee, while others have a free or a paid version with added features. ezTalks has published a list that could be a useful starting point.
Crystal clear audio and HD video should be considered a must. Hissing, crackling, or clunky video will distract from all the good work that you put in to organise the meeting in the first place.
Other features to consider: private or group chat, meeting scheduling, the ability to record the meeting for later playback, whiteboard sharing, screen sharing, compatibility with multiple devices, and integration with other software. Some programs will allow hundreds of virtual attendees. Some also provide instant technical support. File sharing and real-time polling have become almost standard.
Virtual meetings require advance preparation
Exactly what form your preparation takes will depend largely on the purpose of the meeting. Visual presentations that may have worked well on a large screen will need to be rethought for a virtual meeting.
You won’t have the advantage of pre-meeting chit-chat in the corridor before you head into a virtual meeting. More thorough preparation will be required. Inc.com suggest that an agenda be sent ahead of time, along with whatever visuals you create to reinforce your message.
Another useful tip to avoid delays at the beginning of the meeting is to send log-in information (access codes, URLs, and call-in numbers) at least a day in advance so that participants can test for any software downloads needed. Then if participants log in at least 15 minutes before the start, they can test their connectivity. Provide a safety net by giving out a method to reach you offline in case an attendee encounters a problem.
If you have a large audience connecting to the meeting, consider having a facilitator to assist the main presenter. The facilitator can help individuals with technical issues and monitor any chat questions they submit.
Consider also these suggestions from Project Management Institute. Clearly state at the beginning of the meeting:
- The purpose of the meeting;
- Objectives to be achieved by the end of the meeting;
- A timed agenda;
- Clear roles, including facilitator (or chair), timekeeper and scribe (to record decisions made);
- Ground rules such as “State your name before contributing” and “Mute when not speaking if you are in a noisy environment”; and
- Agree how actions will be recorded, communicated, and followed up.
Behave as you would in a physical meeting
Keith Ferrazzi, writing for Harvard Business Review points out some simple rules to keep relationships positive in a virtual meeting. Here are just two from his list:
1. Connect people
People perform better when they are comfortable with each other, which affords a greater degree of candor and mutual interest. When people may not know each other, make them feel connected so you can have a productive meeting. Check-in at the beginning by having team members each take one minute to talk about what’s going on in their lives personally and professionally. Remind everyone to respect each other by not interrupting and to only say what they’re comfortable sharing with the group.
2. Kill mute
In a traditional meeting, you don’t get up and walk around the room, not paying attention. Virtual meetings are no different: You don’t go on mute and leave the room to do something. Don’t make a phone call and “check out” from the meeting. Don’t press mute so you can check your emails.
Virtual meeting technology opens up the possibility for disrespect, so everyone should understand that it’s unacceptable. If you wouldn’t do it in person, don’t do it virtually.
Keep everyone engaged
If everyone adheres to the standard etiquette above, then engagement should be less challenging. Even so, it can be harder for everyone to pay attention when they’re sitting at their own workstations than if they had gone physically to another location.
Inc.com suggests adding a social element to the proceedings, as mentioned above. Another possibility is to encourage participants to submit their questions on the topic before the program begins. During the meeting, ask questions frequently to engage remote attendees. Taking a poll or asking for answers via chat can also keep everyone more focused.
While many of the rules of traditional meetings will apply equally to virtual meetings, keep in mind the key differences. Compensate for the greater possibility of distraction and make the best use of your technology for virtual meetings that are engaging, productive, and efficient.