Meetings, bloody meetings! We all remember the video John Cleese created many years back (well, some of us do, anyway), and the recent video "“Conference Call in Real Life” that is great for some big yuks. But how do you run effective virtual meetings?
I felt prompted to write this article when I saw the many comments after a colleague posted a link to the “Conference Call in Real Life”. I thought this demonstrated that there may be a need to provide a few guidelines on how to conduct virtual meetings effectively. Professional behavior in virtual (and, of course, in-person) meetings is the key to success.
Collecting requirements virtually is becoming more and more common as organizations try to keep costs low. So it is more important than ever to use virtual meeting tools effectively. But it isn't all about tools. As is so often the case, it is more about the people who use the tools. After all, a wise man once said that a fool with a tool is still a fool.
So, let’s get on with it, shall we?
Tips for Meeting Chairs
So, you need to have a virtual meeting. Well, guess what? Just a like an in-person meeting, you need an agenda. Send it out ahead of time and ask that people prepare. Be clear about the meeting purpose and objectives. If it is a recurring meeting, allow people to make agenda suggestions in advance in case there are burning issues they feel need addressing that you didn’t think or know to include.
When you communicate the agenda, lay out the ground rules for the upcoming meeting. You can probably derive some ground rules from the following tips designed to help you engineer a successful meeting:
- Tell attendees you’ll be sticking to the agenda and that “other business” can be addressed at the end of the meeting if there is time, otherwise the item needs to be added ahead of time to a future meeting.
- Everyone is expected to “arrive” on time. In the meeting announcement, include immediate methods for testing the desktop sharing/presentation software that will be used so technical glitches can be identified and solved in advance.
- Provide a phone number for road warriors or those who will not be connected. Ideally, though, everyone will join via computer so they can see shared screens.
- Display action items on a shared screen. If they are not accurate, attendees are expected to speak up.
- Input is expected, but one person will not be allowed to “hog” the floor.
- For small meetings, ask people to locate to a quiet area and keep their mics on so everyone can hear what is going on. If someone is interrupted, stop the meeting until they are free again, just like in an in-person meeting when the board room door opens and someone interrupts.
- Insist that attendees use headsets with microphones. Those built into computers are not good enough – they will make you sound like a robot, or like you are in a cave, extraneous noises will be picked up and echoes may result.
- Use a solid internet connection. If your wireless connection is flaky, use a wired connection.
- If material is being presented for review during the meeting, ask that it be sent around in plenty of time before the meeting so it can be reviewed, especially if feedback is being sought.
- Create a collaboration site for storing meeting minutes, or if it is a project meeting use the project repository. I use SharePoint for this.
- If a formal presentation is to be delivered, ask everyone to go on mute until it is time to ask questions or make comments. This is not a time to multi-task, though. It is only to make sure the speaker can be heard.
- Record presentations and post them to the collaboration site. Make sure you let everyone know it is being recorded, and remember to click the record button before introduction of the speaker.
- Start the meeting five-ten minutes early to ensure there are no technical glitches.
- Check meeting tracking beforehand so you will know who to expect.
- Send a communication five minutes in advance to all invitees to announce that the meeting will begin in five minutes.
- Don’t start the meeting until everyone is there, or you have allowed sufficient time for laggards (I use five minutes as a guideline). Assess whether to cancel the meeting if key people are absent or not enough people show up.
- Let people know how to use the chat window, and whether you will accept private chats. If questions and comments may be typed in their entirety in the chat window for addressing at the end of the meeting, say so. This is an effective way in very large meetings to handle Q&A without interruption while allowing attendees to ask questions or make comments while content is fresh in their minds.
- Consider the use of cameras. They are not usually necessary for meetings where everyone knows one another. But if there are new people, and they are comfortable with it, you can use cameras for a round-table introduction. If they are not comfortable with it, consider using still pictures.
As mentioned above, you need to share decisions made and action items to which attendees commit during the meeting with the group. I find most virtual whiteboard tools are cumbersome, so I usually share a document using a word processor like Word or Google Docs.
If you are an ambidextrous cranial sort who can take notes while thinking, chairing and talking, you can do this yourself. Otherwise, ask a colleague in advance to take on that responsibility. But watch what is being typed, because it has to be accurate and reflective of what everyone agreed.
Make note only of important items and action items that have been agreed, including who is responsible and when the item is due. You can send these notes to meeting participants directly after the meeting. No more creating minutes after the fact and having people disagree with what was written since they will already have seen what was recorded during the meeting.
Highly visible decision logs and active action item lists on your collaboration site are priceless.
Noise can render a virtual meeting ineffective. Be sure extraneous noise is addressed politely and firmly. If you have to, force mute. Occasionally, people are interrupted and don’t control the situation well, talking with the intruder and failing to go on mute. You can mute them and decide to continue the meeting or not. You may need to use alternate means like their cell phone to communicate with them so they know they have committed a virtual meeting sin. This is the same as if someone gets up from an in-person meeting and leaves the room. Should you continue the meeting? Your call… maybe ask the person or the attendees as appropriate.
Having trouble getting some people to contribute? Try doing a round table about a specific issue, suggesting that each person talk for no more than a minute or two and that if they have nothing to say, just “pass”. Some people are too shy to interject, but are happy if they have time to think about what they want say and know they will receive the “talking stick” eventually. Start with someone you know won’t mind talking to give the more introverted a chance to collect their thoughts.
Tips for meeting participants:
- Review all materials sent in advance of the meeting and make notes so you will cover the points you feel are important.
- Behave as if you were in an in-person meeting. Avoid distractions. Respond. Participate.
- If you have something to say, and you can’t get a word in, use the meeting chat function as instructed by the chairperson or use the “raise hand” function if there is one and the chairperson has said it is in play.
- Don’t hog the floor. If the chairperson indicates you are taking too much time, respect the interjection and allow others to speak. Be concise, brief, to the point.
- Don’t make noise. Be aware of where your microphone is in relation to your mouth. Heavy breathing is never appreciated. If you hear it and it is not you, and the chairperson is not reacting, politely, perhaps with a little humour, announce that it appears someone is chewing on their microphone, or an obscene caller seems to have joined the call.
- Be humorous. It’s alright to have fun at virtual meetings, as long as meeting objectives are met and time is not wasted. This doesn’t mean you should tell jokes.
- Don’t interrupt speakers. It is up to the chairperson to manage people who are speaking too long. If you feel the meeting is not being managed well, consider private messaging the chairperson.
- If you see anything inaccurate being shown in the shared action list, speak up, particularly if it is your action.
- Be respectful. Take notes. Ask questions. Make comments. In a few words – be fully engaged, be present.
There is a certain degree of flexibility with virtual meetings that can save time and money, and you can take advantage of easy to use features (like record and share screen) that are sometimes more difficult to do in an in-person meeting.
Virtual meetings don’t need to be like the Virtual Meeting in Real Life video, as humorous as it is since it is so very close to the reality of those in first-time virtual meetings. Let common sense, respect and preparedness rule the meeting, and success will be yours – and your team’s.