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Make the Most of Virtual Meetings

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Categories: communication, team, virtual

With the pandemic forcing so many project teams to work from home, no doubt you're holding tons of virtual meetings. But are you making the most of them? 

Working from home (or WFH) is quickly becoming "the new normal." The COVID-19 pandemic kicked the WFH movement into high gear, and many experts believe it will continue long after the crisis has passed. But before we can optimize this new way of working, we're all going to have to get proficient at one of the biggest work-from-home fundamentals: the virtual meeting.

"Remote meetings are inherently different from in-person meetings," says Howard Tiersky, coauthor along with Heidi Wisbach of Impactful Online Meetings: How to Run Polished Virtual Working Sessions That Are Engaging and Effective. "If you're not used to running them, you're going to make tons of mistakes. And those mistakes can have major ramifications in terms of how well people perform once they log off and get back to work."

The good news is that well-run online meetings can be extremely powerful, says Tiersky. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, online meetings can be even more effective than in-person meetings when done right. But first you need to be aware of what not to do. Tiersky identifies five common mistakes made in virtual meetings:

1. Neglecting one (or more) of the "big five" success keys of online meetings. If you are seeking to bring people together to share information, come up with solutions, make decisions, coordinate activities, and/or socialize, you will be successful if you:

  1. Have a clear purpose 
  2. Get participants in the right mindset 
  3. Get them fully engaged behaviorally 
  4. Incorporate high-quality content aligned with the purpose 
  5. Make it easy to participate

"If you do all of these correctly, you will have high-impact online meetings," Tiersky says. "If you don't, there's going to be a lot of awkwardness and inefficiency. Worse, bad meetings can lead to bad workplace performance, which is the last thing any of us need right now."

2. Holding voice calls instead of videoconferences. When everyone has their cameras on, you can expect a significant improvement in the effectiveness of online meetings. This keeps people engaged because they know that what they're doing is visible to everyone else. They're far less likely to multi-task, which is one of the greatest obstacles to audience engagement.

3. Failing to be strategic about sequencing. The first item on your meeting agenda should be a restatement of the purpose of the meeting. After that, strategize on the sequence of your activities. For example:

  • If there are any "elephant in the room" topics, deal with those early or they will be a distraction. 
  • If you have some sort of fun or exciting announcement, you may want to hold it for the end, letting the participants know that it is coming but keeping the outcome a surprise to create suspense. 
  • If an agenda item may be intense or create some heated discussion, put it in the middle—get people warmed up and feeling productive first, then hit them with the challenging topic.

4. Not giving people an active role. It's possible for one person to present content, facilitate questions, ensure the meeting stays on time, and take notes, but why? Seek to distribute the roles of facilitator (responsible for running the agenda), presenter (responsible for sharing specific units of content), timekeeper (watches the clock and alerts facilitators and presenters how to adjust their speed and content), and the notetaker (documents the meeting) among the participants. 

"When you give participants something to do, you prevent them from being passive listeners or webinar watchers," Tiersky says. "When people have an active role, they are far, far more attentive and engaged."

5. Failing to take advantage of breakouts. In most meetings of more than eight people, usually most of the talking is done by just five to seven participants. This is one reason why during live workshops Tiersky often breaks larger groups into breakout teams, so they can come up with ideas, work on prioritization, action planning—whatever the work is—in smaller groups and then come back to the larger group and report on the work they did. (Several of the major online meeting platforms including Zoom and Google Hangouts now offer breakouts.)

"We give each team clear instructions for the work they are to do, in writing, and then usually give them a small amount of time to do it, like 20 to 40 minutes," he says. "A compressed time frame forces the group to organize quickly; get to work; and focus on progress, not process or perfection. I've been amazed over the years that sometimes when clear instructions, a small team, and a tight time frame are combined like that, you get work done in a half hour that might have taken days, weeks, or months if done 'the usual way.'"

These are just a few of the mistakes people regularly make. There are plenty more. The good news is most of these are easy enough to correct once you realize you're making them.

"When done correctly, online meetings are an incredibly powerful method of enabling collaborative work," Tiersky says. "It's worth investing a bit of time and effort in learning how to maximize them. Frankly, they have the potential to move the needle for your business, and right now, this is more important than it's ever been."

Posted on: April 06, 2020 02:39 PM | Permalink

Comments (30)

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Good article. I normally conduct virtual meetings as most of my projects are global. I was pleased to see that I have the majority of the outline correct and also recognize that there is opportunity for improvement. Noted and will close the gap.
Thank you.

Thank you for posting!

Thank you for sharing, Aaron. I resonated well with item 3 - Failing to be strategic about sequencing - because I feel many of the meetings I am participating in fails in this area. I've always noticed that something was missing, but I couldn't put it into words. To be strategic about sequencing is the explanation that I needed.

This is a great post! Our current situation is causing a new way of operating at work for a lot of people. I have a lot of experience in virtual meetings because my last role was for projects that were global but I feel like the information you provide here is very helpful to those that are new to this way of operation. Thank you!

Agreed with the need to sequence meeting points strategically. It can become inefficient when, say, topic 1 relates to topic 4. I found that 2 of our developers present better when they each follow one another during meetings. It allows them to feed off of one another and helps creativity.

Excellent article. Like the "what not to do" approach :). All true - good suggestion #5 - depends on the nature of the meeting. All this requires preparation and pre and post for any meeting - so sending the agenda in advance and a follow-up with action items, decision points and notes is very helpful.

Great article. Points are clear and advices are practical. Thank you for sharing.

Some good tips here - thank you!

Thank you for the inputs

Thanks for this post. Quite timely given that the bulk of us have been accelerated into the WFH movement. I absolutely love no 1 and no 3. The elephant in the room has been known to derail eve the best planned meeting.

Superb. This is realistic and this what we observed when having an online meeting

Very helpful tips. Much appreciated.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Another important prerequisite to successful virtual meetings is to make the participants familiar with the technology. Over and over I have seen the first 15 minutes of a virtual meeting lost over a discussion where the people can be heard, how content can be shared, or whether everybody is connected to it.
For me giving people a playground before the important meetings happen has proven to be very helpful. Let the participants play with technology in advance, take away their fears of making mistakes, and let them experiment. In the actual meeting they will be able to focus on the topics at hand rather than on the technology.

Nice... Very helpful!

This was a practical and useful article. I was able to pick what i was doing right and what i need to incorporate into my meetings to make them better

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Cyberspace: A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation

- William Gibson