Mastering virtual meetings

A seasoned veteran of the virtual meetings world gives advice on how to plan corporate virtual meetings

Nancy Settle-Murphy: training and coaching organisations to lead virtual meetings. Credit: Nancy Settle-Murphy

MASSACHUSETTS, USA - Ms Nancy Settle‐Murphy, Guided Insights founder, is an organisational development consultant and designer/facilitator with 15 years of experience training and coaching organisations to lead virtual meetings.

She has been inundated with client requests in the last two months as more corporations move into the virtual world and need to find ways to plan, design and run more effective virtual meetings. Some want to improve their current processes, and others are brand new to the world of remote meetings.

She shared about how such meetings ought to be conducted for maximum results:

Knowing is not the same as doing it right
While it's true that many people have been running meetings remotely for years, it doesn't mean they know how to run them successfully. In fact, when I ask people to assess the usefulness of virtual meetings in their organisations, I hear responses such as these: People are almost always unprepared. They're usually a complete waste of time. No one says a word; most are doing email.

Meeting leaders don't know how keep meetings focused and on track. We usually have to add more meetings, since we never get through the agenda. By the time the meeting ends, most of us have no idea what we accomplished.

Before the meeting
The real‐time meeting, when people are all conversing at the same time, is just one component of a virtual meeting.

Before the meeting ever takes place, people need to come prepared, ready, willing and able to contribute their best thinking. To do that, participants must do at least a small amount of preparation. (Virtual meetings have to be kept relatively brief to hold attention, so the last thing you want to do is start the meeting by reviewing content that could have been sent or posted ahead of time!)

I like to open up an online conference area at least a few days ahead of time, where participants can log on at any time, grab any reading material, respond to or ask questions, complete a poll, weigh in, etc. This is essentially the start of the meeting, even though it takes place asynchronously.

After the meeting
Then after the real‐time meeting, I make sure participants have an online area where they can continue the conversation, perhaps reporting on open action items, tracking progress, offering suggestions or assistance, posting helpful resources, or suggesting agenda items for next time.

What's the best technology to use?
Many organisations are limited to what their IT departments allow, while some are constrained by bandwidth, budgets, or some combination of factors. In general, the elements that I consider essential include: an online conference application where people can participate at any time (asynchronously) or in real‐time (at the same time). If you use a web meeting app that only allows for real‐time participation, you may need to find another app for your online conference space, both pre‐meeting and post.

Whatever web meeting app you use, enable people by speaking and by typing. The use of video provides valuable information about fellow participants that words alone cannot convey, such as emotions, attentiveness, personalities and communication preferences. Unless bandwidth or system limitations are an issue, ask everyone to use video where possible.

Keeping people engaged

Boring enough to sleep: make sure the meeting is relevant for invitees. Credit: Getty Images

First, make sure the meeting is relevant for everyone you've invited. This is often not the case, because it's easier to simply invite everyone. Provide multiple ways of communicating and a variety of activities - speaking, listening, typing, reading, moving virtual Post‐Its or sticky dots, polling, etc. A growing number of online tools are available to help replicate in‐person meeting activities. Whatever tools you use, vary activities every 5‐7 minutes.

Follow the 80/20 rule by making 80% of the meeting spent in active vs passive participation. Take advantage of peoples' predisposition to multitask by intentionally building in opportunities to multitask on task, in support of meeting goals. For example, ask people to type in a response, rank a set of options, post a question, click on a poll, etc.

The busier you keep people, the less likely they are to drift. People often disengage when the meeting leader cannot effectively manage dysfunctional dynamics, such as those who tend to dominate, argue, or criticise, and those who remain painfully quiet or passive aggressive.

Such behavior can be harder to detect and address in a virtual meeting, but it is vital that the meeting leader makes the needed interventions to ensure a balanced conversation where all can contribute their best thinking in a safe environment.

Designing a virtual meeting can take considerably longer than designing an in‐person meeting, especially if it is new to you. There is a bewildering array of options to consider. To start, instead of asking yourself: "How can I take this in‐person meeting agenda and make it work in the virtual world?" Ask instead: "What do we need to have happen here?" and start from there.

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