Working from home has become the order of the day for most of us in recent weeks as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. And that means more and more of us need to quickly learn how to lead and participate in video and telephone conferences.
Meetings of any kind are a challenge at the best of times, but virtual meetings bring their own special difficulties. Even under the best circumstances, as soon as the first one or two attendees dial in, productivity can begin to suffer. A recent survey of 1000 UK/US workers found that up to 33 percent of a conference call is wasted with distractions and disruptions!
That old joke about meetings has never been truer: The best ones are with just two people…and the other guy couldn’t make it! But it doesn’t have to be like this! If you follow some basic meeting rules and take advantage of easy-to-use and inexpensive technology, you can make a success of your virtual meetings…even if the other guys are all present!
Five top Tips for Productive Virtual Meetings
1. Use video conferencing whenever possible
Communication is so much easier when people can see one another. Facial expressions and hand gestures play a crucial role in communicating what we want to say and how we feel. To recreate the feel of a face-to-face meeting and get the full benefit of video, ask everyone to sit close to their webcams so their faces are easily visible. Video conferencing is also a great way to build closer bonds among team members by making it possible to ‘put a face to a name’.
Platforms like ZOOM, GoToMeeting, Skype, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts are all easy to use…and some of them are even free! And just in case not everyone has a fast enough Internet connection to support video, always offer an audio dial-in option.
2. Follow Best Practices for meetings
Inform everyone in advance of the meeting’s objective, agenda and any preparatory reading or thinking that is needed.
Limit the number of attendees and the duration of the meeting as far as possible. In our experience, five or six attendees is the maximum for discussion-type meetings in which everyone is expected to participate actively. Any more than this number can be difficult to manage—or increase the chances that quieter people will ‘get lost’ among more talkative participants. And limit your meeting to a maximum duration of 45 minutes. Virtual communication requires us to concentrate harder than normal and is very tiring. If you really need longer than this, be sure to take ‘bio-breaks’ to keep everyone fresh and engaged.
3. Short and simple communication works best
If ‘Keeping it Short and Simple’ is good advice for face-to-face meetings, it’s even more important when the communication is virtual! Keep your interventions to the point. Say it once…say it clearly…and shut up! Always make sure you have finished speaking before the other attendees have finished listening! In virtual meetings this time may be shorter than you think. It’s also a good idea to speak a little more slowly than normal to make yourself easier to comprehend. And if you don’t understand what someone has said, don’t be shy: Ask for clarification (after all, you may not be the only one who didn’t understand what was said!).
4. Actively manage the meeting
Virtual meetings are tough to control, so it’s vital that someone facilitates the discussion. The chairperson’s many responsibilities include: keeping the discussion on track; encouraging participants to get to the point; enforcing conversational turn-taking to prevent traffic jams and giving everyone an opportunity to speak (which may require diplomatically interrupting more long-winded and repetitive speakers).
All of which is a tall order indeed! One way of encouraging everyone to participate in a disciplined manner is to go round the virtual table periodically and invite everyone to give their opinions (briefly!). Avoid generically asking, ‘Any comments?’ Instead, call on people by name and in order (e.g., ‘Let’s hear from Carlos first, then Ana, then Antonio’).
A great way to move discussions along is the ‘Just Three Words’ technique. This requires attendees to sum up their positions in three words. For example:
Chair: ‘John, what do you think of the proposal?’
John: ‘Unnecessary, expensive, complicated’.
Chair: ‘Susan, what about you?
…and so on.
5. Keep participants engaged
According to an article by the Harvard Business Review, a whopping 65 percent of people are doing other work on conference calls, while another 55% are eating, 25% are playing video games and 21% are shopping online. So is the battle totally lost? Not if you keep your videoconferences focused, sharp and interactive!
Give your voice energy! There’s nothing like a monologue delivered in a monotone to get people sneaking off to check their What’s App in-box. Use lively intonation and good volume to transmit energy and enthusiasm.
Visuals will help people concentrate on the message, so they’re less likely to be distracted by email or other things going on around them. Always use screen sharing to present detailed information via charts, infographics, etc. so that everyone can follow the discussion and be ‘on the same page’.
Collect feedback on specific topics in real-time with survey tools like Poll Everywhere. This phone-based tool works independently of the conferencing platform and allows participants to deliver their feedback without interrupting the flow of the virtual meeting. Platforms like Webex and Adobe Connect also include functions that allow attendees to give immediate responses via virtual hand-raising and thumbs-ups and thumbs-downs. All useful functions to engage your virtual audience, especially with larger group meetings.
Be a great meeting host!
Meetings are events, like a dinner party. When you lead a virtual meeting, you are the host of the event and you need to look after your guests by ensuring that it is facilitated in an efficient and productive manner.
And let’s face it, meeting virtually is the only option open to many of us during these difficult days. But the reality is that once things get back to normal, virtual meetings will continue to be the communication tool of choice in a post-Covid 19 world of budget cuts and travel restrictions. So if you and your team can strengthen your virtual communication skills, it will pay dividends for you now and in the future.
If you’d like to get up to speed on leading remote teams, check out our leadership course offerings.