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Making the Most of Virtual Meetings

virtual meetingsThe topic of “meetings” is one that usually elicits groans, that then lead to lots of bad, cringe-worthy meeting stories, with rarely good outcomes.

As we know, meetings don’t always require physical attendance. The COVID-19 pandemic social distancing has found managers and employees working out of the office and separated, often for the first time. Working from home requirements have forced the increased use [1] of online meetings. But any meeting, whether online or in-person, should still be worthwhile, and leaders should strive to conduct effective meetings.

Effective meetings have four key tenets:

Focus – specific and clear objectives are addressed from the start, and discussion relates to those objectives.

Efficient – Start and end times are established, attendees are prepared and organized, and there is an agenda. Identified issues are either addressed or tabled.

Participatory – Attendance is encouraged, roles are clear, contributions are welcomed and listened to with respect.

Results-oriented – Outcomes and decisions are clearly confirmed with participants, and follow-up actions are identified and planned with the people involved.

These four tenets apply to virtual meetings as well as physical meetings. They become even more important when dealing with teams who feel isolated, are distracted without direct supervision, miss social interactions, and need ongoing support and motivation.

In the context of meetings, careful thought and preparation is important. Here are four issues to plan and adapt for your online meetings and discussions:

Technology

You’ll need to consider the “difficulties” of technology, for example learning how to use specific apps or software. Finding an “appropriate” space in a small apartment or crowded family home can be difficult, as can having an internet connection with enough speed and capability.  Take the time to think about other technical aspects, engage help and support, and define and communicate the minimum setup required. Provide links to facilitate setup, an online tutorial, or technical support.

Hold a practice meeting to confirm the technology works and its use is understood. This is important because, whether using existing office online meeting technology or setting up freeware (Zoom, for example), you want your “official” meetings to be focused, efficient, participatory and results-oriented from the start, and not frequently disrupted by the technology.

A final point here is to record meetings where possible. Links to recorded meetings or presentations provide opportunities for absent team members to review what was discussed, enable reference for new members to past discussions, and make record-keeping easier.

Tone

People and organizations have different requirements in many areas, such as dress standards, respect, and communication style. Tone is related to meeting structure- the level of formality or informality, for example. Your presentation should encourage a warmth of atmosphere, a sense of community, agenda, follow-up, preparedness and, importantly, an inclusive business meeting.

Reflect the dress standards of the organization. Your approach may vary, based on the group you are communicating with. The story of the news reporter [2] who wore a starched shirt, tie and coat, but sat in his shorts behind the desk might be extreme, but I admit to having had many “T shirt” meetings. However, I have also “dressed up” for more important situations.

Engagement

Make it clear that online engagement is expected. Keeping people engaged helps the meeting stay focused and results-oriented. Start by setting appropriate standards and expectations, for participants as well as for yourself. Be sure to ask questions, call on individuals where appropriate, and recognize them. Most will gladly rise to the occasion. Include a participant list onscreen if possible, and in communications before and after the meeting.

Engagement means just that: encourage others to participate, don’t do all the talking. Have clear ground rules, and an agenda. Engage participants and don’t let a few singular voices dominate. This also requires preparation; communicate who might be presenting and when. Prepare yourself and try to eliminate as many “ums and ahs” in your own presentation and contributions.

Consider using a chat window, especially as many online meeting tools can echo when microphones are left on. I have found that often the chat message adds to keeping participants engaged. Chat messages are usually included in the recording of the meeting and help the context of content, questions or change of topic when viewed after the actual meeting. Interject if you feel discussion is going off-track. Remind participants of the objectives and re-engage the cohort. Finally, before closing, summarize the outcomes, recognizing participation and ideas. Reconfirm next steps and the next meeting date and time.

Community

Some people enjoy the interaction of face-to-face meetings and gatherings. Building an online community isn’t that different. These days emails, text messages and apps, such as WhatsApp and Twitter, provide easy ways to keep in touch. I am a part of a few WhatsApp “communities” and the offline ideas, questions, information, occasional jokes and pictures really help build that sense of community. They provide good ways to share agendas, reminders of meeting times, and to discuss other issues “offline”, away from the objectives of the meeting. They also help people to get to know each other in a time of isolation, with the informal aspects of community.

The future

In a world that has rapidly changed and is likely to see ongoing significant distancing or isolation of people, business still has a need for clear and productive participation to succeed. Online meetings and presentations are nothing new, but now they are more important than ever. Take the time to prepare, to focus expectations and outcomes, and to encourage meaningful, results-oriented outcomes.  The efficient and involving use of online technology can provide for participatory outcomes and a sense of involvement, even if from a distance. Review your past practices and change for the better.