How To Make Virtual Meetings More Like In-Person Meetings


This article was based on episode 49 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the mini-guide here or the full guide at Patreon.


Many of us spend our days wearing a headset, connecting with team members, customers, and contractors via the magic of the internet. Yet virtual meetings are laden with problems. Incorrect or missing call-in numbers, strange echoes, and the occasional choppy connection delay and interrupt what is already a difficult situation.


Even without technological issues, virtual meetings have all the typical challenges of in-person meetings and more. So even though all meetings could use an upgrade, one starting point is to make virtual meetings at least as strong as their in-person counterparts.


VIRTUAL MEETINGS FEEL LESS IMPORTANT


I’m guilty, too. I’ve participated in dozens of meetings from a noisy coffee shop, called in while commuting, or just as bad, put my headphones on mute while I tidied up my apartment or refilled my beverage of choice. With the modern miracle of wireless devices, we don’t need to be physically tied down.


Unfortunately, the dark underbelly of this freedom means we don’t treat virtual meetings with the same respect as in person ones. In other words, we don’t respect the content or other participants in the same way as if we were all sitting down together face to face.

When you can’t see the people you’re speaking with, it’s incredibly easy to hide. People hide that they’re not paying attention. They stealthily do other work. Or they fly under the radar because they’re unprepared, don’t have much to contribute, or disagree with what’s been said but would rather avoid a public debate.


When it’s so easy to hide, the door for additional distractions gets swung wide open. Devices are a distraction in almost any meeting, but when no one can see you reading emails or doing other work, it seems almost ridiculous not to multitask and use the time more productively (even though research has shown we don’t actually multitask but rather task-switch which is less efficient.) Without the social pressure to stay focused, many of us will lose concentration at some point and give in to checking email.


In addition, it’s hard to feel the flow of conversation and jump in even if you want to. It’s usually worse when part of the group is gathered in-person and others have joined remotely. Those on the phone contribute significantly less and people in the room often forget they’re even there. Screen sharing has gained in popularity, but beyond that, few teams are using technology to make their virtual meetings a collaborative experience that engage everyone in the conversation.


Below are three ways you can make your virtual meetings productive and enjoyable.


1. TREAT VIRTUAL MEETINGS LIKE IN PERSON MEETINGS


While in person and virtual meetings are different in many ways, they’re both fundamentally the same. Every meeting should have a clear desired outcome, a basic agenda outlining what you’ll do during the meeting, appropriate pre-work and the right people in attendance. Just because a phone call seems more informal doesn’t mean you can get away with less planning. If anything, virtual meetings require more planning and intention.


When you treat virtual meetings with the same thoughtfulness as in-person meetings, other people will likely take them more seriously too.


2. BE EXPLICIT ABOUT YOUR VIRTUAL MEETING PRACTICES


With the seemingly endless list of potential problems that come with virtual meetings, it’s helpful for the team to agree upon specific practices. This minimizes confusion and clearly sets expectations.


Consider defining practices in each of these categories:


Process: What are the processes that will simplify or streamline how we gather virtually?

Example norms or agreements:

  • Always include the meeting link and any materials in the calendar invite (do not send them separately by email).

  • If you have trouble connecting, contact “designated person” on the team.

  • If Zoom isn’t working, the meeting leader will call everyone on Skype.

Technology: What technology or tools will we use for what purposes?

Example norms or agreements:

  • Use Zoom for all virtual meetings. Skype is our backup.

  • Send any collaborative materials as Google Docs.

  • Use Trello boards for brainstorming.

Participation: How will we each behave?

Example norms or agreements:

  • Always turn your video on. We all have bad hair days.

  • Treat virtual meetings as if they were in person - be in a quiet space, be focused.

  • Be proactive about jumping in.

  • Always wear a headset.

  • Use the chat box to drop ideas, questions, and/or signal you want to talk.

  • Simply establishing norms won’t transform your meetings, but it will provide a solid starting point. You can now encourage people to uphold the agreements and whenever possible, draw a connection between following the meeting practices and a productive, enjoyable meeting.

3. USE TECHNOLOGY TO FACILITATE ENGAGEMENT


Good meeting leaders use facilitation tools and techniques to make in person meetings engaging and productive. Small group discussions, sticky note brainstorms, and white-boarding enable groups to share thinking and align quickly. These same approaches can be hard to replicate when gathering virtually, but extremely powerful when done well.


Start with the basics. Opt for video over audio as often as possible. No more excuses for bad hair days or messy offices (or bedrooms). You can’t connect with people to the same degree when you can’t see them. Video can be the difference between distracted, disembodied voices and a rich, collaborative experience. (Plus, video requires you to stay in one place and look at the screen. It’s much easier to tell when someone is losing attention or multi-tasking, making it more likely you can refocus them on the meeting topic.)


Beyond video, use various apps and features creatively. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Type the agenda into the chat box so everyone can see it.

  • Put a list of participants into the chat box so when you share ‘round robin’, you can follow the order and everyone knows when it’s their turn.

  • Use Zoom’s breakout rooms to pre-assign people to small groups and then during the meeting, send people into separate conversations for a designated amount of time. When everyone comes back together you can have a representative report back to the full group, just like you would in an in person meeting.

  • Use a Google doc to collaborate real-time on existing material. Ask participants to add comments and edits using commenting mode as pre-work. Then during the meeting, work through the document together and allow everyone to continue to add/edit as you go.

  • For anonymous brainstorming, use a Google doc with a list of questions. When you send the link, do not require sign-in so everyone joins as a strange animal.

  • For traditional brainstorming or sticky-note exercises, use Trello. Create a list for each question or topic and have participants add one idea per card. You can then reorganize them into new lists or add tags to signify themes. (Note that participants must have a Trello account to participate.)

VIRTUAL MEETINGS ARE HERE TO STAY


Whether your team sits side-by-side every day or you’ve never actually met in person, you’re almost guaranteed to participate in virtual meetings at some point. Virtual meetings are gaining in popularity as companies continue to embrace global talent, freelance team members, and flexible “work from anywhere” policies.


It’s time to take virtual meeting seriously. With the right technology, clear practices and good meeting preparation, you can elevate your virtual meeting effectiveness and bring some positive energy to your online gatherings.


To help you find the right technology tools and practices for your virtual meetings, check out the free miniguide for today's episode. The full guide for this episode, available to members of the Modern Manager community on Patreon contains step by step instructions to leading brainstorming meetings with Trello.


This article was based on episode 49 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.

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