Virtually as Effective as the Real Thing

Feb 13, 2011 No Comments by

Virtual meetings are said to be the wave of the future. For many organizations with geographically distributed employee populations that future is already a daily reality. Web conferences and virtual online meetings have become so popular as a cost-saving tool that more and more companies are asking teams to try booking a conference call number before booking airline tickets.

In yesterday’s post, I listed some of the key differences between virtual meetings and face-to-face meetings.  In my next two posts I’ll give you some tips on how you can adjust for those differences.

Rules for Better Online Meetings

1. Have a Plan: Just like regular meetings, it’s critical to an online meeting that everyone has the same clear agenda beforehand and they use it to guide the meeting’s timing and flow. As with face-to-face gatherings, review the agenda along with the goals and expectations at the start of the meeting. Recap the meeting by walking through the accomplishments and next steps. The biggest difference in the virtual setting is that it will be much harder to adjust expectations “on the fly”.

2. Assign a Facilitator – Many online meetings are coordinated from a central room where a majority of the attendees sit.  It can be easy for these “local” people to forget that the distant participants also need to interact. The best way I have found to reduce this risk is to assign a Facilitator from among those at the central location.

The Facilitator makes sure the team doesn’t let the conversation ramble. They also ensure that one or two local people don’t dominate the interaction.

The opposite of one or two people dominating a meeting can also be avoided with facilitation… Some teams insist on hearing everyone’s opinion on every topic. This time-consuming approach is not always necessary. A facilitator can set the expectation for how much interaction will be expected and then follow through on that expectation.

3. If They Didn’t Hear It, It Didn’t Happen. Remember that the non-verbal communication and white board notes people see in any given location will be invisible to all of your online attendees from other sites.  Have the Facilitator read back all decisions, action items, agreements and other critical information just to make sure that everyone stays in the loop.  Some teams follow a “speak now or forever hold your peace” ground rule while others have the Facilitator ask for verbal acknowledgment after reviewing commitments. In either case, just make sure everyone agrees to what they heard.

4. If You Don’t Write It Down, It Might Not Happen: It can really help to have a Note-Taker role assigned from among those attending a virtual meeting. Have that person capture a written record of progress as you go along and be sure to review the highlights before the meeting adjourns.

During this immediate review, the team can clear up any misunderstandings and set a shared expectation that the team will follow up on action items as the days and weeks unfold. Of course teams should do this for all meetings, but it’s even more critical for online meetings since you don’t have the option of walking down the hallway to correct a misunderstanding.

5. Breathe! The Facilitator should take a moment to pause the conversation every 5-10 minutes and ask if the people who are not present in the room have any questions. In addition to engaging the distant attendees, this will prevent the folks in the room from dominating the discussion. It can also create a moment of process awareness in which people realize that the topic might need to be closed or perhaps it has grown beyond the group’s ability to solve in this meeting and should be made the topic of a separate meeting.

Red Flag: The expectation that a Facilitator is actually driving the process flow of a meeting (and not the topic owners themselves) can be a tough thing for some individuals and groups to accept.  It may take a bit of practice and even a shot of sponsor reinforcement to get this pattern established, but it is well worth the cultural change investment.

Summary: Virtual meetings are here to stay.  While they share many characteristics with the “real thing”, they vary in some important ways that need to be addressed if your distributed team is going to be effective.

In the case of online meetings, it’s even more important to drive the meeting flow, capture the results of conversations, force the appropriate level of interaction and have someone leading the process who is skilled in the art of facilitation. In my next post, I’ll share more pointers to help your team make the most of their virtual meetings.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. What happens to online meetings that don’t start with a clear agenda?
  2. How can teams verify that they are still on the same page as they go through a virtual meeting without slowing down the process?

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Team Dynamics

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I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!
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