The use of virtual meetings has skyrocketed in the past three years in the American and global workplace. Better technology combined with the cost advantages of participants not having to travel to meet in the same place has caused both small and large companies to meet online for everything from annual meetings, to webinars , to small group planning sessions.

Virtual Meetings

Once a tool used by only the most affluent corporations, video conferencing is now accessible and affordable on standard PCs and laptops and through Skype. Virtual meetings can save money and time, but just like any other meeting – perhaps even more so – they can waste valuable time and energy if not done well.

Many virtual meetings can be a complete waste of time if not managed well

“We know that many poor meeting practices get in the way of face-to-face meetings being effective. In the virtual space, the effects are magnified,” notes Katherine Woods in the Meeting Magic Book: A Practical Guide for Business Managers Who want to Make Their Meetings More Productive. “Many virtual meetings can be a complete waste of time if not managed well.”

How can you make virtual meetings work?

So how can you make virtual meetings work for you and your business? Here are five strategies to consider before you schedule you next online meeting.

Plan Ahead

Just because the technology is quick doesn’t mean the preparations should be. Think ahead about potential technical glitches and be ready for them. Write out a cheat sheet ahead of time with technical instructions, such as how to mute phone lines.  Create a back-up plan by sending documents by e-mail in case technology fails.

Familiarize yourself with conferencing tools, so that the screen stays lively. Use colorful charts, graphics and photos to make things interesting. Mike Song, co-author of The Hamster Revolution for Meeting: How to Meet Less and Get More Done, suggests that you incorporate team photos into your virtual meetings. “Participants bond better when they can connect to a face,” he says. “For example, place a headshot of yourself on the cover slide of your next presentation.”

Plan to use live video whenever you can. Not only does video enable your participants to read body language, it also encourages them to pay attention.

Send participants an agenda well ahead of meeting time and then stick to the agenda. State expectations for the meeting in terms of preparation and behavior. Request that participants dial in 10 minutes early so that any glitches can be taken care of before the meeting starts.

Set A Few Ground-Rules

Don’t be too quick to ask participants to use their mute buttons.  Of course, if someone is in a very noisy location, the mute button can be helpful, but otherwise, you will lose positive interactions. Remember you want to set a positive tone for the meeting, so you will want to hear laughter in response to a joke or even murmurs of discontent at a new proposal in order for the meeting to be effective.

Song suggests that you invite participants to make frequent use of the pubic chat feature. “Tech-savvy Gen-Yers use chat to communicate,” he points out. “Chat also cuts meeting time because the speaker doesn’t have to be interrupted every time someone wants to make a point.”

State a strict no other technology policy so that participants do not play games on their Blackberries or text during the meeting. Make sure your own phone is off as well!

Ask participants who may be in an office together for the meeting to limit their side conversations. Ask everyone in the meeting to talk as an individual to the whole group so that everyone can hear and understand what is being said.

Communicate

All of us have experienced what can happen when technology gets in the way of communication. We add smiley emoticons to our e-mails to make sure what we mean as light heartedness won’t be mistaken for inappropriate sarcasm. We are sometimes over-polite in our correspondence to make sure we are taken seriously. Well, in virtual meetings, we need to be careful as well.

Welcome participants warmly just as you would do in person. Ask them to introduce themselves to the group and to identify themselves before making comments during the meeting.

Make time for small talk. Some virtual meeting leaders go right to the meat of the meeting without this important step. It is perhaps even more important in a virtual meeting to put everyone at ease with each other. Ask an open-ended neutral question to set a comfortable tone and to get everyone talking.

Make sure everyone knows the format you will be using and has access to the materials and tools you will be using. Do they know how to ask a question or make comments?

Watch your pacing. Be careful not to speak too quickly in a virtual meeting. Even with live video, the nuances that we gain from a face-to-face meeting can be lost when we are not in the same room. Also, pause more than you normally do when awaiting a response to a question. Remember that, even with the best of connections, there can be a delay between your asking question and your participants hearing your voice.

In addition, if you have non-native English speakers in your group, avoid using colloquialisms and jargon that might be misunderstood.

Focus

Follow your agenda to keep on schedule. Especially since some of your colleagues maybe in a different time zone (think middle of the night), be aware of how your time is going throughout the meeting. Don’t be afraid to steer participants back to the topic if they get off course. You can always suggest there will be time for a follow-up on those points at a later date.

Keep track of action items and decisions by using on-screen tools or with a staff member taking notes. Be aware of who is taking part in any conversation or chat and who is not. You might want to occasionally address questions to participants by name to pull them into the conversation.

Nick Morgan, author of the book Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma, advises facilitators to plan virtual meetings in 10 minute segments, suggesting that our attention spans have been shortened in the information age. Take these breaks to state where you are on the agenda and to ask for input when appropriate.

End your meeting at the scheduled time. Summarize what has been discussed and accomplished and thank everyone warmly. In addition, advise them of when they will hear from you again about any action steps. It is a nice touch to let each person say a few words of parting before you sign off.

Follow up

Many meetings — both virtual and in-person ones — end up falling flat because the ideas and decisions made at the meeting are not taken forward. Just as with

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