It seems that more and more companies are creating multi-location workgroups and allowing people to work from home. As a result, new and experienced managers alike are having to learn to run meetings via speakerships, Skype sessions, and other distance shrinking communication tools. It may sound easy, but running an effective virtual meeting is much harder than it seems because you have the following things going against you:
- People on the phone are probably multi-tasked, doing email or other activities.
- People in the conference room forget that people are on the phone because they can’t see them.
- Meeting handouts must be emailed to remote participants prior to meeting.
- Cellphones lose service and run out of batteries.
- Location-specific accents can be hard to understand.
- People joining the call late can disrupt the flow of conversation.
- Time zone differences can make it problematic to find a meeting time that is convenient for all participants.
The good news is that even with all the above difficulties, virtual meetings can be run successfully and efficiently. It just takes a little planning, a little technique and a little practice.
Let’s start with the planning. If your meeting participants are from different time zones, try to find a time that works best for all. I like to call this “the time of least aggravation.” That is to say, the time that on average causes the least inconvenience to the participants. Ideally, no one should be forced to wake up in the middle of the night to join the call. Second, you must be sure that all of the documents that will be discussed on the call have been emailed to the participants in time to read and/or print them before the meeting. Lastly and easiest, make sure that all participants have the conference call phone number as access code.
Regarding technique, there are a number of things you can do to make the call run more smoothly, including the following:
1. If the majority of the participants are together on a conference call, place the names of those who called into the meeting on a large piece of paper next to the speakerphone. This will act as a visual reminder that people are on the phone.
2. Periodically ask specific questions to the people on the phone and require answers to assure they are paying attention.
3. If possible, if the meeting is not discussing controversial or confidential information, turn off the “beep” that sounds each time a new person is added to the call.
4. Connect privately with others on the meeting via instant messaging.
5. Facilitate the meeting by assuring that all those in the class have a chance to speak.
6. Minimize the chance of technical issues by distributing a list of do’s and don’ts such as not placing the call on hold if your hold plays music.
7. Ask open questions with the specific intent of expanding the conversation, thus not allowing prolonged silence on the call.
With the planning done and the techniques in hand, your next step is practice. If you have been a participant in a virtual meeting, but have never been the leader, it’s harder to do well than it looks. If you have never participated on a virtual meeting, try to gain firsthand knowledge of how it’s done by participating in one. This first-time participation can be done in any of the following ways listed in order of preference.
- First, ask to join a virtual meeting being held within your company. If it is not a meeting you would normally attend, ask if you can quietly listen with the goal of understanding how a virtual meeting can be effectively run.
- Second, attend a free interactive webinar sponsored by a vendor in your industry. This will not only give you a sense of how virtual meetings are run, but it will also provide you the opportunity to learn something about the vendor that may help you at work.
- Third, attend a free interactive webinar on a non-work related topic, but of personal interest. This type of interactive webinar tends to be less formal and less business-like, but should give you a good idea of how a virtual meeting is run.
The primary advice and takeaways from today’s column is to know that:
- Running a successful virtual meeting is harder than it looks, but with the right planning, techniques and practice, they can be done very successfully.
Until next time, manage well, manage smart and continue to grow.
Eric P. Bloom, based in Ashland, Mass., is the president and founder of Manager Mechanics LLC, a company specializing in information technology leadership development and the governing organization for the ITMLP and ITMLE certifications. He is also a nationally syndicated columnist, keynote speaker, and author of the award-winning book “Manager Mechanics: Tips and Advice for First-Time Managers.” Contact him at eric@ManagerMechanics.com, follow him on Twitter at @EricPBloom, or visit www.ManagerMechanics.com.