How To Rein In The Chaos Of Virtual Meetings

February may be the shortest month, but it's the most popular for hosting meetings—many of which happen virtually because of the weather. Here's how to delete the mayhem and make them more productive.

Oh how we love to hate meetings. Despite exhaustively chronicling the myriad ways we can have more productive meetings and actually reduce the time spent languishing in conference rooms the zeal to discuss the finer points of strategy continues unabated.

Recent findings from Blue Jeans Network, a cloud-based video conference company, indicate that we spend as much as half our days in meetings. Factor in a post-holiday urge to be productive and you’ve got the makings for meeting madness.

"It’s staggering," says Stu Aaron, chief commercial officer at Blue Jeans Network. He says that 25% more meetings take place in February than any other month of the year, he says.

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Though in-person meetings are preferred by most attendees, the recent spate of frigid temperatures and winter storms, global transit strikes, and cold and flu season, all conspire to make many of those meetings web-based video or conference calls. And that’s where things can go awry.

Audio-only conference calls fraught with faux pas and awkward pauses have been turned into the stuff of YouTube spoofs here and here

But there’s nothing funny about the fact that nearly three-quarters (71%) of people surveyed by Blue Jeans Network say that they lost a deal because they lacked face-to-face communications. Sixty percent of people on audio only conference calls admitted to checking social media and another 6% were dozing off when they should have been paying attention.

"It’s not the newest or the sleekest," observes Aaron, "But eye contact and body language is most effective as a business tool."

So what’s the best way to combine technology with face-time to ensure the best possible meeting outcome when you have a group that’s part in-house and part remote? Aaron has a few suggestions:

Common Courtesies

Some companies include conference call etiquette as part of onboarding for new staff. Others put tip sheets for appropriate behavior in their meeting rooms. In fact, with more businesses allowing employees to BYOD (bring your own device) there’s no need for learning new software or another piece of technology.

Aaron says you don’t need rigorous training to host successful meetings, just remember to use common sense.

When people are dialing in from different locations and there’s a mix of audio and video, remind attendees that they should join early to avoid disrupting the flow once the meeting’s begun. With remote participants, you can’t use the "last person in brings the donuts" trick. You can make them tell a joke, Aaron says, the pressure of which may just make persistent stragglers snap out of their tardiness.

Mind Your Video Manners

If you’re a virtual attendee—91% of Blue Jeans survey respondents said they never met their colleagues in real life—Aaron says it’s important to remember to mute your line if you’re joining from your local cafe or other venue with ambient noise. It also helps to shift your screen so you don’t have glaring outside light emanating from your little virtual corner of the room.

Theoretically, video should keep people engaged and aware that they are visible to the rest of the group. "Treat colleagues with respect because you are there for a purpose," says Aaron, because technology makes it easy to detect if your eyes are wandering.

If you’re finding it hard to pull focus, Aaron suggests rethinking your seat at the table. "Maybe you don’t need to be there in the first place," he says. In some companies, these meetings are part of the culture and less about efficiency others and more about being seen.

Ensure Engagement

Besides being visible, meeting hosts can use one simple strategy to keep everyone actively participating. Handing out a clearly defined agenda beforehand helps attendees know when they can comment. It also serves to keep the meeting from devolving into a free-for-all.

Timing Is Everything

When location doesn’t matter, it’s important to make sure the timing works. Scheduling a time slot that works for multiple participants can be a challenge, but Aaron says it helps to know that Tuesday and Wednesday are typical meeting days all over the world. He says there are meeting "rush hours" as well. Half of all meetings happen between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., he says.

"If you are concerned [the attendees] are in high demand, diligent thinking about schedule pays dividends on who shows up and the mood they are in at the meeting."

[Image: Flickr user Office Now]

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2 Comments

  • Great points! Another great resource for eliminated time- and energy-sucking meetings from your life is the new brand book, "Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations that Accelerate Change by Chris Ertel and Lisa Solomon (Simon & Schuster).

  • Great points, Lydia! Especially helpful is the point you make about keeping everyone engaged in the proceedings by sharing the agenda ahead of time. To take the point one step further, organizers can strive to keep attendees invested in the outcomes as well. Tools such as the Ramblehook app for iPhone not only make us super simple to distribute agendas (no paper!), but to follow along as timekeeping duties happen automatically and at the end the whole team gets to see their score! Who doesn't want to add a little fun and functionality to a meeting?