Companies today operate across multiple time zones as a matter of course. And recent years have seen a boom in collaborative technologies to help them do that. But you may not know it based on the way many companies still conduct meetings. Conducting high-quality virtual conversations still isn't second nature for many of us. Instead, we've simply transferred an analog meeting paradigm into a digital environment. That's why so many people hate meetings—especially virtual ones.
Fortunately, it can be done. In fact, my team and I recently watched in awe as a tech exec successfully facilitated a long, important meeting remotely—even though she could've joined in person. She was five minutes away in another building but opted to go virtual simply because it was raining. And it worked.
Here are three rules you need to know to master the art of the virtual meeting in 2016 and beyond.
Effective virtual meetings need to be designed—they don't just happen. And their leaders do more than moderate. They need to facilitate the conversation much more rigorously than the same in-person meeting would require. But that doesn't have to require a strenuous effort, either.
Imagine yourself as a tour guide charged with keeping everyone in the meeting oriented and engaged. Because the temptation to multitask is so great, you need to continually generate relevance for everyone involved. That means "micro-framing" each section of the discussion and the expectations for how individuals should participate. For example:
Thanks, Sally, for the clear recap of the customer issue. Does anyone have any clarifying questions?
Okay, now let’s spend a few minutes brainstorming how best to solve it. Since each of you is a subject matter expert, I’m going to go around the line and have everyone share one idea. Extra points if you integrate your idea with one that someone else has shared.
This isn't reinventing the wheel, nor does it require any high-tech proficiency. It simply means opening the floor, then asking—or actually, requiring—everyone to contribute something before moving on. And rather than just forcing discussion for its own sake, you're setting (and resetting) expectations about why you need to discuss it in the first place. That helps move things along.
Most meetings today happen in mixed settings, where a subset of the participants are together in a room and a few are remote. This is a recipe for exclusion. The remote parties turn into vague presences on the margins—where they usually wind up staying. Instead, skip the conference room altogether and have everyone participate remotely. While this increases the temptation to multitask, it levels the playing field for participation.
Second, scrap the dial-in number you've been using all this time. Conference calls aren't the same as virtual meetings, and participating simply through audio, as a disembodied voice, rarely works well. You need to turn on video in order to maximize engagement. Make this a norm for your team—no exceptions. To do that, don't hesitate to coach to your remote team members on how to set up a home office or workspace for a good video experience (hint: lighting and camera angles are key).
Even two years ago, you could expect that at least 10 minutes of each meeting would be lost to technological mishaps—there was basically no way around it. At one company I've worked with, an IT associate still shows up at the beginning of every videoconference just to make sure the connection is working.
Hopefully those days are dwindling as virtual meeting technologies get more reliable. If your team is virtual, you owe it to them to master the tools you're using together. Skype for Business, WebEx, and GoToMeeting (just to name a few of the common platforms) all allow participants to see each other on video while sharing documents in real time.
Used well, these platforms allow for multidimensional engagement, too—not just conversation. They're best when a group is building something that they can all see taking shape digitally. For instance (and depending on the task at hand), try bringing a straw-model prototype to the table, putting it on screen, and manipulating it in real time. Whatever the case, processing both auditory and visual information simultaneously is generally much more engaging, and user-friendly tools are widely available for creating that experience.
Whatever you do, don't succumb to the illusion that an OK virtual meeting is an OK outcome. Invest the time to make it good. It’s not just your time—it’s everyone’s.
Shani Harmon cofounded Stop Meeting Like This to address the alarming misuse of time and energy in the workplace, particularly in meetings. She has spent over 10 years as an organizational effectiveness consultant to Global 500 corporations.