If something was wildly unpopular, was hard to operate and didn't get the results intended, you'd think it would go the way of New Coke or my first marriage. Still, virtual meetings grow in number (if not popularity) at an exponential rate. Since this makes no logical sense, I have been forced to draw an unpopular conclusion: maybe they're not as useless as many people maintain.
Virtual meetings (web conferences, or whatever you want to call them) are a lot like McDonalds. Nobody admits to liking them, nobody voluntarily attends them, yet they are held millions of times a day and somebody's paying for it. Here are five reasons that cut through the whining.
Yes, they do save a lot of money - and not just on the obvious travel. Yes, if everyone can connect where they're from and don't have to hop on airplanes or into their cars there is an obvious impact on budgets. However, there are other savings as well.
Primarily, online meetings tend to be shorter, which means people spend less time in the meeting and more time doing their other work. Also, when you work from home you tend to pay for your own doughnuts. The bean counters are happy and you don't have to argue over who gets the chocolate sprinkles.
Just-in-time matters. If you've tried to coordinate calendars so people can get together in person, you know that it can take a while and be incredibly frustrating. Virtual meetings allow you to pull the necessary resources together almost immediately, while having a richer experience than a simple conference call. Response time to customers, to project crises, and each other count for a lot when building working relationships.
Sharing applications, documents and file transfer saves work (and rework). If you've ever thought about the amount of work and re-work that goes into team collaboration, you'll find that someone (usually you) has a lot of tasks. You have to do the work, save it, email the final result to everyone, then re-send it when they either delete the mail or can't find where they saved it.
Most meeting platforms allow the team to create a document and immediately save it themselves to their own computer or device, allowing for consistency and version control. The visual aspect of seeing the work in real time also helps people buy in and understand easier than following along on their own over a conference call and results in fewer mistakes. Not enough people use these features.
Recording and capturing data makes reference and accountability easier. Most web platforms allow you to record your meetings for viewing later. This helps people who can't attend, or are in unkind time zones, catch up. It also allows you to eliminate the "I wasn't there so I didn't know" excuse and keep people accountable. There are also other functions that make your life easier. In a traditional meeting you either have to copy down what you wrote on the white board or transcribe the flip charts, then email them out.
In many platforms you can just save the white boards, chat logs and other visuals which makes for meeting minutes that are easy, accurate and thorough. If even one person can't weasel out of their action item it's probably worth the trouble of learning how to do this.
Well-run virtual meetings can help eliminate the "us vs them" many remote teams encounter. One of the big challenges for leaders is that the people who are remote tend to feel isolated and not part of the larger team. When some people are in a conference room laughing and getting to see each other, it's hard to be the disembodied voice out in the provinces. By using webcams (or even pictures of team members) and using every possible method of getting input from everyone you can eliminate some of those barriers.
The biggest thing a meeting leader can do, though, is to properly facilitate the meeting. Techniques like calling on the remote people first, rather than defaulting to the people in the room and repeating questions so everyone can hear properly go a long way to helping eliminate the largely self-imposed barriers to creating a real team over distance.
Understanding the potential of remote meetings and web collaboration, then learning the tools necessary to meet that potential is one of the most important skills a project manager or leader in the 21st Century can develop. How is your organization doing?