Many people claim that online meetings are a big waste of time, and that they'd rather get together in person. As an inveterate extrovert, I get that (boy do I get that). Still, reality is reality and it's not always possible. So how can we make our webmeetings work as well as our in-person meetings do?
The obvious answer lies in looking at what makes in-person meetings work (when they do, and that sure isn't all the time). Here are three factors of successful meetings, and how to replicate that experience, whatever virtual tool you're using.
In successful meetings, everyone can see each other. This does a number of things that help your team work together. You build human relationships by putting faces to names. You can read body language which can take the sting out of humor that doesn't come across well when you can't see the person is joking.
In a regular meeting, you can arrange the table so people are in eyeshot of each other. There's a reason King Arthur made that table round—he was keeping an eye on that weasel Kay and diminishing jockeying for position. How do you replicate that experience online?
Obviously if you have webcams, that's a good way to do it. Make sure that you set it up your screen so that you can see everyone. Most platforms have a "thumbnail" view that allows you to see more than one person at a time. Some platforms allow only the speaker to be visible to everyone, but that's okay as long as you get everyone to contribute somehow. That's especially at the beginning of your meeting.
If video isn't an option or it's a distraction because of bandwidth problems, then have everyone load a profile picture so you're not just a bunch of sinister- looking black boxes.
When people show up to meetings prepared, good things happen. This doesn't matter whether you're in person or not, but at least if someone shows up without a document to the meeting they can look at someone else's or get a copy in a hurry. The secret here is a good agenda . What's in a good agenda?
A good agenda gives people plenty of notice not only what will be discussed, but expectations, desired outcome and electronic access to any documents, research, or other information they'll need. Electronic access does not necessarily mean attaching a document in an email. That's a great way to ensure you spend the 20 minutes before the meeting emailing it again to people who deleted or misfiled it.
Use links to permanent archives like SharePoint or Google Docs. Train people to find the latest versions of critical documents on their own like the adults they are. If they come prepared, you spend less time on administrivia and can make the best use of everyone's time.
Pretty much everyone knows how to use a flip chart or whiteboard. We do a lot of things unconsciously at work. Heck, some of us spend most of our workday that way. The technology around traditional meetings doesn't throw many people. You have a white board or flipchart in the room. The hookup to the computer for showing visuals is usually a simple plug and play arrangement. If it's not, there's usually someone within earshot to remind you to push "F7". Online, we are facing technology we're unused to. Some of it we've never seen used before.
There's a huge difference between knowing there's a "whiteboard" function on your platform and knowing how to use it comfortably. We don't often feel compelled to do everything ourselves in a normal meeting. We ask someone to scribe for us or take notes. There's no law that says you have to do everything yourself in a virtual meeting. Let others scribe. Ask another participant to take notes or help monitor the chat. Involve everyone. Practice until you're comfortable, and don't let the technology get in the way of what you're trying to accomplish.
For almost any function a regular meeting uses, you can find a similar tool in your online platform. The trick is to learn what it can do, and plan for its use. Notice I say ALMOST any function. If you're on a webmeeting, you will still have to get your own doughnuts. But I'm sure someone is working on that one.