Most people think virtual meetings are a waste of time. They're right. In fact, most of them are doomed from the start in a kind of self-perpetuating cycle of loathing and resentment. And it starts before anyone even logs on (or spends 10 minutes trying!) to whatever meeting system you're meant to be using.
If you knew something would disrupt the normal flow of your work and had about a 70 per cent chance of being a complete waste of time, how eager would you be to participate? Probably not very. And if you did take part, odds are not good you'd be at your best.
Why do web meetings and conference calls stink before they even start? Let's count the ways (and offer a glimmer of hope while we're at it).
The past is prologue. If every time this particular group meets, time is wasted and little is accomplished, why would you expect anything different this time around? It takes a number (how many depends on how deep the psychic damage goes) of well-run, productive meetings to reduce the dread of showing up and have people convinced their time will be well invested. Stick with it, you can change hearts and minds over time, but you have to be consistently good.
If you want people to contribute, they need to know why. "Because it's Tuesday, and we always meet on Tuesday" is not a good reason to log on. If they do it will be grudgingly (probably late) and their minds will be more on enduring the time together than contributing.
If, on the other hand, people actually know what will be discussed and what they are expected to contribute, there is an outside chance they'll actually prepare and actually contribute. Be specific. "We need to discuss the Johnson Account" is not the same thing as "we need to brainstorm ideas to save the Johnson Account". Help people come in with the right focus.
Once people know what is expected, hold them accountable for their contributions (or lack thereof). Do you know the reason most people don't speak up on webmeetings and team calls? They are incented not to. The same people speak up all the time, and get more than their share of the leader's attention. When the leader asks "any questions?" there is silence because if there are no questions, the meeting is over and we can end the misery and go back to work.
If someone doesn't read the document, no problem. The leader will stop the meeting, re-send the document or review it killing the spirit of those who actually showed up. Without shaming them unnecessarily, make it clear to participants they will be expected to offer their thoughts or opinions. Call on them individually if necessary. If they're not ready for this meeting, odds are good they'll be ready for the next one.
Play fair. If you want people to contribute, give them a chance to prepare. Getting the agenda ten minutes before the meeting is not a good way to ensure people are properly prepared. If we need to discuss saving the Johnson Account, I don't want to get an email telling me just before I log on that there's a problem with the Johnson Account. It's the leader's job to ensure that the agenda is clear and arrives in time to actually put thought into what we're doing.
The way the last meeting ended is how this one will start. Don't let your meetings peter out to a whimper. Make sure at the end of each meeting people feel like they've actually accomplished something. Wrap up the discussion, highlight action items and thank people for their contribution. If things need to be done better for next time (like people actually need to read the darned document before discussing it!) make that clear too.
If people show up willing to work, focused on the task at hand and held accountable for the work they do, the odds are much better that the meeting will be a success. Or at least less of a miserable interruption to their "real" work.
That's largely up to the managers. We set the tone and expectations. How are you and your team doing?