Virtual meetings are real meetings. Why does that seem to surprise people? If they’re not meetings, what are they? What purpose do they serve?
One of the surprising assumptions people make about virtual meetings, webmeetings, “WebExes” or whatever people call them is that somehow they are a different animal than the traditional “gather round the table” meeting. They probably are, but should they be?
My good friend Phil Simon recently interviewed me for the Huffington Post, and like so many people I’ve spoken to recently, he kept asking about the differences between virtual meetings and “real” meetings.
Don’t forget for a moment that the very definition of virtual is “almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition.” In other words, they’re pretty darned close to “real”. The similarities far outweigh the differences.
If we thought about webmeetings and conferences as meetings first, and technology enabled communication second, it could make a huge difference in the outcome.
So how are they the same and how do they differ?
The reasons we meet haven’t changed. Whether online or gathered around a mahogany table, we meet to get work done. We need to share information, answer questions, agree on action items and solve problems. Ideally we also share the social interaction that makes working together both possible and pleasant. The intent of a virtual meeting should be the same, although the mechanics are different. Why else are you meeting?
One difference is the amount of thought necessary to make virtual meetings work. Most of us hold our meetings without a lot of thought. We know how to talk to people. We use eye contact, questioning, rules of order and all the skills we’ve honed over how many years on this planet. If we need to go to a flipchart, we grab a felt pen and go. No big deal.
Online, though, using a whiteboard requires a degree of muscle memory and conscious thought we aren’t used to utilizing. We often decide it’s too much trouble, if we even know how to use it. Online meetings require a level of thought, planning and dexterity above what we’re used to. And who wants to work that hard?
We need to plan for interaction and be explicit about expectations. Just as we lead our meetings without much conscious thought, our participants attend the same way. The rules and expectations are often implicit…”everyone knows what’s expected”, but attendees are missing the eye contact, body language and dirty looks from the boss that often encourage attention and participation.
Virtual meetings require changes to the physical settings as well to turn them from passive one-way communication to truly collaborative discussions and work sessions. People need to know what’s expected of them, and the technology must be ready to facilitate that work. That requires planning. It’s not the Normandy Invasion, but it still doesn’t happen by accident.
It’s not like our regular meetings are paragons of productivity. Actually, it’s important to remember that while everyone complains that 2/3 of online meeting time is wasted, that number isn’t much better than in our traditional meetings, where we feel that over half the time is time we’ll never get back in our lives. I think the social aspect accounts for most of that difference. That, and pizza. Pizza makes a difference, especially when the boss is paying for it.