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Make Virtual Meetings Work—Dos and Don’ts for Virtual Meeting Success

Making virtual meetings work is more important than ever as organizations face the realities of the global pandemic of the corona virus. As your organization scrambles to assemble risk mitigation plans, set up communication channels and adopt responsible travel protocols, you face tough decisions regarding how employees need to get their work done. That means working remotely and holding meetings remotely.

Statistics suggest 40% of global companies do not allow people to work remotely. Faced with the current crisis, they may have no choice but to reconsider their position on this—if they have not already done so. Some 70% of people work remotely at least once a week (Browne, Ryan, 2018) and the practice seems to be on the rise. In the United States, for example, 57 million workers are part of the gig economy (McCue, T., 2018)

Now, due to the current health crisis, companies are not considering just working remotely, but also routinely holding virtual meetings in place of traveling to in-person meetings. Organizations are not just conducting virtual meetings but also are holding other types of events that have never been done virtually. Jan Botz, Program Director for the Conference Board, oversees professional councils for the Conference Board, a non-profit think tank based in New York. Member companies meet in person three times a year to discuss trends in their industry. While they have always met in person, with meetings held in different parts of the United States and hosted by member companies, the current situation is making them consider their meetings differently. And, they have never held a virtual Council meeting. Until now. Botz states, “Well there’s a silver lining to everything. In our case, we haven’t done a virtual meeting before and, if we do so now, it will be a great test of our capability and our members interest in virtual meetings in the future.”

Some organizations have been making virtual meetings work globally as a routine. They have had to address creating an effective client experience and ideating on teams in virtual meetings as regular business practices. In fact, for some organizations, this has led to unexpected positive outcomes. Such is the case for FleishmanHillard a global public relations firm with 80 offices in 30 countries. Ephraim Cohen, General Manager, at FleishmanHillard in New York comments, “As a firm focused on global programs, we have excelled at forming teams with people living in different parts of the world. We introduced a flex policy in our NY office last year that allows anyone to work remotely if there was no business or client need to be in the office. We saw no significant difference in individual or team productivity or cohesiveness. Yes, it’s easier to be in the same place. But easier does not mean better. In fact, productivity can move up with a flexible work policy as it allows us to form teams from the best people, not the ones that are physically in the same building. At this point, we have made remote working and the virtual meeting format routinely part of the way we conduct business and work with each other.”

Many leaders have created protocols for addressing virtual meeting requirements in order to improve meeting outcomes and hold participants accountable even across boundaries and time zones. Marilyn Markham, Product Strategist at American Express Global Business Travel, has worked in several multinational companies with teams across Europe, the United States and Asia. She has had to conduct remote meetings of varying complexity and duration throughout her career. She has found that while it is ideal to hold meetings with everyone in the same location, that is frequently not an option—especially with limited travel budgets. She comments, “When the meeting’s intent is to bring global participants together virtually for a working session, the first thing to do is reset timelines and engagement expectations. A 3-day in- person meeting may turn into 5 morning meetings to accommodate time zones. Leaders have to adjust and think through how best to accommodate everyone at the meeting and being sensitive to everyone’s needs.”

What Can Go Wrong with Virtual Meetings

As we think about creating the best virtual meeting experience it is useful to look at what gets in the way of virtual meeting success. Nick Morgan provides some important insights into things that get in the way of making virtual meetings work (Forbes, 2012):

Recall: People are much more likely to forget what is said during a virtual meeting. We get many cues from body language and even if we can see participants in a video format, it is not the same as experiencing them in person and seeing the subtleties of in-person exchange.

Attention Span: This is related to the first, people have much shorter attention spans in a virtual meeting. Most meetings are an hour long. After about ten minutes in a virtual setting people tend to lose interest.

Lack of Social Cues: There are not the social cues that one gets in an in-person meeting. Leaders and others attending cannot get a pulse of the “feeling in the room” and this can dampen the meeting experience.

Misunderstandings: Without the social cues, misunderstandings can develop often more likely in a virtual setting. We have all experienced our words in an email being misinterpreted. So can our responses, reactions or silence be misinterpreted in a virtual meeting.

Bonding: And, of course, the bonding that takes place in an in-person setting cannot be duplicated in the virtual experience.

Making Virtual Meetings Work: Tips for Maximizing Success

So, what are some of the essential elements organizations should consider to maximize their ability to hold effective virtual meetings? Meeting statistics are sobering. Steven Rogelberg points out in his article, “Why meetings stink and what to do about it” (Harvard Business Review, 2019) that beyond the $30 billion of waste meetings create in the U.S. alone, people use meeting time to do other work (73%) or just plain daydream (90%). Virtual meetings add to that problem. With that in mind, here is a list to help you make virtual meetings work:

  • Establish clear expectations and communicate them. At the onset, meeting expectations should be communicated and explained. If people know what the outcome of the meeting is, they will be that much more focused on the end result. As Stephen Covey, the great educator, author and businessman said, “Think with the end in mind”. If you think in advance what do you want meeting participants to walk away with, and communicate that to them, everyone in the meeting will be focused on making that happen.
  • Technology needs to work. Basic right, but how often have we witnessed a snafu on the tech side? And, you need to make sure everyone knows how to use it. With five generations in the workforce, not everyone is as familiar with how to do what. Make it as easy as possible and while it may seem overly simplistic to be reminded, test the technology in advance and make sure that its functionality does not derail your meeting.
  • Give everyone time on the agenda. Seems like a smart thing to do. For obvious reasons, if everyone has a part in the meeting they will be that much more engaged. And they will come to the meeting that much more prepared and also attentive to others. Marilyn Markham at American Express Global Business Travel provides further insight. “By providing a detailed agenda in advance with rotating responsibilities among participants for those agenda items and reporting meeting outcomes everyone will share the ownership, responsibility and accountability for the virtual meetings’ success.”
  • Do away with extraneous material. As Keith Ferrazzi points out in his article, “How to run a great virtual meeting” (Harvard Business Review, 2015), “Cut report outs. Too many meetings, virtual or otherwise are reminiscent of fifth graders reading around the table- and that’s a waste of valuable time.” What he suggests is to send out a half page summary of each person’s points, to get that over with and spend the time together on meaningful discussion and dialogue.
  • Go around the virtual room often. To keep energy up and people engaged, frequently call on participants to provide ideas and comments. How often do people put their computers or phones on mute, while they focus on other stuff during a virtual meeting? If they know there is an expectation they will be asked for their opinion, and you do it regularly, they will be put on notice they need to be fully “present” at the meeting.
  • Find ways to connect people. When we are in-person we can do that, find out what is going on in each other’s lives and have more of that kind of chitchat. In virtual meetings, not so. Make time for that. Schedule it as part of the meeting agenda. By having each person say something that is going on in their life or work arena and share, that provides an opportunity for people to have a more human experience, in addition to checking off the things we expect to accomplish in the meeting. (2015)
  • Get regular feedback. Ferrazzi suggests taking ten minutes at the end of the meeting and finding out what people would have done differently to make the meeting more effective. If that puts off people, ask them in an anonymous survey and get feedback. Or call people afterwards and solicit their ideas. By reaching out and asking what they think, and then addressing the feedback you get (and telling them what it is), your virtual meetings are apt to have more credibility and engagement.
  • Recognize people. People like regular feedback and to be praised for the contributions they make (Craig, William, 2017). In a virtual setting without the social exchanges that occur in an in-person meeting, it becomes that much more important. Find ways to recognize people during the meeting and even afterwards. Due to the formality of the communication channel, having virtual recognition becomes amplified and can make people eager for the next time.

By following these insights and practices, global leaders will be able to create virtual meeting environments that not only maximize virtual meeting success but also potentially improve engagement not just during the meeting but long afterwards.

Author: Jacqueline Strayer is a consultant and faculty member in graduate and executive programs at New York University and Columbia University.  She is a former elected officer of three global public companies, consults with clients on marketing, public relations and leadership practice areas and can be reached at [email protected].