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Best Practices for Virtual Meetings

One of the transformations the coronavirus pandemic brought to workplaces is a shift to virtual meetings. TrustRadius research shows that the search impressions for video conferencing solutions have seen tremendous growth of 500% due to COVID-19.

It’s also interesting to note that according to SimilarWeb, Zoom is now the 17th most popular site in the world. This fact suggests that companies are still desperately seeking video meeting tools to set up their remote workforce. This should come as no surprise since the surveys show that many companies plan to allow employees to continue working from home post-pandemic.

Apparently, video meetings are likely to remain hyper-relevant in the long run. Things are getting to the point when people no longer see much difference between a physical and a virtual meeting. However, creating an environment of remote collaboration requires more than having virtual meeting apps in place. It’s important to ensure you are running your online meetings effectively.

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What is a Virtual Meeting?

Before we dive in, let’s take a quick look at what exactly a virtual meeting is.

A virtual meeting is a term that covers various forms of online communication (usually through text, voice, or video) where participants are distributed across different locations or times. Virtual meetings use digital tools to create an online space where people can communicate and work together remotely. Let's review some of the most common types of virtual meetings.

Audio meetings

This is an audio-only form of virtual meetings conducted through phone or audio chat. The benefit is that if the Internet is slow, you can still talk. The downside is that teammates can’t see each other's facial expressions and share visual presentations. Also, audio calls are only suited for 1:1 and small group meetings. The more people are getting involved, the harder it becomes for everyone to participate in the discussion.

Video conference meetings

These are online meetings that involve both video and sound. Video conferencing tools like Zoom or Google Meet allow team members to join video calls anywhere from their preferred devices. Participants maintain virtual eye contact, which helps achieve higher levels of collaboration as compared to audio calls. In many companies, virtual video meetings have become the new norm for collaboration internally and with external stakeholders.

Virtual webinars

A virtual webinar is similar to a video conference, with the main exception being that it is primarily a one-way communication form. Virtual webinars allow the presenter to speak to remote audiences but imply limited possibilities of interaction, except for Q&A sessions. Companies typically use live or pre-recorded virtual webinars for corporate events and team-building activities.

Typed meetings

These are “silent” virtual meetings where the whole communication is conducted with participants type out their exchanges. Instant messengers, shared spreadsheets and documents on Google Docs, group chats on Facebook, Skype, or other platforms can all be used for text-based meetings. This format of the meeting doesn’t involve any video and sound interaction but comes with some benefits like the ability to catch up on a missed meeting by simply looking through the transcript.

Why Asynchronous Meetings Matter

Virtual meetings are an effective method for remote communication. However, they can become frustrating and extremely time-consuming. Everyone knows how painful it is to be interrupted by an unscheduled video call in the middle of an important task.

Here are some thought-provoking numbers for you:

  • Most employees attend 62 meetings per month, and half of all meetings are considered a waste of time,
  • 67% of employees say that spending too much time in meetings stifles their productivity.

Attending a useless or unproductive meeting drains employees of their energy and brainpower. Add to this that technology doesn't always behave as we want it to. Slow connections and speech lags can turn a virtual conference into a waste of everyone's time.

This is where embracing asynchronous communication can offer relief. Virtual meetings are often perceived as a way to communicate with each other synchronously (in real-time), but it's not imperative. Async communication can if not completely replace synchronous meetings, then significantly facilitate them.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Meetings: What's the Difference?

If a regular (synchronous) virtual meeting is gathering people in a digital environment for the purpose of communication, then an asynchronous virtual meeting is exactly the same with the exception of necessity for the participants to be there all at the same time. Let’s see how it makes a difference.

As compared to synchronous communication, asynchronous meetings give teams the freedom and flexibility to discuss ideas, share information, make plans but without constant interruption, or endless meetings. This form of meeting works best when you need a response, but it doesn’t have to be immediate.

For example, instead of a team sync meeting that requires everyone to join and spend significant time idle while all participants are reporting their progress, you can launch a discussion in a team chat like Slack. All teammates can drop a line in a chat when they have time. This way you can keep team members connected without interrupting them for a lengthy meeting.

What Can Go Wrong in a Virtual Meeting?

Ineffective meetings cost companies over $399 billion every year, and unfortunately, there's plenty of room for things to go wrong in virtual meetings - delayed meeting start times, speech lags, daydreaming participants, to name a few. Many of those problems are a result of bad meeting organization, lack of good practices, or other oversights that can be avoided.

Take note of these common mistakes in virtual meetings that you should avoid.

Relying on technology too much

With so many virtual meeting tools available, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that technology by itself can fix all the issues of virtual communication. But technology is not a silver bullet and virtual meetings require proper planning and management to be productive. Besides, technology does not always work seamlessly. In fact, nearly one-third of the time allotted for a meeting may be wasted if the setup isn’t simple and user-friendly. That’s why it’s important to make sure people understand the technology you are using before the meeting starts.

Neglecting asynchronous communication

Asynchronous methods of communication, like email, pre-recorded videos, discussion forums, and social media are often forgotten. However, given that the average attention span is only 15-20 minutes, they can make a real difference. Watching a presentation in a virtual team meeting may take a long time, which entails the risk of losing attention and engagement. Consider sharing a pre-recorded presentation with other participants before the meeting through Complish' asynchronous communication tool. Then you can use a virtual meeting to answer their questions and discuss critical points.

Lack of preparation

A productive online meeting needs preparation that goes beyond setting up the technology and sharing pre-recorded content in advance. To have a good virtual meeting, you must prepare all the "what's", "how's", and "who's", meaning that you need to determine clear objectives of the meeting, create a roadmap for discussion, and define roles for all participants.

Not giving participants an active role

In virtual meetings, you cannot see what people are doing and participants can be easily distracted by things like checking their email, multitasking, or chatting in the background. What can keep them focused is having a role that requires involvement and input. For most meetings, it can be very helpful to assign specific roles - such as speaker, facilitator, time-keeper, and note-taker - to different participants. For greater engagement, these roles can be rotated or reassigned at each meeting.

Disregarding time zones

Buffer found that the vast majority of remote employees are working in teams that span across multiple time zones:

  • 59% - 2 to 5 time zones
  • 19% - 6 to 10 time zones
  • 12% - 16+ time zones
  • 8% - 11 to 15 time zones
  • 2% - 1 time zone

While virtual meetings are beneficial for companies that operate internationally, the downside to it is the difference in time zones. Make a mistake with the scheduled time and some participants may not come in time or as engaged as you want them to be. ****An important part of virtual meeting etiquette is to respect other participants’ time zones and try to find a mutually convenient time for the meetings.

Tips for virtual meetings

To wrap things up, let’s review the meeting best practices you can follow to make virtual communication more effective and engaging.

1. Have a clear objective for the meeting

Never set a virtual team meeting without a clear objective. Some of the most common objectives for virtual meetings are: sharing information, solving problems, and making decisions. Note that not all of these objectives necessarily require a synchronous meeting. Sharing information, for example, might be better done via email, team chat, or an asynchronous communication tool like Complish.

Having the objective in mind helps define what type of virtual meeting is necessary, plan the meeting, and invite the right people. During the meeting, this helps to keep the focus on what’s important and prevent the meeting from getting side-tracked.

Remember that you are taking up other people’s valuable time during meetings. Keep the discussion directed towards reaching the objective. In the end, outline what was accomplished, so participants leave the meeting feeling like the meeting was a productive use of their time.

2. Create an agenda and communicate it before the meeting

Once you are clear with the objective, you can create an agenda to achieve it. The agenda helps you stick to the plan, makes your virtual meeting more focused and efficient. Even if you just write out a few points that you want to discuss, it will give you more control over the meeting's outcome. But having a detailed agenda can reduce meeting time up to 80%.

A  detailed agenda may include the following:

  • A descriptive subject line
  • The meeting objective
  • The time/date and duration
  • A list of discussion points, with a duration for each item
  • A list of the presenters/attendees, with their roles during the meeting
  • Supporting documents and relevant links

People are more likely to be engaged if they can contribute in a meaningful way. Make sure to send the agenda to all participants beforehand. Doing so can allow them to be prepared and come to the meeting with relevant ideas.

To convey the meeting agenda to participants you can pin it to your team channel on Slack or include it in your Google Calendar invite. Another good option is to use a tool like Complish to collaborate on the agenda before the meeting.

3. Decide who is leading the meeting

Virtual meetings tend to be less naturally organized than real-life ones. Time is often wasted waiting for people to join the meeting. Participants may not know when it’s their turn to talk or accidentally talk over each other. That’s why proactive facilitation and moderation are critical in virtual meetings. Identify someone who will lead the discussion, introduce each topic, and let everyone know when it's their time to speak.

4. Let everyone participate

A virtual meeting is a collaborative process. It’s important to ensure everyone can participate, share ideas, provide feedback, and ask questions.

Some people are less comfortable talking into a camera than others and, as a result, may shy away from the discussion. Implementing a rule like an ‘everyone has 5 minutes to speak’ can help engage quieter people in discussions. Asking everyone in the meeting to share an insight also can help guide the conversation toward more balance.

With more than 8 people in a virtual meeting, trying to have a productive discussion becomes quite difficult. Limit your invites to only those whose participation is essential. Doing so keeps the discussion focused while encouraging active participation. Virtual meetings with fewer participants are more engaging, give shy employees the confidence to voice their opinions, and reduce risks associated with technical issues or schedule conflicts.

5. Keep meetings short

Many people find online meetings more tiring and tend to lose focus quicker than they would in real-life meetings. To keep participants focused and attentive, try to restrict your meeting to 20-30 minutes. If the meeting involves a presentation, keep it as short as possible and encourage active conversations between participants.

The most effective virtual meetings are short and intentional. So, rather than discussing ten items, think about two or three items that can be discussed within the attention span of your virtual attendees.

6. Document the outcomes and action items

It is critical to document the outcomes for every virtual meeting so as not to miss out on any important information and key highlights. Appoint someone to take notes during the meeting or set up a meeting minutes doc in a Complish or another collaborative tool.

Another challenge of virtual meetings is that it is more difficult to get people to take action after virtual meetings compared to physical meetings. To make actions more likely to be carried out, everyone needs to finish the meeting with a clear idea of what they need to do. Run through the actions at the end of the meeting and check that everyone is clear on what they need to do.

After each virtual meeting, send a follow-up email to the participants with the meeting minutes and the agreed-upon action points.

Conclusion

Remote working is here to stay in the long run. UpWork predicts that by 2025, the number of remote workers will nearly double what it was before the pandemic. This distributed workforce will continue to require fast, reliable virtual meeting and collaboration solutions.

Productive virtual meetings offer many benefits to companies and employees. Discussing ideas, solving problems, sharing information, and many other activities can be successfully carried out in an online environment. But excessive or poorly organized meetings can damage productivity and pose significant costs to companies.

Tools like Complish are making it easier for people to communicate, without compromising on productivity. Therefore, another trend that is likely to be observed is a wider adoption of tools for asynchronous collaboration that help reduce the number of meetings and increase their efficiency.