Increasingly, virtual meetings are being utilized to enhance productivity, engagement, connection and communication. However, more meetings do not always lead to improved outcomes.
Virtual meetings, like in-person meetings, are strategic momentum creating opportunities. Wise leaders choose to invest their time in preparing for a virtual meeting as carefully (or more carefully) as they would for an in-person meeting. This article highlights strategies for doing just that.
Several years ago, I served as the Executive Director (ED) in charge of leadership development and strategic planning at a telecommunications company with a virtual workforce spread across the United States. Among other things, I facilitated strategic planning for a team of high-powered technology executives and was responsible for facilitating motivational and purposeful virtual meetings for employees on a daily basis. I also was able to observe some excellent virtual facilitators.
It was a steep learning curve for someone with a doctorate in interpersonal communication that was trained to respond to visual nonverbal cues. But during my time at the organization, I was able to study, research and practice virtual communication. I explored its pitfalls and efficiencies. I also worked with teams on dealing with virtual conflict and experienced the complicated strategy/role of silence in the virtual workplace. Most importantly, I had to create new strategies for connecting people and creating momentum within virtual teams who could not benefit from the positive energy exchange that face-to-face interaction can bring.
As an organizational development and communications expert, I now work with many different industries in both virtual and in-person settings - not all of the clients I work with have access to advanced technology and videoconferencing platforms.
I am a huge advocate of maximizing people’s time through the utilization of both in-person meetings and virtual meetings. The suggestions in this article are designed to reinforce basic facilitation principles and empower those of you who may not have considered utilizing technology before.
You are not expected to be an expert from the start – if you are new to technology, let your group know that you are utilizing technology because you value their time and contribution; let them know you are open to their suggestions about how to improve the efficiency of meetings.
Improving Virtual Meetings
Start with Why. Virtual doesn’t give a pass from preparing an agenda. Before calling a meeting, a leader must be able to state the purpose and expected outcome; communicating it before the meeting and stating it at the beginning rings focus and unites the collective around a common purpose. The agenda items should provide a bridge between purpose and outcomes. Some purposes may be to inform, exchange, persuade, introduce, decide, etc. One often forgotten purpose is to utilize the meeting to create momentum and/or motivate your team - every leader should think about actions/strategies to integrate into a meeting to accomplish this important purpose.
Utilize Technology. If your organization has not invested in a teleconferencing platform, you can still utilize technology. Free teleconferencing tools like frreeteleconference.com, Skype and many others provide reliable connections for conference calls. Add the capabilities of Google Drive and share an agenda and/or other materials for “live” viewing during the meeting. Keep in mind that not all free platforms are alike. You don’t want to lose meeting time because of a technological glitch. Avoid the embarrassment of delays by testing tools before the meeting and sending documents ahead of time so your participants can do the same.
Send Information in Advance. Set an expectation for advance preparation by distributing the agenda and supporting documents at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting – several days or one week ahead of time is even better. Reading written documents out loud isn’t a good use of participant’s time; you have brought them together to think, contribute and create not to absorb, daydream and multi-task.
Create a Whiteboard. Visuals increase engagement and reinforce outcomes. Bring your group to the same place and time with a live agenda on a shared platform – then use it to scribe in real time like you might on a whiteboard. Bullet key points, write down next steps, timeframes and accountabilities. Increase engagement by asking participants to join you (i.e. move their cursors) to a certain section/slide of the document or have them write their ideas in an online brainstorming session.
Insert Creativity. Meetings don’t have to be boring. Add colored fonts. Add interest with a cartoon or quote. Add other creative elements like visuals and stories. For regular meetings, vary the format of the agenda every month or quarter to keep things interesting. We integrated daily huddles at the telecommunications firm where I served as ED – I have found these agendas to provide creative inspiration and focus for other types of meetings in a wide range of settings. Do a quick search on “daily huddle agendas” for some creative new ideas for your agenda.
Build Relationships. Include an icebreaker - utilize chat or your live document and have each person scribe an answer to the question while waiting for the meeting to begin. When time permits, have your team answer the question in round robin fashion. Keep engagement high during the meeting with open-ended questions. Increase participation and avoid virtual lag time by calling on participants by name.
Bringing It Home
Whether you are a nonprofit, corporate entity, volunteer board member or paid employee - virtual meetings are increasingly becoming an integral mode of group communication. They are a valuable time-saving and cost-saving medium to be integrated in conjunction with in-person meetings.
As one who had to master virtual communication in a sink or swim environment, I can attest to the fact that practice makes perfect.
Invest the time to make your next virtual meeting a momentum creating opportunity.
© Kathy Sturgis, Ph.D. Kathy is founder of Refreshment Zone and is an organizational and personal development specialist with a doctorate in communication. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on motivational programs.