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There is no doubt in my mind that the ability to work virtually is both a personal and organizational capability that must be deliberately built. Large, global corporations have built this capability out of necessity, as it would be impractical to meet in person or co-locate everyone who is needed for a particular product. Smaller, virtual organizations like Thought Ensemble have chosen to operate this way from the start and designed their meetings and processes around virtual work. For companies outside of those two categories, the idea of virtual teams and remote workers in their organizations can be intimidating, but they can’t hide from it. Employees, particularly high-performers, desire to have and excel in more flexible work arrangements, often including working at home at least part-time. Companies must intentionally expand their comfort zones to include these capabilities, especially if they want to attract and retain top talent.

The best place to start is learning how to run an effective virtual meeting. Virtual meetings often get a bad rap because there are so many ways they can go wrong. Poor technology, lack of planning, and ineffective facilitation are all culprits. All organizations, even co-located teams, need to have virtual meetings from time to time when working with vendors or other outside groups. I’ve worked with virtual teams to some extent for the last decade, so I’d like to share some thoughts I have on doing it right.

Find the best technology you can – it is the foundation of a great virtual meeting

Have you ever been on a call where you have no idea who is talking and even less of an idea what they are saying? It’s excruciating, and there is no better way to guarantee that your participants are going to tune out. Find a reliable conferencing service with as high quality sound as you can. This is no easy task. One option is to use a VOIP service like Skype for Business. The sound quality is great, and everyone can be heard well because there are no cell phones or speakerphones to contend with. This isn’t always practical though for people on-the-go, so if you are using a cell phone try to use it in a quiet place and mute when you’re not talking. Also, if some meeting participants are in a room together while others are dialed in, be sure that you have a high-quality speakerphone in the room and that participants are sitting around it and facing it when they talk. Be sure to check in occasionally to make sure everyone can be heard and that there are no technical problems.

Make full use of the tools you are provided, but know when not to use them as well

Conference call services usually have web or app-based tools that allow you to see who is speaking, record calls, share screens, or use cameras. Here are my thoughts on each of these features:

  • Participant Lists – This feature lists the participants in your meeting and often highlights who is talking. There is no reason not to use this feature, especially when sound quality is low which makes it harder to differentiate voices.
  • Screen Sharing – Another feature that should be used as much as possible. Screen sharing engages participants and ensures you are all (literally) on the same page. Tip: If you are sharing your screen, share only the application you want participants to see. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen pop-up notifications for email or messaging applications appear during meetings. It’s at best distracting and at worst embarrassing.
  • Call Recording – Use this feature for training meetings or when a key member is unable to attend but needs all of the details. This feature should be used sparingly, as it will likely make participants feel less comfortable opening up.
  • Cameras – Theoretically, cameras make meetings more engaging and enhances communications by adding facial expressions to the mix. In practice, however, many people don’t like to be on camera. If you do choose to have a “camera meeting” let the participants know in advance so they aren’t caught off-guard.

Lead the meeting with an agenda and polite firmness

Your meeting agenda should include the topics you plan to cover and the time allocated to each. Agendas are vital for virtual meetings to provide structure and efficiency. Minds start to wander after being on a call for too long, so the agenda keeps the discussion high in value and velocity. Send the agenda out at least 24 hours in advance in case some of the participants want to add their own topics or do their own preparation. Be sure to add a few minutes of buffer time at the start of the meeting to allow people to log in, especially if there is a screen share or cameras being used. It is also helpful if you place a short, non-essential topic at the top of the agenda so latecomers don’t miss the most important content. Some leaders like to start with a funny anecdote or a few trivia questions to warm people up and build rapport.

Dial into the meeting a few minutes early so other early birds won’t have to listen to hold music for too long. Start the meeting with a roll call so everyone knows who is present and then use the participants’ names as often as possible to keep their attention. Let the participants know that you are going to stick to the agenda and that any topic that exceeds time will be “parked” to be handled later. This can be tough for the leader because no one likes to interrupt an active conversation. Be kind, but firm, about moving on when the time is up. I’ve injected some fun into this task by using sound effects to signal that we’ve reached the end of a topic. A trumpeting elephant or an R2-D2 scream is a great way to tell someone to move on! I’ve also seen some teams designate a code word that anyone can use at any time when they feel a discussion has “gone off the rails” and should be parked.

Wrap up with a post-meeting email

After the meeting, be sure to send out some brief meeting notes, including the names of the participants, any parked topics that need to be finished, and a list of assigned tasks, owners, and due dates. It’s easy to lose track of these assignments and a follow-up email helps to avoid attending the next meeting only to discover no one made progress. You can include any presentation materials and a link to the recorded meeting as well, if available.

Virtual meetings are an effective way to coordinate with people who aren’t nearby, as well as save time and money by avoiding unnecessary travel. Near-term technologies like VoLTE/HD Voice in cell phones, and those further down the road like “holoportation”, will make virtual meetings even easier and more productive. Building this capability organizationally by adopting virtual-friendly policies and technologies, and taking the time to improve your personal virtual meeting skills, will ultimately give your organization more flexibility and make it a better place to work.