How to Plan a Virtual Meeting

It’s likely be the norm where you work to have remote participants joining analysis workshops and project team meetings via phone or web conferencing tools. Has this changed the way that you plan and conduct a meeting? Of course.  Do you plan your teleconferences as if the Board of Directors were on the phone?  Probably not, but it might be a good image to keep in mind if your analysis efforts with remote participants aren’t going as well as you’d hoped.   

Not long ago I worked for an international corporation where this was the case; the standard practice for a meeting leader was to set up a phone conference link for those who couldn’t be there in person, and participants might also receive a set of supporting slides e-mailed in advance to help follow along.  An agenda was carefully crafted, electronic invitations sent & attendance confirmed, and meeting notes distributed religiously within 2 days. So why did remote participants often feel disengaged, or worse, not show up?  Why was it difficult for them to follow along with the conversation? Why were they unsure afterward what decisions had been made and by whom?

Strategies for Planning the Virtual Meeting

Conducting a virtual meeting well is about taking extra measures to plan and orchestrate an engaging collaborative process.

When facing the communications and technology challenges of working with remote trainees or clients, satellite offices, or a distributed team, I’ve learned to plan the meeting as if everyone were remote, with higher attention to certain details:

  1. Consider the focus of the meeting or workshop. Is it for sharing information? Analysis?  Generating Ideas? Decision-Making?  Networking?  Use phone, teleconference, and video conference for relationship-building; use e-mail when simply passing information along. Each type of activity requires different ground rules, questions, process, and method of recording. When you meet face-to-face these things tend to be more ad hoc and can be easily supported by flipcharts & sticky notes, but in the virtual world special consideration should be given to support tools that make the activity inclusive for all participants.
  2. Minimize duration & maximize value. It’s just plain abuse to schedule people for a multi-hour phone or web meeting.  Unable to read non-verbal cues, it’s common for remote participants to experience impatience, discomfort, lapses in attention, and feelings of isolation.  Place the highest value on interactive live time. You can use multiple short meetings along with pre-work & post-work to complete your mission.
  3. Involve everyone – create a collaborative spirit among those who will participate. A vested interest in the meeting & outcome increases value to participants.   Personalize the meeting by soliciting needs, issues, news from the intended participants. If time doesn’t permit doing this in advance, use an opening question that builds an agenda together, targeting results that participants highly value.  For example, start a meeting with a brief overview state-of-affairs, then find out what’s top-most on their minds by asking participants “What is most important to address here and Why?”.   You’ll hear what is tops on their mind – where they see value, which may not be the same as your own priorities.  Use what you learn to craft an action plan and agenda, making sure the participants’ input is reflected in the content & expected deliverables for the live session(s). Don’t forget to build time into your agenda for personal introductions, and for remote participants to socialize & network if that fits the setting. (Joan discusses this topic further in her article How to Get More Participation in a Virtual Requirements Meeting.)

Your Role as Virtual Meeting Planner

When you lead a virtual analysis meeting you are taking on broader responsibilities as Coordinator, Facilitator, and Recorder.

  • In your Coordinator role you will need to determine the meeting’s purpose and who should attend.  Orchestrating the invitation process will also include links that enable Attendees to easily dial into the conference call or link to the web conference.  You will probably want to electronically distribute any supporting materials in advance, just in case issues arise with web access.
  • In your Facilitator role you will take responsibility for engaging the Attendees, before, during and after the live meeting.  Plan how your participants will warm up and build trust in the first few minutes of their collaborative interactions. Be a welcoming, charming host to your virtual group, creating space for genuine interactions.  Although somewhat counterintuitive, you will want to let go of control, building  on value that the TEAM can deliver. However as moderator of a discussion with no visual cues, you will need to learn to interrupt gracefully when it’s time to move on.
  • In your Recorder role you will need to be prepared to take shared notes, trigger spontaneous polling to take the temperature of your group, synthesize dialogue into bullet points on a shared whiteboard, or share a diagramming application to build models on the fly.  Smooth use of support tools is critical to this role, so you’ll want to practice in advance with a 2nd remote workstation in view to be sure the Audience will see what you see.

Expand your skill set to better engage remote participants, make them WANT to show up for your uniquely collaborative meetings.  Don’t miss an opportunity to increase participation by using tools that encourage input from everyone. Make it easy for them to follow along with a dynamic, real-time, shared record of what’s going on.  Emphasize progress with checkpoints and frequent recaps of decision-making activities and outcomes.   Finally, follow through after the meeting, personally shepherding activities as needed to ensure everyone satisfies the commitments they made together. Your value-centered approach will build trust and credibility among your virtual collaborators.

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Comments

  1. Thanks Morten. Great questions. The experts say no more than an hour’s duration for a meeting with people on the phone; if that’s not possible be sure to build in breaks to allow attendees to deal with distractions and attention deficit. As for types of meetings, think about collaboration topics that will build up the value of your time together. Where it’s necessary to consult and explore, include those topics on the agenda. Pure reporting – such as status, information sharing, etc. – is not really an effective use of meeting time. Instead, distribute the information in advance, and then solicit issues, impacts, and other discussion topics for inclusion in the virtual meeting agenda.

  2. Morten Dybdahl says

    Hi,

    Very good article Joan. I agree that sucess is related to presenters ability to engage and manage the tools. From your experience, what is the ideal duration of a Virtual meeting? Are there types of meetings (information, status etc) that are more suitable than others, how would you rank them?

    Txs.

    Morten

  3. Thanks for taking the time to say so. “Transition” is all about sharing ideas. Please get in touch if you’d like to collaborate on your next virtual meeting plan.

  4. In Transition says

    Good post!

    We often neglect the basics we need to follow..and I like your idea of having digital photos of the virtual meeting attendees into the PP slide!

  5. You’re welcome – I’m glad you found the information helpful. Try this if you’re able to collect digital photos of your virtual meeting attendees; a neat trick is to paste them into a PowerPoint slide, as if seated around a table, complete with names & any important bio information. Share the slide before your meeting and during the introductions to make everyone feel more present. You can also use that to support a “round robin” inquiry, going around the virtual table to collect input from each individual.

  6. Thanks a lot for this post, im always trying to figure out best practices for virtual meetings.

  7. Thanks for your comment. I agree, without taking extra care to be inclusive, remote attendees often feel disenfranchised. What tactics have helped to make your virtual meetings more engaging?

  8. Nice article…. explaining some of the very basics and obvious things but usually people don’t to follow these which in the end result lack of interest of attendees and meeting failure…

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