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Making Virtual Meetings Work

Globalization might be a horrible thing if you’re an auto worker in Detroit. If you’re a geek and an entrepreneur however, it means you can find Indian programmers without having to pay Silicon Valley prices. It means you can sell your services to buyers from London to Lanzhou.

And it means lots of meetings conducted over the phone and through teleconferences with people you might work with for years and never actually meet in person.

Making those sorts of meetings work so that everyone gets all the information they need — and leaves with a clear understanding of what needs to be done — can require some skill. Here are a few ways to get more in less time out your next virtual meeting:

Prepare Properly
Most face-to-face business meetings come with some preparation. The person who called the meeting usually creates an agenda. Even if that’s just a list of items he wants to cover, everyone can see he has one, what’s on it and no less importantly, how many items are on it.

Not all virtual meetings need to be that structured though. If, for example, a client just wants to know how you’re getting on with a project and discuss what the next stage will look like, you should still make sure you both know exactly the topics that you’ll need to cover. A quick email exchange in the days before the call can work wonders.

Use Visual References
One of the problems with virtual meetings is that each participant is seeing something different. That can be distracting and makes it hard to keep everyone focused on the same subject. One solution is to distribute visual aids that everyone keeps in front of them during the meeting.

An agenda in a Word document could be sufficient, but you could also try using one of the many online To Do list tools when discussing tasks that still need to be completed. When everyone is looking at the same page, it’s easy to forget you’re not in the same room.

Don’t Multitask
But looking at a screen is all you should be doing during a virtual meeting. While it’s true that the other people on the conference call can’t see you, it’s still rude to doodle while someone’s talking, check an email or catch up on the sports scores.

It’s harder to stay focused when you can’t see who’s talking. It’s even harder when you’re not giving all of your attention to what’s being said.

Make the Introductions… and Make Notes
Virtual meetings between two people are fairly straightforward. Things tend to get a bit harder when there are five or six people on the line. You might know one or two names but the others could be new, unfamiliar… and quickly forgotten, especially if they don’t say much during the meeting.

That’s a danger. Just because you haven’t spoken to someone before the call doesn’t mean you can think their input is going to be unimportant — which is often the temptation when coming in to a meeting like this. One solution is to make sure that introductions are made at the beginning of the meeting so that everyone understands who’s on the line and why they’re there.

But to make sure you don’t forget who’s there, take a note as you hear their name. Write down who they are and also jot down something that will help you to remember their voice so that you can match the name to the person. A number corresponding to the depth of their voice might help.

Use the Right Tools
There are all sorts of ways of holding virtual meetings these days. The phone is the simplest (although steer clear of mobiles — you want the people you’re meeting with sitting still); Skype is cheap but low-quality; and text messaging can be useful if all you need is a quick check-up and exchange of simple notes.

Timebridge is a neat tool that makes arranging the meeting very simple, but if you really want to splash out, the latest videoconferencing rooms actually put life-size digital images of the people you’re talking to around the same table. They cost up to $350,000… but as that will soon be the price of a barrel of oil, just think how much you’ll save in travel expenses.

Leave Time for Small Talk
This is particularly important for very small groups working together over a long period. Teams are strong because everyone knows each other and trusts each other. For teams that work virtually those sorts of bonds are much looser — and the team can be much less effective as a result.

You can either call into the conference line a few minutes early and chat while waiting for other people to come in, or you can leave a few minutes at the end of call to discuss any other business… and just shoot the breeze.

At the very least it will help to take the pain out of the meeting.

[tags] virtual meetings, long distance meetings [/tags]

One Comment

  1. Josh Says:

    There is a tool that is dedicated to scheduling virtual meetings. http://www.scheduleonce.com
    It was designed to work across time zones and even takes into account daylight saving changes for absolute accuracy.

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