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These days millions of virtual meetings are taking place. Due to the special situation created by the COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing, the familiar physical meeting gives way to its virtual counterpart, which can be conducted with the help of various tools such as Zoom, Google Hangout, Skype etc.
This is an opportunity! For many people, virtual meetings are a new medium and this change can be used to consciously improve the meeting culture and to think about what makes a productive and satisfying meeting - whether virtual or physical.
This article summarizes important success factors for virtual meetings to make them productive with employees, customers or other business partners.
Follow the same etiquette as in "real life"
We have all sat in unsatisfactory physical meetings because certain rules of etiquette have been neglected. Now that virtual meetings are being tried out by many as a new format, this is an opportunity to reflect on certain basic principles and actively enforce them, such as:
- Share a clear agenda and objectives with all participants before the meeting. This may include sending a handout as a base for discussion.
- Undistracted presence during the meeting and conscientious preparation of the meeting (e.g. reading the background information sent previously).
- Clarifying basic rules and role allocation in the meeting (more on that below).
- Do not hold unnecessarily long presentations or monologues. Discuss and collaborate.
- Make decisions and next steps explicit and summarize them at least at the end of the meeting. After the meeting, everyone must know what has been achieved and who has to do what with what deadline.
Additional basic rules for virtual meetings
In addition to the basic rules of etiquette mentioned above, certain basic rules apply especially in virtual meetings. Here are a few examples:
- Be early: Dial into the virtual meeting a few minutes early to make sure everything is working. This way, everyone will be present on time and the meeting can start as planned.
- Use a headset: In general, the sound quality of a standard pair of headphones with a microphone, which comes with most smartphones, is better than the quality of the built-in microphones of computers.
- Appoint a moderator / facilitator who is responsible for leading the meeting, keeping track of time, and ensuring that all participants have their say. This is especially important because the attention span in virtual meetings is even shorter than in physical meetings. Appointing such a role to a person allows other participants to focus more on the content of the meeting.
- Mute: Every meeting tool has a function to mute the microphone. The rule is: If you are not speaking, set your microphone to mute to allow discussions without any noise.
- In virtual meetings latencies or delays in voice transmission can occur. This makes it all the more important to let people finish their statement and not to react too quickly. Let a second pass quietly to recognize that the other person has finished speaking.
- Address questions or comments directly to people and call people by name. This way it is immediately clear who has to return from mute mode and who must speak next.
- At the beginning of a discussion, a round of opening statements from all participants is appropriate, so that everyone has been activated and people don’t start in the meeting passively.
- You have to be more explicit and clear in your communication than in an offline meeting. For example, you need to clearly describe which documents you are referring to and so on (see importance of screen sharing below). When in doubt, it is better to be too explicit than too little.
- It will inevitably happen from time to time that the connection breaks down or only fragments of other people's statements are understood. This makes it all the more important to verify key statements by repeating the statement in your own words. This technique applies to any form of successful communication - whether offline or online!
- And also, a classic for any kind of thoughtful and respectful collaboration: no multitasking!
The right tool for the meeting
Important features are video conference calls, a chat function and the possibility to share your own screen. Tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts and others offer all these features.
- Use video whenever possible: A video conference strengthens the feeling of being in the same meeting and provides more presence in the meeting.
- Nevertheless, it must of course always be possible to dial in by telephone and share the relevant information. Please do your meeting colleagues a favor and take the time to highlight the relevant information (usually a URL, telephone number and PIN code) in the calendar invite.
- Screen sharing: This refers to sharing / mirroring your own screen. For example, this function allows all meeting participants to see and react to the same document. Screen sharing is an extremely important function because it allows everyone to talk about the same thing and prevents misunderstandings and confusion.
Virtualize everything you know from a successful physical meeting
When we think of a productive physical meeting, a tool for keeping track of feedback, opinions, statements (e.g. a flipchart or whiteboard) almost always plays an essential role. Such things also need to be virtualized so that important content can be captured in real time during the virtual meeting. A cloud-based document (Office 365, Google Doc etc.) can be used for this purpose, or tools such as Mural.
It's important to test it beforehand, for example to ensure that everyone has access to the relevant documents during the meeting. Links to such documents or tools are also important and should be highlighted in the calendar invite or shared with all participants in the chat function during the meeting.
Test before the meeting
The moderator should be sure 5-10 minutes before the video call or virtual meeting that everything works and that the meeting can start without technical problems and proceed as planned (e.g. test screen sharing, since this feature sometimes requires adjustments in the privacy settings of the computer).
All participants should also familiarize themselves with the tool before the meeting starts. If you are using a tool such as Zoom, Skype etc. for the first time, you should hold a test meeting at a separate time to familiarize yourself with the tool or watch some tutorial videos on YouTube.
Structure of a virtual meeting
Of course, the topics discussed in virtual meetings are always different. However, a few principles for the structure of a virtual meeting are universally useful, such as:
- Start the meeting with a brief explanation of the basic rules (see above), followed by a short introduction of participants (if necessary) and a check-in: In the current special situation it is very likely that people are not only thinking about work, but also about e.g. childcare due to closed schools, the health situation of a family member etc. Currently, many fellow human beings are experiencing uncertainty. Allow the group a few minutes in the call to exchange experiences. There is no point in ignoring the elephant in the room. This opening also has the positive side effect that it humanizes the setting and activates all meeting participants.
- Use the first few minutes to make the situation or problem clear to everyone and to repeat the goals of the meeting. All participants must start from the same point. A memo sent before the meeting is a good way to prepare for this. Its key messages can be repeated at the beginning of the meeting.
- Include regular feedback or question sessions where all participants have their say. This ensures that participants do not slip into a passive observer role. It is recommended to include such active sections every 5-10 minutes when planning the meeting.
- Finally, involve all participants in order to conclude with key statements or open questions and to find out where there is room for improvement in the course of a virtual meeting.
I hope that these tips will ensure productive and satisfying virtual meetings for you despite the special situation and perhaps the conscious examination of the virtual meeting culture will also have a positive effect in the physical meeting room.
Finally, you have earned an amusing video on how an (undisciplined) virtual meeting would look like in real life.
You can do better than them!