The first thing to understand when conducting a "virtual meeting" is that it is not really a virtual meeting at all. The meeting is real, the business conducted at it is real, and the importance of the results is real. This is a real meeting that happens to be taking place in a virtual environment.
Much of what is good practice for virtual meetings is simply good meeting management practice - with the twist that without regular face-to-face contact, every interaction and every infraction is multiplied. It is helpful to consider the meeting in three ways - pre-meeting, during the meeting, and post-meeting.
Before the meeting begins, there are certain decisions that will facilitate its success. Ask yourself:
Once all of these questions have been asked, answered, and communicated, you are ready to attend the meeting.
- What venue do we want to use(conference call, web-based meeting, teleconference, etc.)?
- What technology do we need? Are we sure that everyone has that available?
- Who are the appropriate participants and how should they be invited?
- What time will the meeting be held - and how do we define time if participants are in multiple time zones?
- In what language will the meeting be conducted? Will that make it difficult for some participants? Is there something we can do to lessen the difficulty?
- How will questions be asked and answered during the meeting? You cannot see someone´s raised hand or quizzical facial expression during a virtual meeting.
- Are there any materials the participants will need that should be emailed, faxed, or express-mailed to them? Do not depend solely on Internet connections. In many areas of the world, these connections are not as reliable as they are in Silicon Valley. Even the most reliable connection goes down occasionally, and then the participant is left without the necessary information. In a face-to-face meeting, attendees can share or quickly make another copy. This is not as easy in a virtual environment.
During the Meeting
Try to call in or log on a few minutes early to ensure that the technology is properly set up and working. Start the meeting with a quick check-in so that everyone attending knows who else is there and that the connections are adequate. Unless this is a small meeting where all participants are well-acquainted, ask participants to identify themselves every time they talk. While keeping as close as possible to the published agenda:
Always keep in mind the fact that you will not have the benefit of seeing the attendees. If there are questions or concerns about an item, you will need to ask questions or create a process that gets to them without relying on facial expressions or body language.
- be as precise as possible
- give examples
- verify your understanding
- recap and summarize often
- use "round robin" technique when appropriate and when you need to ensure everyone´s opinion is stated
- use electronic tools only as necessary and not because they are fun to play with
- refer to slide number or page number if you are using a previously sent presentation
- ask "What questions do you have?" instead of "Are there any questions?"
The meeting is not over as soon as participants hang up the phone or log off. Sending notes out shortly after the meeting helps ensure that everyone has the same understanding of what happened and what will happen next. Well-documented decisions and actions items with clear time frames help people know how to proceed once they have disconnected from the meeting. This will minimize mis-communication and the possibility that someone will put in a lot of work on the wrong action item.
As I said in the opening, virtual people do not attend virtual meetings - real people do. The more you can help these real people be successful even when located many time zones away from each other, the more willing and able they will be to attend future meetings and take on additional responsibilities.