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Better Virtual Meetings: how to Make Things Work.

Today, the corporate world sits in more meetings than ever before. Executives report they are spending at least half of their time in meetings. With extensive use of remote work and home office, many meetings have been moved from the conference room to the online platforms. Initially, many hoped to be lucky to escape the office meeting madness, just to find themselves in the completely new dimension of long, tedious, boring and unproductive video calls.

For many employees, online meetings are turning into extensive, dreadful and frustrating waste of time. At the same time, online meetings are the only way to have a direct personal collaboration on a distributed team. They are essential for creating conditions for teamwork, decision making, creativity, and innovation, fostering relationships and ensuring proper information exchange.

Direct personal interaction in virtual teams through online meetings is essential for the following reasons:

–           We are social species. We crave contact to others for support, wellbeing and entertainment. Direct interaction helps people feel included, trusted, and important, as well as giving the team members the opportunity to contribute to the mutual success. Emphasis on task completion and the reliance on the digital tools generally increases on virtual teams; however, the quality of personal interactions should still come first. Positive personal interactions increase motivation, create positive morale and improve work satisfaction.

–          A great deal of our signals and reactions are non-verbal. Facial expressions, body language, and gestures are only observable in meetings. If you have enough bandwidth and good videocams, tacit non-verbal clues can be picked up even in the technology-assisted setting. But emails and chats can’t do that for us and the use of emoticons is one very limited way to smile or frown, but they do not reflect spontaneous excitement or disappointment in real time. Why is it important to pick up emotions? That is how we build trust. The more trust, the more open are we to the arguments of the team members, not the other way around.

–           In case of misunderstanding or confusion, virtual interaction is the quickest and most resource-friendly way to resolve a conflict. Conflicts have always a personal side to them, it is never “just the thing”.

–           Connect on the mission. Mission is not simply a sentence on your corporate webpage. It is an emotion. Shared emotions can only be created in a shared space.

–           Speed up the team dynamic. To go through forming, storming and norming to the productive stage of performance takes longer on a remote team. Use regular meetings to be aware of where the team is and where it should be and manage the process accordingly.

–           Mentoring and coaching would just not work over a workflow. Opportunities for personal growth can only be given and taken personally.

–           A creativity boost. By working together, your team members can come up with new ideas – ideas, they wouldn’t have come up with on their own. Don’t turn every meeting into a brainstorming session, but always make space for discussion and reflection.

Having in mind all these reasons for why virtual meetings are essential, they still can be a dreadful waste of time, money and human resources. There is nothing more frustrating than to feel like drowning in work, having the mailbox full of important pending decisions, needing time for a concentrated deep dive, but instead, to be stuck in continuous hours of consecutive boring meetings.

How come? What specifically can go wrong in online meetings?

–          In today’s corporate world, meetings are not only too many, but they are also too long. They often exceed the time they were planned to last, leaving the participants running late for yet another meeting.

–          Many meetings lack focus and are not productive. Our minds tend to wander away if we are not actively concentrating on the task at hand. When lacking focus, the quality of participation drops and it takes longer to go through the agenda. This happens in the face-to-face meetings as well, but in the online meetings people are known to not only be thought-distracted, but actually trying to concentrate on other things, like writing emails or skimming reports after having turned off the videocam or having muted the mic.

No wonder that reaching the purpose of the meeting is a challenge, as long as there is one to begin with. Additional challenges are lack of organisation and structure, absence of the required participants, too many participants and lack of clear facilitation.

Luckily, with some effort and good focus, all of these challenges can be tackled. And for the purpose of successful and constructive collaboration it is compelling to develop a productive meeting culture, and to use the collective and individual work time effectively.

To meet or not to meet?

You should consider not having a meeting if you:

  • Need a few answers from specific people, but not a discussion.
  • Just want to collect feedback, survey or individual opinions.
  • Need to disseminate information, including official announcements or status updates.

Meet often and well.

To make the most out of the meetings and not to waste anyone’s time there are some simple principles that should be applied (by the way, these would also help in face-to-face meetings):

  1. Always have a clear goal and agenda for the meeting. Send to the participants beforehand, so they can prepare.
  2. Invite only people, who can contribute. There is nothing more frustrating, than to be stuck in a meeting you can’t contribute to. 
  3. No meeting without clear facilitation. Follow the schedule and allow as much free flow or a strict structure, as the goal requires.  Get an outside facilitator, if you like to have it in the professional hand.
  4. Use video and collaboration tools for active participation and co-creation. There are still so many online meetings done via a dial in. Avoid the dial-in connection in favour of video whenever you can and always prefer a shared screen to sending the documents via email or WhatsApp while in a meeting.
  5. Focus on optimising processes and workflows. Clear roles, well defined tasks, structured process for reporting and information dissemination and efficient use of corresponding tools can save many hours’ worth of meetings.
  6. Start on time and end on time and check your technology beforehand, as it still remains the main reason for the delayed beginning. Demonstrate respectful attitude and commitment by being on time and making sure to have good bandwidth.
  7. Be prepared. The inner peace that it provides to be prepared sets you free to improvise and use your lateral thinking skills to find new solutions.
  8. No meeting without minutes – preferably answering who does what, when, how well and with what resources. Do it on the post-its, whiteboard, collaboration tool or wherever you like it. This is the part, where virtual teams have a clear advantage comparing to the collocated teams: share the screen and let everyone see in real time what you are agreeing upon. Forget the tedious protocol tuning in the aftermath.
  9. No minutes without a follow-up. Activate the tasks directly in the meetings – tag people who are responsible, set calendar invites and update project deadlines on the spot. This leaves no room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation from any of the participants.
  10. Add a personal touch to each meeting. A smalltalk at the beginning, while others are joining, a quick mood-board, a happy story or a joke of the day. It takes very little time and has great effects on the openness, trust, motivation and the team gravity and gives an additional motivation drive. A positive team atmosphere is essential to achieving great results. Be ready to laugh and take your work seriously at the same time.
  11. Keep them short, productive and engaging. Choose your format, be it a 15-minute “daily” or a 90-minute workshop, keep them as short as possible, but not shorter.

Make it work

The above tweaks for better meetings are all so straightforward. And our executives are intelligent and organised individuals and team players. Then why can’t this corporate meeting madness just be stopped? We spend so much time in the meetings and the simple knowing, that a meeting needs an agenda, that only the necessary participants should be present and those should come prepared is just not enough.

Changing organisational behavioural patterns takes time and discipline. Your work towards a better meeting culture starts with good intentions and continues with constant work, adjustments and improvements. The tips and tweaks of this article are straightforward, but the success of the implementation depends on your commitment, the commitment of your organisation, the consistency of action and constant reflection.

What are the specific steps?

  1. Create KPIs and action points, set challenging but achievable goals – for example, average of not more than total of 3 hours of meetings per day to be achieved before the end of the month. Not more than 6 participants per meeting. No meeting exceeding 90 minutes, etc.
  2. Measure the progress: On how many days and for how many meetings have we achieved the goal?
  3. Collect the feedback from the participants at the end of each meeting. Keep your survey easy and quick – there are tools, that will help you collect feedback in seconds:
    • Did you perceive this meeting as necessary?
    • Could you contribute your best? If no – what would you like to improve for the next time?
    • Was the goal of the meeting clear? Have we succeeded reaching it?
    • Do you perceive this meeting as a good time investment? If not – what would be a better way?
  4. My final tip – get a good team coach. A professional from outside your organisation can help to enforce commitment, evaluate progress, and continuously reflect on the achieved results.

If you have an open, collaborative and participative meeting culture, you should be able to improve from one meeting to the other. If not – there is more, what your team needs to work on, besides reducing the number of meetings.

What is the meeting culture in your organisation like? Feel free to share your story.

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