Videoconferencing has become real life. Due to the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing, it seems like we spend more time in those grids of poorly-lit, front-facing camera shots than not. Everything from religious services to Saturday Night Live has been turned into a virtual meeting. And with the increased usage and importance, some are struggling to catch up with best practices.
In many ways, a successful virtual meeting requires all the same things as a successful in-person meeting, but even moreso. More planning, more communication, and more efficiency, because everyone is working under increased technical restrictions. But with a few simple considerations, you can become a virtual meeting master.
Plan Virtual Meetings in Advance
An unplanned in-person meeting can quickly turn into a nightmare. People are unavailable, then no one can find an available meeting room, then no one knows what the meeting is about, then people are running back to their desks or rummaging through email for necessary materials, and finally, your time is up. An unplanned virtual meeting can be the same.
Hopefully, your company has already established infrastructure and expectations for working from home. If not, at least 24 hours ahead of time, make sure people know the following for the meeting:
- The time, with the time zone, clearly noted (for those in other time zones)
- The estimated duration
- The link or room code to enter the virtual meeting
- The website/app being used and whether it requires a download
- A clear agenda with a purpose and objectives
- What materials and/or input will be required of them personally
Have Everyone Log On 5–10 Minutes Early
Despite your best efforts, some attendees will only discover that they don’t have meeting functionality when they attempt to log on. With a 10-minute buffer window, you may be able to resolve technical issues in time to keep the meeting on schedule.
All it takes is one unmuted user to ruin a call for dozens or even hundreds of meeting attendees. Ever listened to someone type and order lunch for 20 minutes while the rest of you try to learn about important updates? To be safe, mute everyone on the call except the meeting leader. Take questions through the chat program, and then unmute users as needed.
Stick to the Agenda
Meetings should be planned thoroughly to respect everyone’s time and minimize tangents. With the technical challenges and physical distance, it is even more likely for online meetings to get interrupted or distracted. So do your best to stick to the agenda you distributed before the meeting.
Call on Specific People With Specific Questions (And Include Everyone)
Minimizing group participation doesn’t mean you should cut it out completely. Just the opposite—virtual meetings require even more of an effort to foster the sense of team that is lost due to physical separation. So make sure that many people get a chance to speak.
However, asking for open discussion in a conference call can lead to incoherence and talking over one another. And it will be even harder to get back on track than when this happens in an in-person meeting. So call on specific people with specific questions. This approach is also a great way to include attendees who have trouble volunteering to speak but still have important input. You can also begin the meeting with introductions and icebreakers—but again, call on specific people.
Appoint a Facilitator
You will have your hands full running the meeting, so it can be helpful to appoint a facilitator for the technical aspects of the meeting. The facilitator is in charge of the preceding tips, like making sure attendees are muted and unmuted, dealing with software and hardware problems, and keeping the meeting on topic. Who knows, your facilitator might become a quarantine celebrity.
Look Your Best
Work-from-home doesn’t have to mean spending all day in your pajamas (in fact, you’ll be more productive and rested if you try to keep your normal personal and work routines). So get dressed as you would to lead a meeting in your office.
Looking good in a virtual meeting also has a technical aspect. And this isn’t just vanity: If your image is distracting, your coworkers might lose your message. To get the best image on a virtual meeting:
- Sit facing an indirect light source, like a lamp with a lampshade. Don’t have a light source directly behind you facing the camera. (Windows are a common problem here.)
- Have the camera at eye level. Putting your laptop on your lap could give coworkers a view straight up your nose, and anything above your hairline can also produce unflattering angles.
- Don’t be too close or too far from the camera. The frame should include your whole face and shoulders with room around them.
Use Visual Aids
Keeping attendees engaged when they can easily check email or do other work is one of the challenges of virtual meetings. PowerPoints, graphs, and other visual aids can help keep people’s attention. It is worth it to figure out your videoconferencing platform’s screen share function, even if it means adding another layer of difficulty to your presentation.
Follow Up with Notes and Action Points
Many a good meeting has floundered on follow up. After the meeting, compile the notes, visual aids, and, most importantly, the action points, and email them to all of the attendees. Contact individuals if needed to ensure they know what they need to do and by when as a result of the meeting.
Enacting even half of these tips will improve your virtual meetings greatly. You might even find that you need fewer in-person meetings when life gets back to normal.