How much time do you spend in in-person meetings? According to Atlassian (the makers of project planning software JIRA), most employees attend 62 meetings a month, and half of them are considered to be a waste of time – that’s 31 hours of every month spent in unproductive meetings.
What can you do to reduce those wasted hours in your life and your workplace? One possibility is to go virtual – and that’s a trend that’s on the rise in many organizations. In a Frost & Sullivan survey of C-level executives, web and video conferencing ranked high for awareness and usage. In fact, 85% of the respondents were aware of the benefits of web and video conferencing and 58% routinely use it within their companies.
Why Virtual Meetings?
The move to online meetings has multiple driving factors:
Reducing expenses. More companies are more distributed than ever before. Virtual meetings mean distributed teams can work together more easily, without incurring costs for airfares, hotels, rental cars, and meals, or wasting time in airport security lines.
Many companies are also reducing field salespeople and relying on inside sales teams. The inside sales rep can do a demo in a virtual meeting, going far beyond the impact of a phone call (and far under the budget of an in-person visit).
Convenience. Setting up an online meeting is easy. In many cases, you download the meeting software and integrate it with your email; now everything you need is on your desktop. You can skip the paraphernalia and devices of real-time meetings, such as projectors and paper presentations. You can schedule a meeting and invite attendees using this integrated system, and you can also host a meeting at the drop of a hat. Some solutions are cloud-based, in which case you need don’t need to install anything.
More effective than a conference call.
A virtual meeting is a much richer experience than a conference call in several key ways:
You can share your screen with attendees, so you can run a presentation or show documents, or discuss a graphic that you’re all seeing at the same time.
You may be able to display a live video of each attendee, so attendees can see each other.
Some services have whiteboards that attendees can share in real-time.
First Steps to a Virtual Meeting
Your first virtual meeting can be a little intimidating, especially if you’re the person hosting and facilitating one. There are multiple software providers to choose from and plenty of help available to get you started. Virtual meetings are designed to replace in-person meetings, but the preparation is different.
Start by planning. Determine the purpose of your meeting, your agenda, and who you want to invite. Some free services limit the number of participants, so be aware of any constraints. For your first meeting, start with a small group. You might facilitate a brief meeting about a project. Or, if an email string has gotten too long, you might hold a quick online meeting to resolve issues.
When you invite people, they may need to download a bit of software in order to join your meeting. This is a quick process and not a particular hardship for your attendees. Several software platforms have eliminated the need to download anything, and the invitation process is very similar to sending an email.
Virtual Software Options
You can begin with free software such as Google Hangouts or Skype if you’re just getting started. An Internet connection, desktop or mobile device, and a free account are all you need to participate. Also, check out Join.Me, a simple program that’s great for impromptu meetings. These freebies have a limited number of participants and time restrictions. Most are available as apps on Android and iOS devices.
Once you start holding regular meetings, you may want to upgrade to another provider with more options and higher quality audio and visuals, such as Citrix GoToMeeting or Cisco WebEx.
In an in-person meeting, you have the advantage of watching people’s body language to see how engaged they are. For a virtual meeting, you may (or may not) have the option of adding video. Your participants will be more engaged if you can find ways to make your meeting interactive. Make the connection personal and interactive by giving participants ways to engage:
Use whiteboards. Open a whiteboard, like the one in WebEx, to encourage interaction and collaboration. Share it so anyone in the meeting can add text, drawings, graphics, and more.
Use Google docs. If you’re working together to edit a document, for example, any attendee with access to the Google doc with editing privileges can work on it in full view of the others.
Include multiple presenters. Changing the speaker keeps people engaged – especially if they know they’re up next. Your virtual meeting solution should make it simple to change presenters and give control of the screen from one attendee to the next.
Many solutions let you record the audio and video of your meetings. That way, you can capture everything that happened and create transcripts if necessary, or share the recording with someone who missed the mee
Running Your Meeting
When you send your invites, attach handouts and information you plan to use in the meeting. Use a software platform that can easily integrate and/or attach your computer files, and this way you’ll have spreadsheets, presentations, and videos at your fingertips. You can easily manage additional presenters, participants, and even designate a chat moderator. Most menus are easy to navigate and positioned to help you use several meeting options.
When the meeting begins and everyone has joined, you may want to introduce everyone (or have them introduce themselves) so everyone feels included. A defined and detailed agenda is also a good idea. It helps eliminate dead space and keeps things moving.
As you move through the agenda, don’t assume a topic is finished and move on to the next item too soon. Wayne Turmel, an expert on virtual meetings and remote team management, suggests waiting at least five seconds before assuming participants have nothing more to say. Turmel claims that it actually takes people twice as long to process information in a virtual setting as in a traditional meeting room. If you are anxious about getting or keeping the conversation going, you can always plant someone to ask questions.
Some virtual meeting solutionslet you brand your meeting room, by allowing for proprietary designs, logos, and colors. Each time you enter it, previously used documents, recorded meetings, and information is ready for use.
In many virtual meeting environments, you will hear the term pods. These are display panels; you could think of them as a way to display several windows in your meeting room. They give you the utility to bring in a video or image instantaneously.
The Virtues of Video
Many companies are looking at video conferencing as a way to improve collaboration – especially for remote teams. The cost of enterprise video conferencing systems is going down, quality is improving, and people are becoming more comfortable with the technology. Video interactions can improve communications. For example, a long silence on one end of a phone might make you think the person you’re meeting with is unhappy with the last thing you just said. If you’re on a video conference, you would be able to see that they have been distracted – or that they’re smiling and nodding.
Practice your approach by using the features you plan to incorporate into your next presentation. For example, try using whiteboards, exchanging presenters, and sharing your entire desktop or only a certain program. It may feel different, but it’s the way the future is heading, and it’s changing the face of how people work and collaborate effectively.