Cast your mind back to your last conference call or virtual meeting. When it was over, did you think that it had been the best use of your valuable time? Many leaders don’t think so. The good news is that there are simple ways to keep your virtual meetings effective and engaging.
The people I interviewed and surveyed for my recent book, Virtual Leadership, shared stories of virtual meetings and calls going awry. In this blog post, I will cover four of the most common problems, plus how to avoid them:
Meetings start late and overrun
A typical conference call starts a few minutes past the hour. I found this out from Pete Bennett, founder of Buzz Conferencing, who shared some of his company’s call statistics. He told me how, rather than starting on the hour as planned, he sees a huge spike a few minutes past the hour, as people join conference calls late. While virtual meetings don’t need people to travel, participants do need links and pin numbers. Often people only start looking for these at the meeting time itself, when they should be joining in and introducing themselves.
Another aspect causing delay is that leaders tend to pause the meeting to update late joiners. This gives the unfortunate impression that it’s perfectly acceptable to be late!
What can a virtual leader do here?
- Why start on the hour? Instead of a 12:00 noon meeting, why not start the meeting itself at 12:05? Invite people to join at noon if they can for a catch up. In some organisations, offering a bit of office gossip is so enticing for remote workers that everyone arrives by noon!
- Why finish on the hour? It just means that subsequent meetings will start late. Try planning a 12:55 finish. People will notice the difference and appreciate your thoughtfulness.
- Make sure you have a clear time plan for what you are going to cover and that everyone knows and agrees it.
- Stick to your plan! Develop a team way of working that doesn’t pander to late arrivals, which means that they are more likely to arrive on time in the future.
Only a few people are involved, while others stay silent
Engaging remote participants comes up as the biggest challenge of virtual working in all the surveys I have run! It’s very easy for remote participants in your meetings to be distracted by everything around them: their work e-mail, social media or even the latest game on their phone! Several people confessed to being present for the start of virtual meetings and then ‘checking out’ mentally until they heard their name. Then they’d respond: “Could you repeat the question please?” and only then be back in the meeting.
What can a virtual leader do to engage people better?
- I find polling really helpful. Let people know that you’ll be asking everyone for a short comment several times throughout the call: this is polling the group. It means that people will know they will be called and will be ready to answer.
- Give people a role in the meeting so that they are busy supporting you. Examples include: timekeeper and action taker.
- Make your virtual meetings more engaging! Use a shared screen, with visuals to draw people in. Use a virtual pen to annotate your slides as you go; it’s an option on PowerPoint that lots of people are unaware of. Add in video so that people can see body language.
- Create a team map showing all of the team members’ faces, names and contact details. It’s helpful to impose these on a map so that you can see everyone’s location and time zone.
Not covering the main points
I suspect that, like me, you’ve experienced a call where the leader jumped straight into the first topic, with very little introduction, and the meeting time was up before you had covered anything else. Too many virtual meetings lack a clear purpose, which means that they drift and run out of time before everything is covered.
What can a virtual leader do to make sure that the purpose is clear?
- Set a clear purpose. Use this to invite the right people to your meeting. Gain agreement at the start of your meeting, adjusting it if necessary.
- If things drift off on a tangent during your session, then intervene and remind people of the purpose you’ve agreed. This is much easier to do when everyone is really clear on what you’re meant to be doing!
Lack of focus on actions
Too many calls and virtual meetings end up achieving very little, because people are unsure as to what actions they need to do and not knowing how, or even if, their actions will be followed up. Often no one knows who volunteered to take particular actions on. This usually happens when a unidentified, disembodied voice volunteers and the leader is reluctant or forgets to ask who is speaking!
What can a virtual leader do to make sure that actions happen?
- In the introduction to your meeting, talk about how actions will be recorded and agreed during the session, as well as shared and followed up afterwards.
- If it is not clear who has volunteered to take an action on, intervene: ask who is speaking. Even better, encourage everyone on the call to state their name whenever they say anything. It takes some getting used to, but is very effective and helps new team members to know who is who.
- Have an effective, follow-up strategy for actions and agree how this will happen before you close the meeting.
Here’s my visual summary for how to start any virtual meeting effectively. Try these steps out today, along with my tips above, and you’ll notice just how effective virtual meetings can be.
If you would like a copy of Penny’s book, Virtual Leadership, then you can use the coupon code VLF20 to get 20% off and free P&P in the UK.