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Kevan Hall

Global Integration


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Have virtual meetings made our meetings worse?


An increasing proportion of our meetings are virtual - through tools such as videoconference, conference calls, WebEx and Skype. As the number of tools proliferate it is becoming increasingly clear that meetings’ facilitators often lack the skills to plan and run re-engaging virtual meetings.

Meetings are essential to effective collaboration and decision making and, as business becomes ever more collaborative, the number of meetings is increasing. Virtual meetings are an essential component of this and have made a big impact on reducing the cost of meetings.

However, because virtual meetings are less expensive and easier to set up they are often less well-planned and badly run. It would be a shame if the efficiency savings offered by technology were wasted in a rise in unnecessary disengaging virtual meetings.

A survey by RoperASW and Tandberg sampled 625 business professionals in US, UK, Norway, Germany and Hong Kong. They asked them what else they were doing while attending audio conferences versus face-to-face meetings:

During audio conferences

During face-to-face meetings

23% gave full attention55% gave full attention
27% did other work5% did other work
25% did or checked emails3% checked or did emails
13% surfed the web1% surfed the web
13% daydreamed15% daydreamed

This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the quality of either. We’ve all had the experience of sitting in a conference call or webinar and enduring a boring presentation where we have no role or no opportunity to interact.

In “Kill Bad Meetings” authors Kevan and Alan Hall identify some key principles for radically improving virtual meetings.

1. Focus on relevance

When planning any form of meeting, but particularly a virtual meeting, we need to make sure that the topic is relevant to the audience and requires a live meeting to deal with.

Some of the classic pitfalls to avoid include:

  • topics where the audience has no role but to listen (why not send an email instead?)
  • topics that are relevant only to a subset of the audience (why not have a smaller meeting)
  • activity and status updates only relevant to one individual and the meeting leader (why not use shared files or one-to-one calls instead)

The authors introduce a simple but systematic process for identifying unnecessary topics and unnecessary participants in your meetings.

2. Get trained in the technology you already have

We recently attended a conference session on artificial intelligence and digital leadership. Speakers discussed the development of sophisticated decision support tools and how this would augment the practice of leadership and collaboration. At the same time, we noted that most people didn’t really know how to use Excel, the spreadsheet they use every day. The same applies to collaboration technology.

When we run highly interactive webinars it is very evident that the vast majority of people have never seen WebEx or Skype used this way and are not familiar with the many collaboration tools available in the technology. You can learn to use these tools very quickly and when you plan a webinar with frequent opportunities for the audience to interact and participate you usually get a very positive response.

Your organisation has probably already invested in collaboration and communication tools. Get trained in how to use them! Until you overcome this technological barrier it’s hard to progress to the real challenge, which is how to create engagement virtually.

3. Start with the participant experience

A virtual meeting usually has one chairperson or facilitator and many attendees. Most traditional meetings training focuses on the facilitator; we spend most of our time thinking about the participant experience which represents a much bigger proportion of the total time spent in the meeting and also massively increases the probability that you will meet your planned outcome for the meeting.

Because one’s attention can easily wander in virtual meetings and because there are fewer social cues to make people pay attention, we’ve learned in our “compelling virtual facilitation” training that we need to give an opportunity to interact regularly.

In a tool like WebEx there are many opportunities to do this. Here are 10 of them:

  1. Asking questions by name – particularly from people you haven’t heard from yet
  2. Polling - live surveys and questions
  3. Voting – through "raise your hand" or yes/no functions
  4. Subgroups – creating subgroups with separate call in numbers
  5. Annotation tools – ask participants to use pens, text, shapes, highlighting and other interactions on screen
  6. Hand over control – let individuals control the screen and share content
  7. Take regular breaks – at least once per hour
  8. Enable questions – use chat to encourage questions
  9. Use materials that call for interaction - get participants to fill in slides, use their pointer or annotation tools and type answers to questions so that they have some physical activity to perform rather than falling back into the passive viewing of content that someone else has created
  10. Integrate other media - sharing documents in advance and setting up a social space to continue the discussion and ask questions afterwards.

As you design your meeting, build a variety of these into the process; you should plan to engage early and then every four or five minutes to keep attention and engagement.

As virtual meetings become more common and the number of tools available grow, now is the time to take control of your virtual meetings, to focus them on relevant content, master the technology and learn to design and run really engaging online sessions.

Kill Bad Meetings is available now, priced at £20.00.

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