Online meetings more effective than physical meetings?
Online meetings more effective than physical meetings?
Many of us have been meeting remotely for a long while now. This year however, the pandemic has given added momentum to this format, and now most of our meetings are probably taking place online
Both physical and online meetings are based on interaction between people, but how should we interact remotely? Much of our communication is non-verbal, such as body language, tone-of-voice facial expression, etc. All these signals are naturally communicated in a physical meeting, but in an online meeting it is more difficult and both meeting leaders and participants must help each other to compensate for what is lost. This challenges often lead to online meetings being prepared and conducted with more care than conventional meetings, which can lead to online meetings actually being better and more effective than physical meetings. We simply become a better version of ourselves in well-prepared and conducted online meetings.
Here we have gathered together some tips and advice for successful online meetings. The tips are many, and some may fit perfectly while others may not be appropriate. Take what suits you and feel free to contact us at Wenell with questions, comments or other suggestions.
Prepare the meeting
All meetings ought to be prepared properly, but online meetings deserve extra care. A smooth online meeting gives a professional impression and can energize participants.
Checklist for preparing an online meeting:
- Set a clear goal for the meeting so that all participants can easily understand what the outcome of the meeting is intended to be. Don’t overload by setting too many goals, it would be better in that case to divide up into separate, shorter meetings.
- Agenda – with times! The agenda gives participants the opportunity to prepare – the timings help to give participants an overview. You should indicate the speaker for each item, if relevant. Try to engage participants by assigning roles and responsibilities in the group.
- Preparation materials. Start from the agenda and see if you can help participants prepare – can they watch a video? Listen to a pod? Read, or pre-read material? Interview a colleague, perhaps?
- Is the technical platform already available or do you need to choose one? Depending on the meeting, the choice of technology is affected – in order to inform and engage participants, presentation is most important (e.g. Zoom), but where participants need to work together in shared documents, etc., then functionality weighs heavier ( e.g. Microsoft teams).
- Does everyone have the correct version of software to be used?
- Does everyone have all the appropriate hardware (computer/tablet/phone) suitable for the chosen software?
- Does everyone have a webcam?
- Make sure that there are fallback options e.g. to call in to the meeting in case of technical problems.
- If possible, get portrait images of all participants.
- Make sure to have details of all participants – phone numbers, email addresses, city, country, time zone. Draw a simple sketch/map of where participants are located. This is often good support during a meeting and notes can be made directly onto this.
- Prepare role distribution – who takes notes, who keeps track of breaks, who keeps track of participant who leave/rejoin, etc.
Invite to the meeting in good time and also send out any useful information and/or preparatory tasks. Instructions for using the technical platform should be super-clear. Attach instructions — preferably with screenshots — showing how participants should sign in/connect, if they need to make changes to settings (common with, for example Microsoft Teams, where different organizations may have implemented differently).
If it is the first time the participants are meeting, it may be appropriate to attach a brief personal summary of the participants, or better yet: ask the participants to introduce themselves to each other before the meeting and feedback to other people’s presentations so that the networking within the group can start before the meeting itself. This is particularly true if the group is to work together for a longer period of time.
Will some participants meet physically, and some participate online? In which case, still call everyone to the online meeting so people can participate even if some unexpected obstacle pops up and prevents them from attending physically.
Some applications, such as Microsoft Teams require the invitation to be made through the application itself, rather than via an Outlook placeholder, in order for all functionality to be used.
Send out rules for online meetings
Make sure you can concentrate on leading the meeting – try out the technology several times beforehand so you feel confident with how it works and stay updated with any changes. Make sure you feel safe with your backup solution (Phone). Do you want support with the technology? Book such support and be sure to have their correct contact details and/or invite them person to the meeting.
Be sure to create free time in your calendar both before and after the meeting. The way you lead the meeting has a huge impact on the other participants – make sure you are in the best shape possible. You know yourself best in this respect – some people may like to take a short walk, others meditate – do whatever works for you.
Start in a clear and friendly way
Encourage participants to connect about 15 minutes before the advertised start time of the meeting to check that all the technology is working and feels comfortable. Also encourage social small-talk during this time – at a physical meeting you meet at the coffee machine and talk about what it was like last weekend. This small-talk is an important social lubricant that need not be lost just because meetings take place online.
Start the meeting on time by letting the participants introduce themselves, include something personal so that everyone can easily find something to say. If there are participants without webcam, put their portrait picture as they introduce themselves.
Repeat the goals of the meeting, go through the norms and rules for the meeting and the agenda, and inform that the meeting will end with a short evaluation of the work done, including assessing their own participation.
During the meeting, make sure that you stick to the agenda with specified times, that everyone is being heard and that there is a reasonable balance of conversation. If it is a large meeting, this management can be shared by two people – one who focuses on the subject and moves the discussion forward, and a colleague who monitors the balance of conversation so that no one ends up being excluded. This kind of control is greatly facilitated by having clear meeting rules.
Make sure the participants are focused on the meeting and do not deal with other things, like email, googling, surfing, etc. The best way to do this is of course, to make sure that the meeting is so good that everyone feels it’s meaningful and time-efficient to be there. You must therefore break up discussions early that are only involving two participants, as the others may otherwise lose focus – you can ask those two to agree on a separate meeting and to report back to you. If you know in advance that some questions may come up that don’t concern everyone, consider whether you should split into smaller groups on these occasions, or put this point last on the agenda, so that those who are not affected can leave the meeting.
An important task for you as a meeting leader is to engage the participants. This can be done in a variety of ways:
- Ask direct, targeted questions to each participant, keep track of who has been asked and in what order (note on the list of participants).
- Switch between full-group and work in virtual meeting rooms for smaller groups (no problems doing this in most applications, such as Zoom and Teams, but requires some preparation).
- Generally, broad, open questions such as, “what do you think of the proposal?” should be avoided as there will often be little or no response and it tends to go quiet – but there is one exception: To get something like brainstorming to work, where participants are inspired by each other’s comments, you can ask a question and get everyone to write short, quick answers in chat. When people start seeing the chat, they will be able to freewheel or build on them. Admittedly, many duplicate posts will come, but it doesn’t really matter. Involve people in the
- meeting management – assign roles
- Break monitor
- Conversation monitor
- Take breaks, with and without tasks to do. It’s tiring to sit in front of a screen – take a break at least every hour. Participants will need to have their own time, but some breaks may well include small-talk – feel free to encourage this.
Arranged the finish to include time for the interpersonal.
End the meeting clearly by first summarizing the concreteresults: What has been decided? What should be done and when as a result of the meeting and who is responsible? But our cooperation does not only concern deliverables and activities. Relationships and interaction within the group are also important. In a physical meeting, you will probably have time for some everyday conversation that is important for our relationships though not directly linked to issues at the meeting. In an online meeting you must compensate for this as the meeting leader. End the meeting by asking how each person experienced the meeting, if they feel that they have been heard and listened to, how they assess their own performance in the meeting, are there any suggestions for improvements?
You can also ‘go around the table’ with a formal check-out question – like, ‘how does it feel now?’ or ‘how satisfied are you with what we accomplished at the meeting?’.
After the meeting
Make sure that minutes, memos etc., from the meeting are made available and follow up on issues quickly – especially if there are suggestions for improvements, or changes. By providing quick answers, you show respect towards the proposer.
Norms or rules of the game for participation in online meetings
- Have the webcam turned on, at all times – the meeting will be much livelier if we can see each other’s facial expressions, etc., and the risk of misunderstanding decreases
- Keep the microphone turned off when you’re not speaking, if there’s the slightest risk of background noise
- Raise your hand on camera, but also then turn on the microphone and tell me directly if you want to ask/answer urgently – it is often difficult for the meeting leader to see the “raise your hand” function (available in many applications), especially when in the middle of a presentation
- Some meetings use chat functionality for questions — this may require someone other than the meeting leader to watch the chat — if unsure about the chat, ask out loud.
- Make sure to sit as undisturbed as possible – it’s hard enough to concentrate on an online meeting without pets/family members/customers/traffic etc., taking your attention
- Think about your personal appearance, webcam position/angle, lighting, and the background as it may appear on camera
- Familiarize yourself with beneficial features of the software you’re using – one example is the ‘Pin’ function in Microsoft Teams, used to maintain a larger screen image of whoever you want to concentrate on – but similar and other features are available in all applications.