Q

How to collaborate, conduct meetings virtually

With distributed workforces or outsourced operations, you must be able to collaborate and conduct meetings virtually. David Christansen provides some tips to help you out.

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I've recently started a new job at a company where most of the people I work with are in other locations. As a result, we have a lot of meetings over the phone and using the Internet to share presentations. I'm new to "virtual meetings" and am struggling to adapt my style of facilitation to this approach. What can I do to make my virtual meetings more effective?
Virtual meetings aren't like face-to-face meetings, and people often forget that. Running a virtual meeting well becomes more important all the time as more and more companies adopt distributed workforce strategies. Here are some pointers on how to run/participate in a good virtual meeting.

Be aware of the difference between simplex and duplex. Many conference calls are simplex, which means sound travels only one way at a time. So, whoever is loudest will get and keep the floor, whether they want it or not. I have had to yield to heavy breathers, paper shufflers, and yes, even obnoxious hold music. If you're on a conference call, put your phone on mute when you're not talking.

Solicit participation in creative ways. Very few people will answer negatively to questions such as "Does this make sense? Are you following me? etc. In order to get useful participation, you need to ask better questions, such as "How does this apply to you?" or "What factors would contribute to making this work?"

Manage the participant experience carefully. Know what your presentation looks like in various screen resolutions. Make sure animations work properly when shown over the Web. If you are going to be using various software applications, make sure you know how to share them properly. Set them up in advance if you can.

Know the capabilities of your communications tools. Do you know how to kick off a participant if they put you on hold and fill your meeting with bad 80's tunes? Can you turn off the beeps created when people join or leave your meeting? Do you know how to get help from the operator? You should know all of those things.

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Shut up every now and then. You can't see the participants in virtual meetings unless you have video chat. As a result, it can be hard to read how they are responding and whether they have questions and input. Most people tend to rattle on in these situations, barely pausing to breath. It's hard to "butt in" when they do, particularly if it's a simplex conference call. Shut up for at least four breaths every couple of minutes to give interested participants a chance to participate.

Encourage cross-participant interaction. Most virtual meetings are a conversation between the host and his participants. It is often necessary for participants to engage one another. This can be hard when you can't see each other. Help the participants converse with each other by asking questions that invite opinion, discussion and perhaps even a bit of controversy.

This was first published in March 2007

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