10 Tips for Virtual Meetings which feel like the 'Real Thing'

Sometimes it is not always possible to have 'the whole system in the room' or to have everyone in one location - especially in today's global climate. So how do you make meetings work when people are not facing one another? We have worked with a number of organisations where 'virtual' has been the only way to conduct a meeting. Sometimes it has been just two locations and on one occasion it was a virtual meeting of 18 locations.

Recently we worked with a client to pull together a set of tips for running virtual meetings. Whilst some of the tips can apply to face-to-face meetings and not just to virtual meetings, they certainly served us well.

The 10 tips are:

  1. Have a clear purpose and agenda
  2. Build a facilitation team who are clear about their roles
  3. Invest in set-up time
  4. Make sure people are emotionally connected before starting the work
  5. Take your time with presentations
  6. Allow space for conversation and influence
  7. Capture the work
  8. Be prepared for it to take longer
  9. Keep it active
  10. Close with summary and reflection

Below we have expaned each of the Tips

Have a clear purpose and agenda

  • Well in advance of the meeting identify what outcomes you are aiming to achieve
  • Design the processes and timings for each session to achieve the outcomes - be creative about how you can make a 'virtue' of the virtual technology
  • Allow extra time for the transition between sessions
  • Identify clearly what technologies are needed to support presentations and activities
  • Bear in mind how difficult it is to focus for long periods in virtual meetings
  • Plan plenty of 'stretch breaks'
  • Ensure presentations do not have too many slides - break them into manageable chunks
  • Send presentations out in advance - if not to everyone, make sure each location has at least one copy
  • Make out a clear equipment list

Build a facilitation team who are clear about their roles

  • Identify a 'lead studio' to co-ordinate meeting facilitation and manage the invitations and connection problems. In the lead studio, the meeting facilitator will need at least 3 additional contact persons, with laptops, whose role is to receive instant feedback or issue instant invitations. Ensure that everyone knows who these key contacts are.
  • Each location will need two key roles;
    1. a "studio leader" to facilitate the meeting, manage attendance and manage any connection problems. This person has a laptop with 'instant messaging' software available.
    2. a "software meeting leader" who has a laptop connected to projector and who will, before the day, provide the software training to all the leaders, and give them a document with basic instructions e.g. screen maximizing, sharing presentation, ...
  • If you are doing participative working using certain software i.e. sametime you will also need one person per three participants with a lap-top connected to sametime

Invest in set-up time

  • Book studio time well in advance and aim to group most attendees in a reasonable number of locations e.g. 6 studios. Having more than 8 studios or mixing VC and audio is ALWAYS a source of problems.
  • Ask all audio users to connect individually to the "video bridge" rather than using a conference phone in one studio. This solution provides better audio quality.
  • Ideally avoid low bandwidth sites (small remote sites). This affects both the VC and instant meeting performance for the entire group.
  • Ideally have in advance all participants' names, by studio
  • Set the room up so that the beamers are not close to the microphone
  • On the day of the meeting
    1. get all "location meeting leaders" connected in advance and ask them to stay connected all day
    2. Check that all leaders are clear about the instructions and know how to invite people in
    3. Share documents
    4. Take control of a document
    5. Give back control of a document
    6. If using NetMeeting - also ensure they know how to use the whiteboard for brainstorming
  • Allow (but do not announce in the agenda) 15-minutes contingency at the beginning of each meeting block (2 or 3 hours) to allow for connections management. Arrange for the 'studio leaders' to be present for this set-up period.

Make sure people are 'emotionally connected' before starting the work

  • Let people know who is in the call
  • Let each location speak, ensure they are not muted, enable everybody to see them
  • Take the time out to make sure people feel they are fully present and can be seen and heard.
  • Let them speak for themselves so they are present as people, not places or studios.
  • Announce when people join and leave
  • Plan a process to make this engaging for people, connected to the purpose of the meeting, to break the ice
  • Be clear about the various roles and ask people not to touch buttons if they do not have a role
  • Develop protocols or ground rules together if you think it will help

Take your time with presentations

  • There is no need to use the software from the main location to show presentations if every room has a copy (sometimes software can be slow in slide transitions)
  • Presenters will need to announce each slide clearly
  • Allow a pause between slides, as it can take time to load pages
  • Place speakers close to the microphone and ask them to speak clearly, slowly and loud. Adjust the camera to ensure that this person can be seen across the VC connection.
  • Ensure that each person talking states their name and location first - follow the one at a time discipline carefully - track who needs to speak next.
  • Ensure that every participating location mutes when not talking

Allow space for conversation and influence

  • Check in with people regularly and ask facilitators in studios to watch out for visual clues. Where people cannot be seen ask for feedback regularly.
  • After presentations allow time for people to talk in locations to reduce the intensity of the experience and allow normal conversation
  • Use the people with the instant messaging in the room to send questions to the presenter.
  • Have someone to work with the presenter to help sort questions during periods when all the locations are having conversations or doing activities connected to the presentation
  • Have clear instructions included in the presentation which can be beamed for everyone to see
  • Keep the connections so you do not have to set things up again
  • Agree timings and synchronise clocks - use the lap top time
  • All rooms go onto mute
  • Check that things are going to time in each location
  • Let people use instant messaging to make remarks

Capture the work

  • If necessary audio tape presentations so that can be transcribed
  • Have someone record the conversations and actions for the record
  • Use instant messaging for live capturing of commitments and share the document
  • When sharing remote work use shared documents rather than flipcharts

Be prepared for it to take longer

  • Especially when people are just learning to use the various technologies
  • Remind people to be patient with the technology
  • If it is going on long enough for people to need to snack be careful about packaging noise in the location where the microphone is turned on (crisps can be deadly!)

Keep it active

  • Watching one person speak or one screen for a long time can make it difficult to keep focused
  • Move the conversation around locations and let people talk within location and then share across locations if necessary (a little like breaking into small groups within a large group)
  • Use colours and visuals

Close with summary and reflection

  • Summarise commitments, if possible allow each location to state their own, allow people to voice any immediate reflections,
  • Invite further reflection and process improvement.

Facilitation pointers

  • Shouting at the technology doesn't make it work!
  • Have a back-up plan if the technology goes down (though no fault of anyone there - perhaps a power black-out)
  • Have a back-up plan (at least in your mind) of what changes you can make to the design if people speak for longer than contracted and what the consequences will be
  • We used mobile phones to connect off line to each other away from the main room
  • Virtual meetings take probably more preparation than a face-to-face meeting by virtue of sorting out all of the technology
  • Virtual meetings are more labour intensive in facilitation and back-up staff than having, for example, 150 people in one room
  • They can cost as much as a one-day meeting with all 150 people together even with flights and hotels. But the upside is that most people can go home at the end of the day to their own beds with no jet-lag!

What technology?

There are many software packages you can use - each one has good and bad points. You have to work with whatever you are comfortable with and software that you thoroughly understand.

In preparation for a very large virtual meeting we spent many weeks just playing with the software on our own PCs. And if we couldn't break it then we were fairly confident it would be OK on the day. Don't go for over-sophistication just because it looks 'whizzy' - go for simple, basic, easy to use software. Beware the Sales Person that can sell you the earth but is nowhere to be seen when it crashes! Virtual meetings are not a competition in finding the smartest technology - they are places of work.