By Kate Zabriskie
The business world has rapidly adopted virtual meetings – whether it was ready or not – due to coronavirus stay-at-home orders. Still, many people struggle to translate the in-person experience to an online format. Luckily, there are some tried and true steps we can take to have our online gatherings running like clockwork. By following these 10 strategies for surviving in the virtual world, you can perform like a pro in record time.
Know What You Want to Accomplish
It may be important to have a game plan for an in-person meeting, but it’s essential that you have a goal for any online get-together. Will you be informing, gathering information, looking for opinion, making a decision, or something else? If you don’t know, your meeting is not going to feel as tight as it could.
Once you know the goal, it should inform the meeting’s length, number of attendees, and desired level of interaction. For example, if you’re discussing new telecommuting rules and short-term business plans, you’re probably not seeking opinion; instead, you will be providing information and perhaps answering a few questions. Given the essential one-way nature of the bulk of that gathering, you can probably accommodate far more people than you could if your goal were to elicit opinion and seek input.
Most people will do what you expect if you ask them to do it and model the behavior yourself. Be specific and direct. If you want people to share their cameras, have a slide outlining your request as people join the meeting. If you want them to raise their hands to answer a question, raise your hand when you ask it. If you want people to type something in the chat box, you should type as they are typing. The more deliberate you are in your instruction and actions, the better your chances of seeing what you want to see.
Share a Roadmap
Maybe more so than an in-person meeting, virtual meetings need a roadmap or itinerary. Furthermore, in the virtual world it is helpful to show the agenda several times during the meeting and point out where you are on the schedule. An agenda check refocuses people who may have drifted off and gives them an easy on-ramp back into the meeting. Furthermore, acknowledging where you are in the process gives people a sense of movement and helps the group stay on task.
Recognize Technology Diversity
When it comes to technology, the virtual world is not equal. Some participants will have equipment and bandwidth worthy of a Hollywood production; others will appear to have a dial-up line reminiscent of equipment from the previous century. For that reason, it’s important to think about what could go wrong and how to troubleshoot potential problems before they occur. For example, will you record and post the meeting for people who have difficulty joining? Do you have a dial-in number for those who can’t get VoIP technology to work correctly? Will you send slides in advance for people who have difficulty logging in altogether and must rely solely on a PDF? The more you prepare for problems, the easier they are to deal with should they arise.
Arrive Early and Start on Time
It is a good idea to arrive to your virtual meeting in advance of your participants. The time you have in the virtual room before it fills will give you an opportunity to troubleshoot your technology, get comfortable in your seat, and welcome early birds as they enter the room. Your early arrival also allows you to avoid having participants wait in a lobby. In principle, the lobby is a neat concept; in practice, it can work against you. If participants arrive to a lobby, they will more than likely work on other tasks as they wait for you. You’ll then have to work harder to get the full attention they were initially prepared to give you.
Accept You Are Competing for Attention
There may be no greater multitasking opportunity than a web-based meeting. Even the most effective presenter competes with a participant’s inbox, other work, and just about any activity that is potentially more interesting. You will have to double or even triple your efforts to keep virtual attendees involved. Putting yourself on camera and asking participants to appear on camera is only the first step. Next, you have to think about ways to keep people’s eyes on the screen or handout and their hands busy about every two minutes. Yes! Two minutes. People want to be engaged. If they don’t engage with you, they will engage with something else.
The longer the meeting, the more important it is to add variety. If you are taking a poll, for example, consider conducting first using one that uses fingers held up to screen, another that uses the system’s polling function, one that requires people to stamp a shape on a Likert scale displayed on a slide, and another that requires attendees to type a number in the chat box. The idea is to avoid becoming predictable.
People participate at various levels during in-person meetings, so expect the same will happen in the virtual world. A good meeting facilitator will take action to add balance. For instance, “I’m going to throw this next question to the people I see in the second row on my screen. That’s Jane, Josh, and Juan.” In that example, nobody is individually put on the spot. However, those three participants know that at least one of them is on deck to speak next. In addition to calling on a few people, you should also consider directing people to different channels.
“If you would like to answer in the chat box, do that. If you would prefer to open your microphone, go ahead. If you would like to send a message just to me, send a private chat.” The variety of avenues offered in that example accommodate people who like to talk, those who prefer to write, and others who are less comfortable speaking up in public.
Consider Using a Production Team
It takes time to master a virtual meeting program, and even the pros can find it difficult to manage at times. If you are running a large meeting or are new to the process, consider assembling a team. For example, designate someone to troubleshoot tech problems for attendees, assign a chat monitor to bring anything to your attention you don’t see right away, and so forth.
Limit Your Time and Use It Wisely
No adult wants to sit for more than two hours at a time, and this is especially true in the virtual world. If you plan to move a six-hour meeting online and leave the agenda essential as is, think again. For meetings that are essentially information-sharing exercises, consider limiting yourself to one-hour blocks. For interactive conversations, as a rule of thumb, you should be able to get away with two hours at a time. Rarely, if ever, should you schedule more than four hours a day. And those four hours should include a generous break if possible. If you need more hours to accomplish everything, consider running smaller meetings with fewer people, spreading a long meeting over several days, or sharing video recordings instead of bringing people together if they would accomplish the same result.
It’s a new world for many people taking the plunge into the world of virtual meetings. Take the time now to leverage a few simple strategies that will get you on solid footing. Paying attention to what you like and don’t that others do in their meetings will help you grow. Asking for feedback from your attendees will further accelerate the process.
Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team help businesses establish customer service strategies. For more information, visit www.businesstrainingworks.com.
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