Improved technology and changing attitudes to the costs, time and health impacts associated with domestic and international travel have seen virtual meetings grow to become a necessary and effective part of everyday business for many organisations.
Attitudes are also changing internally thanks to the working from home revolution, and as companies introduce their own social distancing requirements, such as avoiding crammed meeting rooms.
There’s no doubt virtual meetings are here to stay. But are yours working? These days, anyone can host a meeting online. But is your meeting achieving what you set out to do? Did your participants think their time spent at the meeting was worthwhile?
Successful virtual meetings don’t just happen. But with some basic planning, and by following a few best practices, you’ll find they can be easier to manage than a traditional face-to-face event.
If you want to browse quickly through the main points about virtual meetings, please choose from the following sub-topics in this article:
- What is a virtual meeting?
- What is the purpose of your virtual meeting?
- How to choose the right technology for your virtual meeting?
- What are the types of virtual meetings?
- How to plan and manage a successful virtual meeting?
- What is the virtual meeting etiquette?
What is a virtual meeting?
A virtual meeting is a meeting hosted in a virtual environment, usually over the internet, as opposed to in person or face-to-face meetings.
In practice, that covers a whole range of meetings, both big and small groups, internal and external, and local and global. You can host a virtual meeting with people in the same building or on the other side of the world. Think sales meetings, team meetings, all-staff updates, executive meetings, industry briefings, financial and corporate updates, workshops and annual general meetings.
Virtual meetings can be conducted on a range of platforms, including as a teleconference, a video conference, webinar or live broadcast online.
Similar to a traditional face-to-face meeting, virtual meetings are held for many reasons but essentially exist to bring a group of people together to communicate and discuss issues, achieve strategic goals, and build and maintain relationships.
Most virtual meetings today use technology to allow participants to collaborate, brainstorm and share ideas and information through tools such as virtual whiteboards, document sharing, screen sharing, polls, public and private chat rooms, and question and answer sessions.
What is the purpose of your virtual meeting?
As anyone who regularly attends meetings as part of their work can attest, some meetings are very productive while others, let’s face it, can be a complete waste of time.
Typically, we meet to:
- share information
- influence others
- solve problems
- make decisions
- strengthen relationships.
If you’re just meeting to share information, could the message you want to relay be more easily solved through email or a group collaboration tool?
Unless it’s sensitive information, you probably don’t really need a meeting.
Your colleagues will not only thank you for not wasting their time, but they’ll be more inclined to accept your invitation to a meeting that you really need them to attend the next time you ask.
When it comes to influencing others, solving problems, making decisions, and strengthening relationships, an email or Slack just isn’t going to cut it.
Once you’ve determined that a meeting is your best option, the first thing you should do is prioritise exactly why you’re holding the meeting in the first place and set clear, achievable goals.
Is it to communicate with your stakeholders? Meet your statutory obligations? Improve your corporate culture or motivate your people?
Setting your goals will make it a lot easier to determine what type of event will best achieve your desired outcomes, including the format, structure and exactly who you will need to invite.
How to choose the right technology for your virtual meeting?
Virtual meetings have come along in leaps and bounds in recent years. Gone are the days of drop-outs, grainy images and static Zoom video walls.
Instead, today there’s plenty of choice when it comes to the type of virtual meeting you can hold, such as a workshop, strategy day, a group get-together, or an annual general meeting.
There’s also plenty of choice when it comes to the format you choose to host it in, such as a webinar or a video conference.
Choosing the right platform that best suits your particular type of virtual meeting is vital to ensuring it meets your own goals, as well as the expectations of your audience.
Will all participants be required to have the ability to ask a question? Would you prefer questions to be taken in private? Will you need to record the event? Do you require a presenter? Do you even need video?
Firstly, make sure you’re clear on the type and size of the meeting you want to hold, including the number of participants and how much you want your group to interact.
Whether you host your own virtual meeting or get someone to manage it for you, there are lots of easy-to-use tools that promote collaboration and interactivity.
Webinars, for example, enable you to host meetings that include polls, live chats, or Q&As, which are successful at engaging large, dispersed audiences and work well for industry briefings and town halls.
Studio broadcasts are a good choice if you want to create a more intimate conversation or host a group of presenters.
What are the types of virtual meetings?
When it comes to some virtual meetings, sometimes it’s best to keep it simple. If you’re trying to meet with your sales team who are out on the road, a teleconference is a cost-effective, hands-on way of communicating with your staff.
A teleconference lets your people join the meeting without the need to be in front of a computer.
The host can be in total control of a teleconference with a few clicks of a mouse: record it, mute background noise and manage participants.
If you’re holding a team building exercise or virtual strategy day, a video conference is a great way to collaborate and maximise engagement — especially for smaller groups.
They’re easy for both the host and participants to join and navigate and can be viewed in high definition on any device.
You can share screens, files and links, and collaborate online in virtual chat rooms and using tools such as virtual blackboards.
For larger groups, webinars are often a more effective way to host such an event.
For C-suite announcements to large audiences where the message is key, a studio broadcast provides the structure and formal setting that an open forum might lack, and reproduces the gravitas of a staged physical event.
Broadcasts can be hosted by a moderator, and feature a single speaker, or even a panel of presenters.
Questions can be managed with full control in a private chat, or you can open them up in a public chat for more transparency.
In-depth interviews/Fireside chats
Webinars are a great choice for in-depth interviews or fireside chat-style meetings, because they provide you with the chance to create more personal and informative interactions.
The interviewee can answer questions directly from a live private or public chat, or a moderator can handle the questions, manage the tech and introduce and interact with the presenter with prepared questions to facilitate the discussion.
You can also ask attendees to submit their own questions when they register to attend, which enables your interviewee to prepare ahead.
Internal town halls
Depending on the size of your event, video conferencing (for smaller events) and webinars (for larger events) are the most effective platforms to host a town hall.
They let you speak directly to an audience, but also allow plenty of interaction when the time is right through private and/or public chat, polls and live Q&As, which can create spontaneity and fun.
In the case of all-staff updates, a virtual town hall meeting ensures that all your staff hear your message directly from your executive team, fostering clarity and certainty.
Annual General Meetings
For many in the business sector, COVID-19 social distancing measures have fast-tracked the evolution of the virtual annual general meeting (AGM).
Governments around the world, including in Australia, have changed laws to allow companies to hold AGMs entirely online rather than face-to-face.
Hosting a virtual AGM as a webinar can be a lot more productive, not to mention cost-effective, than booking out the ballroom at a 5-star CBD hotel.
Along with the ability to host an unlimited number of members and shareholders from anywhere in the world, virtual AGMs enable organisations to utilise private chat functions to take questions (as opposed to dealing with interjections from the floor) as well as run live polls to manage voting.
Using hybrid technology, webinars can also be simultaneously broadcast as a teleconference to ensure all stakeholders have the ability to dial in and ask questions, regardless of broadband connectivity.
Industry education and briefings
Webinars are also an effective way of providing an audience with detailed messaging when things are changing rapidly.
When the Australian Government introduced a jobs support program as part of its COVID-19 response package, the Franchise Council of Australia needed to quickly communicate details about the package to its members.
Two days later the resulting webinar attracted more than 350 participants who watched the entire broadcast — a record number for the organisation.
Whether it’s due to the impact of social distancing, or simply the tyranny of distance, sometimes trying to communicate and interact with a broad cross-section of stakeholders is a formidable challenge.
However, through a live webinar you can host an event that can be accessed by anyone regardless of where they’re based — whether they’re in a major city or the outback.
Live briefings via webinar can include a mix of content, including pre-recorded video, remote presenters, questions via live chat and links to chat rooms.
For broad based industry briefings where stakeholders have an interest in different areas of information, you can set up online meeting rooms so participants can attend virtual breakout sessions.
Continuous professional development
Many organisations are finding webinars are an effective tool for continuing professional development, to strengthen member engagement, and raise brand awareness.
Webinars let you deliver online certifications as blended learning programs and content can be tailored to reflect a state, territory or country’s own legislative requirements.
Online chat and resource features enable participants to ask questions of the facilitator as well as access in-depth resources in addition to the slide deck provided. They may also leverage online polls in the form of quizzes and assessments to ensure participants acquire the knowledge needed to qualify for professional certifications.
How to plan and manage a successful virtual meeting?
The more time you put into planning, the more you and your participants will get out of your virtual meeting – and that’s not just about the technology you choose.
In fact, more often it’s about the meeting itself: its format, structure, participants, purpose and goals. It’s also about how those goals are recorded, measured and identified.
Our research has found that more than a third of virtual meetings are not being run as well as they could be.
Almost half of participants think virtual meetings should be shorter, and more than 40 per cent say they should be more structured and productive.
More than a third also think remote meetings need to be more purpose-driven and result in clearer actions for all attendees.
Planning starts before your virtual meeting begins
There are many factors that make up a successful virtual meeting, and it starts with your invitation list.
Our research has found that around 30% of meeting participants believe everyone should be focused in a meeting – not just some attendees – so make sure everyone you’ve invited needs to be there.
You can’t expect your colleagues to take a virtual meeting seriously if the boss never turns up. A third of participants have told us all key decision-makers should be present in remote meetings.
What to put in your virtual meeting invitation?
There are a few simple details you should include in your invitation to make sure everyone is properly prepared and your meeting is as effective as possible, including:
- meeting date and time
- format, including links and instructions
- meeting agenda
- meeting objectives
- expectations for attendees
- the ground rules, for example, mute your microphone, or raise your hand before you speak
- parameters around out how actions will be followed up.
You should also establish clear roles depending on your type of meeting. Do you need a facilitator? Who will take notes?
Don’t forget to send a reminder and include a request for everyone to spend a few minutes getting familiar with the meeting technology.
Good things come in small packages
It’s best practice to make your virtual meetings shorter than their traditional face-to-face counterparts, and include more breaks. Participants can get more easily distracted when they’re not sitting in a meeting room with colleagues.
A facilitator is a good way to keep everyone focused, manage time and keep a meeting moving along.
Get on top of the tech
There’s nothing worse than waiting for the convenor of a meeting to show up.
Get onto the call a couple of minutes early so you can test your setup and ensure your microphone and internet connection are working. For important meetings, if video is key, avoid Wi-Fi and plug directly into your modem, or have a back-up such as a mobile internet connection handy.
Familiarise yourself with your virtual meeting platform features before you begin – such as how to mute and unmute your microphone, where to turn video off and on, how to share your screen and where to open a chat.
It’s also important to make it as easy as possible for your attendees to join. Redback Connect’s One Touch Collaboration service allows participants to join a teleconference, web conference or video conference without dialling a phone number or entering a passcode.
Make a connection
Open the meeting by connecting with your audience in a way that feels comfortable to you: it might be by making a relevant joke, or by making your audience feel a connection with the problem you’re attempting to solve.
Share a customer story, talk about something you experienced, share provocative statistics — or think of an analogy that dramatises the issue.
Whatever the problem, if you can’t make your colleagues agree it’s a problem, they’re not going to be terribly interested or excited about helping to solve it.
Build in participation
Participation is the secret to keeping your team engaged in virtual meetings, where there are fewer physical cues to stimulate attendees to participate. Your boss can’t turn her head and give ‘the look’ to an online participant to prod them into action — it’s just not the same.
The use of online polls and chat functions can encourage a broader range of meaningful interactions and keep your audience interested.
Give people tasks that they can actively engage in so there is nowhere to hide. Ask them to come with some ideas, vote for an outcome, or even break into small teams in separate online chats to work on a problem for a few minutes, and return to the meeting with some suggestions.
Brainstorming is another great way to keep people’s attention – and it’s easier than you think when you’ve got the right tools such as a virtual blackboard.
It’s also very productive. Research by ScienceDirect has found that 70% of meeting participants come up with more creative ideas through online brainstorming than in traditional face-to-face meetings. The study found virtual brainstorming reduced the dominance of more vocal attendees, and increased the diversity of ideas shared by everyone.
Keep to time
Spend a dedicated (short) amount of time on each problem you’re looking to solve. When time’s up, either move onto the next point or adjourn it to another forum.
Your team will come to understand they need to focus during the meeting and be productive in order to make it worthwhile.
Make it count
After the meeting, don’t forget to send around the action items that came out of it, and how they’ll be followed up.
Your team will come to understand that your virtual meetings serve a purpose, require engagement and participation, and lead to something worthwhile, instead of just filling up their work day.
Whats is the virtual meeting etiquette?
We’ve all heard the stories about someone accidently sharing their screen or not turning their camera off when they should have. So what is good virtual meeting etiquette, anyway — and what should we avoid?
Here are a few tips to avoid virtual meeting mishaps.
Look behind you
If you can, sit in a quiet area and make sure the area behind you is uncluttered, even if the rest of the room isn’t. The camera only sees a small area.
Natural light is always best but if that’s not an option, turn on the room light and add a lamp to provide soft light from the front. Harsh downlights on your face should be avoided, and always face a window as opposed to being back-lit by one.
Level with your audience
If you’re using a webcam to show video of you speaking, position it so it’s level with your face. If you’re using your laptop camera, raise it so your audience isn’t looking up your nostrils. If you generally plug your laptop into a monitor, consider unplugging it for video calls so you can look into the camera and maintain ‘eye contact’.
Improve the audio
Computer audio may be adequate for some online meetings, but you will hear better, and others will hear you more clearly, if you use headphones and a microphone to eliminate background noise. This is particularly desirable if you’re working remotely and the kids are home or your neighbour has decided it’s a good time to pull out the leaf blower.
Clean up your screen
Close down irrelevant tabs if you’ll be screen-sharing, and turn off notifications so you’re not accidentally sharing social engagements or medical appointment details with your colleagues.
Even if you’re working from home, it’s good etiquette — and shows some respect for your colleagues — to throw on a clean shirt and brush your hair before a video call. Unless it’s midnight and you’re talking to colleagues on the other side of the world, avoid doing video calls in your PJs (although your UGG boots are fine).
Mute your mic
When you’re not speaking it’s a good idea to mute your mic to eliminate feedback and improve the video call experience for the other attendees. Remember to unmute when it’s your turn to speak.
When meeting online, say your name before you speak so everyone knows who they’re listening to — otherwise they just may not listen at all.
Commit to the meeting
Avoid checking emails, messages or your social networks during a video conference. Give the meeting your full attention while it’s on and expect others to do the same. Video quickly reveals when people are distracted or not paying attention.
Just as it’s clear that some people run a better physical meeting than others, so is it obvious that some people run a better virtual meeting. With virtual meetings replacing many face-to-face meetings, it’s an important skill to develop. All it takes is the right technology, a few best practices and a little bit of preparation.