As travel budgets get tighter, technology gets better, and we connect more and more across the country and the world, online meetings have become a regular part of doing business. When setting up online meetings, we often make the mistake of treating them the same way as in-person meetings. But online meetings have their own unique challenges. To keep our meetings useful and productive, we must take these into account when planning, facilitating, and following up. Today I’d like to talk about 3 key challenges of online meetings, and some things that I have found effective in dealing with them.
The first big challenge of online meetings is keeping people engaged. When participants can’t see each other, they don’t feel as much pressure to stay focused and attentive. They tend to multi-task, get distracted, and lose track of what is happening. So what can you do about it? Here are a few ideas:
- Whenever you can, especially with smaller groups, use online technology that includes video. This makes it harder to do other things during the meeting.
- Focus on clear objectives. Send them out in advance, state them at the beginning of the call, and pull the conversation back to them if it starts drifting into other topics or questions.
- Plan for engagement. Include questions and discussions for participants at different times during the meeting. You may want to build ownership by asking participants for their expectations up front: What do they want to get out of this meeting? What do they wish to achieve in light of the meeting objectives?
- Regularly go “around the table” and get input from everyone, and let people know in advance that you will be doing this. Use a participant list to keep track of whose turn it is to speak. Invite people by name, and change up the order from one round to the next.
Another big challenge in online meetings and teleconferences is the lack of visual feedback. When meeting with others in the same room, we pick up non-verbal signals that help us gauge their understanding and decide when to speak up. Without those, communications can get muddled and confused. Here are a few things you can do to compensate:
- Use online meeting software (e.g., GoToMeeting, Webex, Zoom, etc.) to provide a visual platform for your conversation. These are useful for more than one-way presentations. You can use them as an electronic flipchart, typing key points into a blank document during the conversation. People can also use the chat function to ask questions and signal when they want more information.
- Repeat key points and decisions. Do this when they are being made, using clear signals: “Okay, just so we’re clear, here’s what we’ve just agreed…”. Keep a running list of decisions so that you can repeat them again at the end of the meeting.
- Ask participants to tell you what they have understood in their own words. This is particularly useful when sharing a lot of information. You might as a question like: “Who would like to have a go at summarizing what we just heard?”
- Have someone assigned to take notes of the meeting, and send those out for feedback and approval after the meeting. This will provide one more opportunity to catch any misunderstandings.
There are all kinds of challenges tied to technology, especially for online meetings that use more than just the phone. Some technology challenges are purely technical, and others come from participants not knowing or not liking the technology you’re using. Whatever the cause, participants get disconnected, or their audio quality is bad, or they can’t see what you’re showing online; you might have seen this great little video that illustrates the more common issues: A Conference Call in Real Life. Here are a few things that you can do to prevent or reduce technology issues for your online meetings:
- Test the platform. Set up a pre-meeting test session with one or two people to make sure that they can access the platform. Do this early enough so you can address any issues that come up during the test session. Use what you learn to provide detailed instructions to all meeting participants. This can include downloading software in advance of the online meeting.
- Provide options. Set the meeting up so that participants can connect either through the online meeting platform or by phone. That way if someone can’t get the online meeting software to work, they can still participate. Make sure you send any materials out in advance so the phone participants can follow along with the presentation, and have the slides or pages numbered for easy reference.
- Offer pre-meeting training or coaching. Set up small group online sessions with participants to walk them through the platform features and give them a chance to practice using it.
- Do a short technology briefing at the beginning of your meeting. Walk through the features of the platform that you will be using, and do a quick practice. For example, you might ask participants to “raise their hand” or to enter a comment into the chat box.
I’m sure others have some good advice on how to effectively manage online meetings, and I’m always interested in learning more, so please add your comments and let’s make this a conversation!