The six secrets to running a successful online meeting

An increase in Coronavirus cases means we are all now living with greater restrictions on our lives, again. The Government has asked that people work from home if possible, which means whether you like it or not, remote work and therefore, virtual meetings are here to stay. Experts predict that we will be living with restrictions well into 2021.

Fortunately, modern technology means conducting meetings online can truly be a breeze. However, video-conferencing technologies are no guarantee of a successful meeting. Many new remote workers struggle to get to grips with online meetings, and can be left frustrated as a result.

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The six secrets to running a successful online meeting

As a technology business, it’s our job to keep abreast of the latest developments in technology. We have pooled our experience of online meetings to compile this handy guide to help you get the most out of your next online meeting.

Preparation is key

No matter if your meeting is in person or virtual, it is crucial to carefully plan. If your meeting is virtual, they often require a bit more planning than face-to-face meetings. For example, how can you keep the discussion focused and on track? What if software difficulties prevent an important participant from attending?

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

To keep things on track, fit some time into your work schedule where you can plan and prepare for your meeting adequately. This should not only cover forming an agenda of the meeting and sharing with attendees, but it should also involve setting up and testing the technology you are going to be using. For example, familiarise yourself with your video conferencing tool, run a test meeting and try out the functionality. It is also a good idea to join the meeting early in order to allow you to troubleshoot any issues that occur, get set up and allow others to join on time. Remember, a relaxed, friendly and problem free host sets a far more positive tone for a meeting than a late, stressed out meeting host who is trying to troubleshoot issues as the meeting is meant to be starting.

Choose the right tech

There is no replacement for face-to-face, in-person interaction. However, modern technologies such as video conferencing tools provide a good second option. They ensure that face-to-face communication can be achieved no matter where staff are working, thus creating a more real-life experience.

These days, there is a lot of choice when it comes to what video conferencing technology you should use. Some tools are free. Some have limitations on meeting length or attendees. Whereas others have more enhanced security policies, or useful features such as breakout rooms and screen sharing options.

Every organisation has different requirements when it comes to their meeting needs. The clear winners of this pandemic have been Zoom and Microsoft Teams. How can you know what is best for you? For businesses with purely video conferencing needs a little else, Zoom is a great choice. The platform supports 49 videos appearing on the screen at once, with customisable backgrounds to help add a little fun as well as privacy for those who are having to work from their bedrooms at this time. It also offers breakout rooms, chat and polls, all features that help to enhance an online meeting experience.

Microsoft Teams on the other hand works better for those businesses looking for a full productivity hub. The platform offers a robust feature set where users can chat and video conference, as well as share and collaborate in real-time with files synced in OneDrive and SharePoint due to its seamless integration with Microsoft 365 apps. Microsoft Teams also follows all the security best practices and procedures used for Microsoft 365 and other Microsoft services, making it good for businesses with sensitive business data they want to ensure is protected.

Outline meeting good practises and ground rules

To get the most out of your online meetings, it is important to set some ground rules. We all feel more comfortable in our own homes, and it’s easy to slip into bad habits. Agreeing ground rules for your online meetings will help everyone to keep focused.

Some important elements to consider including are:

  • Ban multitasking – As numerous studies have proven, despite the brain’s remarkable complexity and power, multitasking in a meeting is impossible. Management should set a firm policy that multitasking is not permitted as it’s important for everyone to be mentally present at the meeting.
  • Require video usage – Without video, facial expressions and body language cannot be conveyed, making it more difficult for meeting participants to know exactly how one another are feeling. Ensuring staff have their video on will improve communication as well as ensure staff have their full attention on the meeting.
  • Use of mute button – When people are working from home, there are far more distractions. Asking staff to mute themselves when they aren’t speaking reduces background noise and helps the meeting stay focused.
  • Raise hand feature – Putting this as a specific rule means that participants can easily get the attention of the host or other participants in the meeting correctly. Having this as a ground rule reduces the possibility of someone being interrupted at a bad time or someone not being able to ask an important question as they don’t know a convenient time to jump in.

These are just a few ground rules and good practises that we think should be included, but what you will include will depend largely on your business culture. Whatever rules and good practices you do choose to include should be written in a document and sent to participants before the meeting.

Get everyone involved 

With virtual meetings, one of the main difficulties is that participants can find it difficult to get involved and contribute. Quieter people can often get lost in online meetings. The hosts job is to make sure that each person attending has the opportunity to speak up in the meeting which will also help them to know they are acknowledged as a participant.

To do this, you should not only pause regularly throughout the meeting and ask for input from attendees, but when forming your agenda, it is a good idea to give each person time on it. For example, before the meeting, ask attendees to prepare a summary of what they have been working on for the past week. Each person should then be given 5 minutes on the agenda to go through their part. Once each person finishes, others in the group should be able to either ask a question about it, make a suggestion or pass. Then, you move onto the next person.

Getting everyone involved through these techniques will help encourage effective collaboration as well as communication. Moreover, they will mean that the meeting does not get dominated by the more confident individuals and allows quieter members of the group a fair amount of screen time.

Keep them short & sweet

According to research, the engagement in meetings starts to drop off quite rapidly after about 30 minutes. This number becomes even less for virtual meetings for serval reasons - Harvard Business Review explained these a recent article.

“In part, it’s because they force us to focus more intently on conversations in order to absorb information. Think of it this way: when you’re sitting in a conference room, you can rely on whispered side exchanges to catch you up if you get distracted or answer quick, clarifying questions. During a video call, however, it’s impossible to do this unless you use the private chat feature or awkwardly try to find a moment to unmute and ask a colleague to repeat themselves.” said Harvard Business Review. “The problem isn’t helped by the fact that video calls make it easier than ever to lose focus.”

The article later stated “Finally, “Zoom fatigue” stems from how we process information over video. On a video call the only way to show we’re paying attention is to look at the camera. But, in real life, how often do you stand within three feet of a colleague and stare at their face? Probably never. This is because having to engage in a “constant gaze” makes us uncomfortable — and tired.”

Keep your virtual meetings between 15 and 45 minutes if possible, to keep all participants focused while also making optimum use of time. If you cannot fit your meeting into this time frame, experts recommend an agenda of no longer that 15-minute increments to help the meeting stay energised and collaboration at its highest.

Connect on a human level

By no means should virtual meetings be all work and no play. When run successfully, they will create a safe place for staff to feel comfortable in contributing and collaborating.

As humans, we rely on meaningful connections with one another for our emotional and psychological well-being. Spend a short amount of time checking-in on how everyone is feeling – this will help set the tone and pace for the rest of the meeting. Look for signs that people are feeling off-colour.

Another way to connect on a human level in virtual meetings is to use a technique which involves hosts starting all meetings with a personal connection before diving into the business topic at hand. For example, Louis Efron a former employee of DaVita, the Fortune 200 kidney dialysis company explained in an article how the leader of meetings would ask a ‘check-in’ question such as “What is your favourite childhood memory?” or “What is your top life hack tip?”. In other cases, it was explained how meeting attendees could also be asked to choose a picture of a weather condition or potted flower in various condition to illustrate how they are feeling. These actions are not only fun but give colleagues the chance to connect and get to know one another more personally while they can’t be in the office together.

Conclusion

As we move indoors over the winter, we can expect further imposition of Coronavirus restrictions. With that in mind, now is the right time to prepare to ensure you are well equipped for remote working as well as online meetings.

Remember to prepare upfront and create an agenda where everyone is given time to contribute. Choose the right tool for your organisation’s needs, familiarise yourself with it in advance and have a plan in place for any issues that may occur. You will also want to ensure you keep the meeting short and sweet when you can and connect with your staff on a human level through casual check-ins or check-in questions. Follow these steps and your meetings should run as smoothly and successfully throughout these unsettling times of change and beyond.

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