How to make virtual meetings as good (or better!) than in-person meetings

As business and teams get more global, many leaders move the in-person meetings to virtual, maintaining the same frequency and largely similar format.  Unfortunately, this approach fails to harness the full collaborative power of a rich, diverse global talents.  And worse, often leads to compromised productivity and lower engagement.  When was the last time you were:

  • sending emails, having side chats, working on your other presentation while someone else was speaking on the conference call?

  • Annoyed by the repeated beeping sounds because some folks were late?  And you have to repeat yourself 3 times!

  • Not sure why a meeting was on your calendar.  You were asked to attend and it was a complete waste of time.

  • Running from conference call to call, it's 5pm and you haven't gotten any "real work done"?


Virtual Meetings

Here are few simple things you can do, as the leader/host, to improve the effectiveness of your virtual meetings.

There are great technology tools today to help teams connect and collaborate better cross continents.  However, there are a few simple things you can do, as the leader/host, to improve the effectiveness of your virtual meetings.

1. Set Expectations (to be respectful)

For each meeting, be clear on the Purpose, the role of each Participant (inputs/outputs), the desired outcomes.  Establish ground rules right at the very beginning of the series or at each meeting: be prepared, on-time and present (ie no emails, checking out restaurants for dinner or mute to go feed your dogs).

If the meeting is "optional", or involve too many "optional attendees", revisit the purpose of the meeting.  Information sharing aka "broadcast an update", is better done through a well-crafted email with clear call-to-actions or documentation on the shared work portal.

 2. Plan Ahead (to be inclusive)

For recurring meetings, set the schedule and put on the calendar of all participants. Be sensitive to the time differences for the attendees.  More and more global teams are now rotating their meetings timing every quarter, to share the pain of conference calls at late hours.  DON’T assume that the timing (whether it's during or after standard business hours) that works for you will work for others.

Have a discussion early on in the team formation on the meeting rhythm, understand the "no fly zone" for each team member, major holidays, agree on the trade-offs and compromises.

3. Prepare (to be productive)

Publish the agenda, share the relevant reports/documents at least 48 hours before the meeting.  We want the team to have reviewed the agenda and prepare their inputs for a productive dialogue.  This is particularly helpful for staff where English is not their first language.  It also encourages participation from team members with different working styles.  For example, introverted individuals may like to process the information and deliberate on their own before sharing in a more public forum.

4. Engage everyone (to encourage contribution)

Acknowledge everyone as they join the call.  If we were to attend the meeting in person, it's basic courtesy to greet whoever that's in the room, though may just be a brief "hey, morning".  How is it ok to ignore our colleagues just because we are remote?  As the host, notice anyone that has not spoken and invite the person to comment.  Manage any steam-roller respectfully by first acknowledge & thank the person for the active contribution, doing a time-check, restating the topic of the hour, that it's important everyone has the opportunity to contribute, and to get to the desired outcome/outputs by the end of the meeting.

5. Be flexible (to grow with the business) 

Depending on the state of your business or stage of your team (form-storm-norm-perform), you alter the frequency, duration and format of the meeting.  If it's a new leadership team following a recent restructuring, or landing a new strategy, you may need to meet more frequently during the first 1-2 quarters.  If the composition of your team has changed, for eg., from all Singapore-based team to distributed across APJ, you may want to change the ratio of 1:1 vs team meetings, especially if some of your new Managers whom English is their second language and reporting to non-local supervisor for the first time.  Review, evolve the format & frequency as the team grows.

These 5 tips are simple to understand but uncommon in practice.  Why?  Common excuses include: things are moving too fast we simply don't have the time for that, I have a large global team and can't please everyone...  Yes, it takes a little time investment to structure the meeting.  It will return you with higher buy-in and engagement from your team because you care!  And this is good for your bottom line.

Jacinta Quah