By Jaimy Ford

If you manage a virtual team, the conference call or web meeting may be your only option for meeting with your entire team on a regular basis. However, such meetings have some serious flaws. To name a few:

  • No one knows who is talking at any given point.
  • People talk over one another.
  • Participants do other work or “try” to multitask.
  • Everyone has to repeat themselves because not everyone is paying attention.
  • Members are distracted by dogs, unexpected vistors, technology issues and more.

And those issues are only minor compared to the biggest meeting failure: You don’t accomplish anything. That is a problem for every meeting, regardless the location of participants, but compounds in a virtual setting. It’s difficult to focus and get everyone on the same page.

While you can’t be in the room with every team member to ensure that they concentrate on the goal of the meeting, you can take steps to make your meetings more productive. Follow these steps:

Set some general rules

Meetings run more effectively when you have established guidelines that you actually ask people to follow. Some to consider:

  • No multitasking. Team members should be able to give you 100% focus for a block of time.
  • State your name when you speak. A quick “This is Jaimy” before continuing let’s everyone know who is talking.
  • Wait before you speak. Without being able to see everyone, it is very easy to talk over people. While it may be impossible to eliminate altogether, you can help matters by simply waiting three seconds after you think someone is finished before jumping in.
  • Do your best to block out noise. It’s impossible to get rid of it all, but participants should make their best effort to work in a quiet place. (That means not calling in from the local coffee shop or as they’re driving down the road).

Don’t invite everyone “just because”

This is a rule that not enough leaders follow. The people you invite to a meeting should only be the people that can make a contribution. Ideally, you’d limit attendance to eight, because large groups can become unmanageable. However, even if you need to invite more than that, don’t invite people just so they know what is going on. You can always send them a meeting summary later.

If you invite people who have no influence on the decision, who won’t be affected by it, or who can provide no insight, they aren’t going to actively listen, and you’re simply pulling them away from the work they should be doing.

Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule. For example, if you want to pull your entire team together to build relationships or you need to share information with everyone at once. Just make sure anyone who attends, should attend.

Write out the meeting’s goal and share it with attendees

First, if you’re calling a meeting, it should have a crystal clear obective; otherwise, it is just a waste of time. Before you send that invite, spell out specficially what you want to accomplish during the meeting. Then share that with participants before the meeting. During the meeting, when things go off track, refocus the group by saying something like “Remember our goal is to decide which vendor to use for March’s expo. We can discuss that at the end of the meeting if we have time.”

The more focused (and short) a meeting is, the more productive it will be. That’s not to say that you can’t cover multiple topics, but you need to ensure that the entire group understands all your goals for the meeting. Virtual meetings are best if they don’t exceed the 30-minute mark, so if you need to cover several topics, it’s best to schedule multiple meetings rather than trying to cover everything at once.

Prepare a detailed agenda

This is another step that managers often skip, perhaps because they don’t see the need. They may want a free-wheeling, brainstorming session and feel an agenda is too limiting. However, even brainstorming sessions benefit from some structure. For example a 30-minute ideation meeting could break down like this:

  • 5-minute discussion on the issue/problem to solve
  • 10-minute idea generation
  • 10-minute paring of ideas based on time, resources and ability to execute
  • 5-minute action plan summary

Try it: You will probably be pleasantly surprised by how much you can cover in 30 minutes, when everyone knows the clock is ticking.

Outlining the meeting, along with setting time limits for each section, keeps everyone focused and the meeting moving along at a quick pace, so create an agenda and send it to the team at least three days in advance when possible. Plus, ask people to jot down some ideas prior to the meeting so that everyone is prepared to contribute.

Send out all your materials ahead of time

Don’t wait until the last minute to pull together all the data and information you will need during the meeting. Preferably send it along with the agenda so that participants can familiarize themselves with the information prior to the meeting. That eliminates the need to take time to bring everyone up to speed.

Make sure you assign participants to review the materials before the meeting. If you merely suggest it, many people won’t, and you will spend too much time answering questions.

Wrap up meetings with a clear plan 

You should never conclude a meeting without summarizing the decision, action plan and any tasks you’ve assigned employees. Don’t assume people know what it to do. Repeat, gain confirmation and then send a short follow-up meeting summary.

Is your organization or team moving to (or already moved to) Microsoft’s Lync or Skype for Business for online meetings and collaboration? If so attend our April 5 webinar and learn how to use this collaboration tool to its fullest.

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