Productive virtual meetings

At freistil IT, we’re not sharing an office. Instead, our work environment is completely virtual. “Coming into office” means logging in to our internal chat server – from home, from a coworking space or (quite frequently, in my case) from Starbucks. On our IRC server, we have channels for different purposes, for example the “virtual watercooler” without a pre-defined topic, or the “#incident” channel where we manage an ongoing systems outage.

This means that our meetings are virtual, too. We mainly use Skype (since there’s actually still no better alternative). While meetings that have all people in a room have their own problems (hands up if you thought at least once “Oh dear, please, someone shoot me now”), virtual meetings need even more effort to be effective.

On LifeHack, I recently found a great list of Tips for Having Great Virtual Meetings. The most important point comes right at the beginning of the article: “The three most important ingredients of a successful virtual meeting are trust, communication and ready access to information.” These three ingredients actually depend on each other and create the foundation of productive teamwork.

From the list of tips, these are the three I think are most important:

  • “Before the meeting, make sure attendees have all the preparation materials they will need and the time to review them.” That’s a prerequisite for every kind of meeting, virtual or not. The worst meetings are those where everyone comes unprepared.
  • “Solicit participation.” By keeping everyone engaged in the meeting, you can prevent people “spending their time more effectively” by checking email or Google Plus.
  • “Assign a meeting monitor.” Having someone focus on feedback coming in from the different participants helps that everyone feels being “heard” and connected.

There’s also a tip on the list that I disagree with: “Begin with a quick warm-up.” If all participants already know each other, I don’t think it’s necessary to spend (may I say “waste”?) time on things that don’t contribute to the purpose of the meeting. This reminds me of a story where, in a meeting at Apple, somebody started to chat about the weekend and quickly got interrupted by Steve Jobs saying “Can we raise the tone of conversation here?” I feel the same. There are other ways of letting colleagues know about each other’s news outside of meetings, for example in chat rooms or on an internal social network like Yammer.

Instead, I’d add this tip to the list: Keep the meeting’s agenda and minutes in a shared document that all participants can follow in real-time, for example on Google Docs. This keeps everyone literally “on the same page” and even spares the effort of having to write and send a protocol after the meeting concludes.

What’s your experience with virtual meetings? How do you make sure they’re not a waste of time and bandwidth?

2 thoughts on “Productive virtual meetings”

  1. I find the one-to-one (or maybe up to 3 people) calls bit more effective. If there are too many people on the call and some issue is being discussed it’s more difficult to make sure that everyone pays full attention, because somebody might think the issue doesn’t concern him (that much). Also I miss the opportunity to grab a piece of paper and quickly draw some schema or something :-).

    Do you have a good tip for screen sharing and/or video call for groups (besides Skype Business version :-)) ?

    Thanks for the post !

    1. Hi David,

      we use Skype most of the time and, besides the occasional distortion, it works quite well. We’re currently also experimenting with Google Hangouts. Alternatively, I’d probably use WebEx or GoToMeeting.

      Cheers,
      Jochen

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