When done right, online meetings can be an ‘incredibly powerful method of collaboration’
Log in. Mike check. Camera check. Start the agenda.
With meetings now just one click away, you’d expect these calls to flow without a hitch. But a number of things can go wrong in a virtual meeting.
Just in the past year, we’ve seen more than our fair share of online meeting blunders – from the hilarious to the horrendous. There’s that worker who accidentally turned herself into a potato, and the council member who was unaware he’d been broadcasting himself in the shower.
Or that string of cyber-attacks called Zoombombing where intruders hacked their way into virtual meetings, hijacked the call and flashed illicit images on the screen.
And who could forget LinkedIn’s virtual town hall meeting on racism where anonymous employees left “offensive” comments against members of minority groups?
Read more: How to help remote workers feel included
Running virtual meetings requires skill.
“Remote meetings are inherently different from in-person meetings, and this means they are often poorly run,” said Howard Tiersky, co-author of ‘Impactful Online Meetings: How to Run Polished Virtual Working Sessions That Are Engaging and Effective’.
“That’s a serious concern even in normal times, but in times like these, it can be disastrous. It’s crucial that leaders get meetings right, right away.”
Set the right mood – and socialise
When done right, virtual meetings can be an “incredibly powerful method of enabling collaborative work,” said Tiersky, who shared the following steps with HRD:
- Define the purpose of your meeting clearly
- Get participants into the right mindset
- Have them ‘fully engaged’
- Provide high-quality content aligned with your purpose
- Make it easy for everyone (not just presenters) to participate
In a traditional face-to-face meeting, participants generally come to the table with their minds already set on the agenda. That’s the advantage of working in a shared space such as the office.
But when you’re holding a virtual conference, you’re managing employees who come from “a wide range of emotional ‘spaces’ when they arrive – many of them negative,” Tiersky said. Remote employees might be distracted by the myriad activities happening at home.
Take charge, set the mood of the meeting, and keep topics of casual conversation positive. “You might ask if anyone has a funny story to share, or if they’ve seen a creative way their community is pulling together or giving back,” Tiersky said.
“The more you can build a sense of community right now, the better for everyone’s emotional health and work performance,” he said. “A well-run meeting can actually be a bright spot in an otherwise dreary and depressing day.”
If you’re managing a hybrid team, “level the playing field” for both office- and home-based workers, said Dominika Paciorkowska, managing director of video-conferencing specialist ClickMeeting.
“If your company relies on the informal communication found around the watercooler to make progress, remote employees are going to be at a disadvantage,” Paciorkowska said. Instead, team leaders should take note of how employees communicate with one another in the real world.
Streamline and declutter
One way to get everybody involved is to assign each member a specific task: one can be the facilitator or moderator; a few others can be presenters; while two can be the timekeeper and notetaker. The organiser will then coordinate all assignments.
Ensuring the virtual meeting runs smoothly also means getting files, slide decks and screen-sharing tools ready and tuning out possible distractions along the way.
“If you are going to be sharing your screen, close extra open applications, confidential documents, email, or other material you would not want to be accidentally seen,” Tiersky said.
“If you have one of those desktops with 10,000 random icons on it (like me), either clean that up or maximise the presentation screen so the audience will not see that mess.”
Let attendees know if they need to be on camera
Tiersky believes asking everyone to turn on their video camera improves the effectiveness of online meetings by 200%. It’s one way of getting attendees to participate, since they know their actions and expressions can be seen by all, he said.
Some HR leaders, however, would rather make it optional. “From a human resources perspective, while we can encourage everyone to turn on their cameras to increase the visual interaction – thus continuing to build human connections virtually – we should not expect or demand it,” an executive told HRD.
“Not everyone is a natural digital native and there will always be those who are more self-conscious about how they appear. Sometimes the staff may be having a difficult day and would be more comfortable staying off camera for specific meetings.”
But if using a video camera is absolutely necessary, then meeting organisers should notify participants of the requirement well ahead of the meeting. This way, attendees can prepare themselves and their equipment in advance.
Respect boundaries and agree on the schedule
Working from home requires some degree of flexibility, so it’s important for meeting organisers to set team communication around common work hours.
“The shift to remote working for many organisations has also seen a shift in behaviours,” said I/O psychologist Sarah Zerella. “The uptake of virtual collaboration tools has resulted in an increase in expectation and accessibility.”
“An employee with a full day of meetings in the office wouldn’t necessarily be able to respond to emails immediately and would need to juggle their time. Realistic expectations of accessibility should be set as well as clear boundaries,” Zerella told HRD.
Before scheduling a meeting, organisers can poll attendees over which days and times they can be expected online, then work towards a consensus.
By consulting all members and acknowledging their preferred hours of communication, the team “creates transparency, allows for autonomy, and ensures that employees are working at agreed times without creating the expectation that they are always accessible,” Zerella said.
Keep meetings safe from hackers
No matter how great our presentation, our efforts will be wasted if we can’t keep our virtual meetings secure.
“Organisations managing home-based employees must ensure that all company-owned devices are configured with up-to-date security tools that detect and prevent viruses, malware, and network level attacks,” said Robert Capps, vice president of market innovation at NuData Security.
The increasing demand for video conferencing apps makes these platforms a target of hackers. The meeting organiser should therefore make use of a variety of tools for setting the level of access of different participants.
“As with any popular technology, along with the obvious benefits, there are also risks,” a security researcher told HRD.