With the world in its current state of crisis, meeting face-to-face with business colleagues, clients and even employees is on hold indefinitely – and this situation may never return to what we previously thought of as normal.
More and more people are working from home in order to achieve business continuity. Everything we do in the workplace, from meetings, webinars and conferences to major product launches and hiring new staff, are being done virtually, and often from our own living rooms or home offices.
According to a survey by Gartner, published in May of this year, strategic planning assumptions predict that by 2024:
- “In-person meetings will drop from 60% of enterprise meetings to 25% - this being driven by remote work and changing workforce demographics”
- “Combating meeting overload will be one of the top 10 workforce management conflicts…”
- “Only 10% of enterprise video meetings will take place in rooms, with the remaining 90% on personal computers or mobile devices, drastically dropping investments in meeting room devices”
Conferencing platforms like WebEx, Teams, Skype, Zoom, or Slack have all created ‘feel’s-like-I’m-there’ virtual platforms that are now being incorporated into many organizations’ personal brand.
But what happens when your virtual meeting is persistently hindered by technical issues? Things like poor quality audio and video due to latency, packet loss or jitter can de-rail an important meeting, damage your brand and ultimately affect your bottom line.
We’ve done some research and put together what we believe are 11 of the best ways to have a polished, professional virtual meeting that can create memorable first (and subsequent) impressions on all attendees.
Quality, functioning equipment is key.
1. Test your technology
Some technical issues are probably unavoidable, no matter how well you plan things. But you can reduce the likelihood of something going wrong, by taking the time to test your web conferencing application well in advance of your virtual meeting or interview. If you’re using programs like Microsoft Teams, WebEx, or Zoom for the first time, you need to explicitly grant screen sharing, audio access, and webcam permissions to the programs. This can involve restarting the program and/or your system, so to make sure everything is ready go, you’ll need to do this in advance.
2. Acoustics matter
There’s nothing more distracting than a hollow, echoey sound when speaking to meeting participants. Make sure you’re in a room that is carpeted, and ‘insulated’ with soft furnishings to get the best audio results. Even placing rugs, floor pillows or other reverb-reducing materials in an uncarpeted room can create a warmer, more user-friendly sound.
3. Get the lighting right
Another distraction is a dimly lit room. Your desk should have soft, but strong lighting, for example LED with adjustable controls on either side of your webcam. This will illuminate your face, and can be regulated to adjust to the time of day.
4. Stabilize your equipment
- There’s no doubt that smartphones have made our lives easier than we ever dreamed. But the truth is they’re not ideal for video conference calls. Holding your phone, or trying to balance it on a desk can make for unstable image quality. Important meetings are best conducted on a laptop or desktop computer.
- We’ve mentioned acoustics, but to have superior quality audio, the best sound levels, and minimum distortion, you need, at the very least a headset or lavalier microphone, rather than your built-in computer microphone. Another tip is to mute your microphone when you’re not talking, to avoid ambient background noise causing distractions.
- Positioning your laptop on your desk can cause your image to be awkwardly tilted. Raise your webcam to eye level, so that your image looks natural, as you were face to face with the person/people you’re speaking to.
It’s all in the planning
5. Create group calendars and notifications
Meetings can be challenging to plan at the best of times, but a virtual meeting can hold many obstacles of its own, for example trying to gather participants from different time zones. Send invitations well in advance of the meeting, and make sure everyone confirms. Smart notifications can be a great help when working remotely, by making sure participants receive them at least 15 minutes before the meeting.
6. Create a solid structure to your meeting
One of the challenges in a virtual meeting is that participants tend to interject whenever they like. It’s important to have an agenda that shows the structure of the meeting so that everyone knows where their comment or question belongs. Focusing on what’s important, or at the core of the meeting is crucial. Asking attendees to stay and listen to minor issues that aren’t pertinent to them is a waste of their valuable time.
7. Create feedback loops
In a real-life conference, there is constant feedback flowing between audience and speaker, like applause, the opportunity to comment and even demonstrating disagreement. Body language is noticeably absent during a virtual meeting, so you need to advocate the use of a substitute to keep participants engaged. Comment streams, virtual clapping apps, emojis and embedded micro-surveys can make meetings more interactive by allowing attendees to rate the effectiveness of the meeting.
8. Create breakout groups
Engagement is crucial in a virtual setting, to avoid boredom. In a people-to-people meeting, breakout or splinter groups are common. These are smaller group settings within the conference, providing workshops, or smaller panel discussions rather than just sitting back and watching. Depending on the software you’re using, these can be easy to arrange, and can be enabled via your settings.
The human side of things
Putting the ‘human’ back into virtual meetings needn’t be hard.
9. Arrange pre-meeting banter
Our brain processes things differently when we’re not face to face, due largely to the lack of body language (we’re only viewing people from the shoulders up) and non-verbal cues. Some people are simply not comfortable conversing on a screen and tend to remain in the periphery during a team discussion. Being forced to interact can cause stress and anxiety, and can hinder a participant’s ability to display their talents and strengths. Everyone’s contribution to a meeting is valuable, so making time for small talk before the meeting commences can really serve to break the ice. It also helps to clearly define everyone’s role in the meeting, what they’re expected to contribute, and the desired outcomes.
10. Content is always king
Meetings can be mind-numbingly boring even in a real-life setting. But is this because of the event itself, or the facilitators? Anyone can take the latest technical gizmo to flash lengthy pages of text on a screen, but who wants to die a painful ‘death by PowerPoint’? It’s vitally important to know our audience and what they’re expecting from the meeting. Quality content that doesn’t ramble and covers only the relevant material will keep participants engaged and avoid the chance of a disastrous meeting. And don’t try to present the content too perfectly. Remind people that virtual meetings can still have some human moments. Pauses, stumbles and even glaring bloopers can inject a little spontaneity and relaxation into what can be a somewhat stressful or unentertaining event.
11. Create networking opportunities
- One of the key reasons that people attend conferences and events is to network. But in a virtual meeting this can be tricky to pull off naturally. Some software may provide a ‘networking tab’ that connects people randomly with other event attendees, providing an opportunity to have a quick chat. It’s important for organizers to integrate community-building opportunities. Other ideas could be a virtual ‘lounge’ space for people to interact between presentations. You could build in trivia events, happy hours, games, quizzes and other virtual events to keep people fresh, alert and ultimately engaged.
- In a real-life meeting or event, many companies like to flaunt their brand with marketing material like t-shirts, pens, notebooks etc. If you really wanted to reflect your brand in a virtual meeting, you could invest some design resources and offer a digital ‘goody bag’ containing virtual gift cards, eBooks, animated stickers, wallpaper etc.
Whether you love them or hate them, virtual meetings are part of the new way we work, and are here to stay…at least for the foreseeable future. With some of these tips, as well as flexibility, training and support from organization leaders, teams can stay productive and motivated.