Almost overnight, working from home has become the new normal. As companies and governments introduce social distancing and self-isolation measures to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, teams have had to quickly adapt to an entirely new way of working.
The challenge now facing managers and leaders is keeping teams feeling unified and motivated despite being physically apart. Virtual meetings are a key part in making this happen, as they enable people to effectively collaborate and connect across cities, countries, and continents.
While the latest videoconferencing technology has made it easier than ever to hold meetings online, moving to virtual meetings will require your team to make a few adjustments in order for these meetings to remain as useful and productive as speaking face-to-face.
But before we get into the best strategies for hosting a productive virtual meeting, what exactly qualifies as a virtual meeting?
What is a virtual meeting?
A virtual meeting is any meeting that doesn’t take place at one physical location but occurs online with each participant attending remotely. While something as simple as an audio-only conference call could meet the definition of a virtual meeting, a more common example is when participants use webcams and microphones to communicate on platforms and apps such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Skype.
Absent the usual face-to-face social cues, this kind of meeting can create some barriers to natural communication. But as many teams are now finding out, virtual meetings can be just as effective and productive as those conducted in person.
How to set up a virtual meeting
Figuring out how to get teams together can be tricky depending on how spread out everybody is, but a few things are true no matter the distances involved. Schedule the meeting as far in advance as possible to give everybody the opportunity to prepare. Once you’ve arranged a time that suits all participants, confirm the details with a calendar invitation.
Most virtual meeting apps will generate a link alongside a passcode required for entry to the meeting. Include this in the calendar invitation to ensure that everybody has all of the information they need in one place. For last-minute meetings, apps like Zoom can initiate meetings and email invitations to your team at the same time.
Just as you would before any in-person meeting, share a clear and concise agenda with the attendees, describing not just the topics that will be covered but also the expectations around the format and rules of the meeting.
Virtual meeting etiquette: What are the dos and don’ts?
While every company will have their own ideas of what’s appropriate, there are a few simple ground rules for virtual meetings to ensure that things go as smoothly as possible. Here are a few dos and don’ts to bear in mind.
Do mute your mic when you’re not speaking
You might not realize how noisy your own surroundings are, and distracting environmental sounds such as phone calls, traffic, coughs, and sneezes can all be picked up and unwittingly broadcasted to the rest of the room. Save yourself potential embarrassment by clicking the microphone button to mute your side of the conversation until you’ve got something to say.
Do get dressed—and not just from the waist up…
While you’re unlikely to be expected to slip into full business attire for a virtual meeting, you’ll send the wrong message if you show up wearing that tattered old T-shirt you wore to bed last night. Continue to dress at home as you would around the office, and for the sake of your dignity, put some pants on, too. You could be one doorbell ring away from going viral.
Do let others know that you’re heading into a meeting
Give your partner, children, or anyone else you share your home with a heads-up that you’re about to have a meeting, so they can be mindful of not making too much noise or interrupting.
Do indicate when you’ve finished speaking
In person, we can usually tell when somebody has finished speaking by observing their body language and social cues. As these cues can be more difficult to pick up on in virtual meetings, it’s helpful to make it clear to other participants when you’ve said all you have to say. Either call on the next person to speak, open things up to questions, or move on to the next point on the agenda.
While it’s easy to become distracted over the course of a long meeting, avoid scrolling through your phone or switching to another browser window to check your emails or read the latest news. Turn off notifications, stay focused on the matter at hand, and consider having shorter or more interactive meetings if you feel your participants are losing interest.
You probably wouldn’t tuck into a bowl of granola during a regular meeting, so don’t do it in a virtual one. Not only might you be sharing the sound of your chomping for all to hear, but you’ll appear disengaged from the discussion—even if you’re paying attention.
Speaking over someone during an in-person meeting is generally a bad move, but in a virtual meeting it’s even more disruptive. Most virtual meeting apps will pull focus away from the person speaking if you interject, and the slight delay in the video feed will likely derail the speaker and confuse listeners. Keep your mic on mute and wait your turn.
Four common virtual meeting technologies
The number and variety of virtual meeting platforms have risen dramatically in recent years, driven by a rapid increase in teams working remotely. Most offer free versions or limited trials, so it’s worth trying out a few before deciding which software best suits your company’s needs. Here are a few of the major players, and for a complete list, check out our guide on the best videoconferencing tools.
GoToMeeting ($14 per month/free)
This powerful virtual meeting platform offers high-definition video- and audioconferencing as well as screen-sharing capabilities for both desktop and mobile. It’s especially useful while on the go, as the app allows you to start and host meetings straight from your smartphone, a feature that many competitors don’t offer.
Zoom Meetings ($14.99 per month/free)
The paid version of Zoom can host up to 1,000 participants in a single virtual meeting, but if you won’t need to host a small army, then the free version is pretty generous too. It offers features such as audio recordings of your meetings, virtual whiteboards, free one-on-one video calls, and time-limited sessions between teams of three or more people.
Google Hangouts (free)
Ideal for smaller teams, Google Hangouts is a free videoconferencing platform that supports calls for up to 10 participants. It’s web-based, so it won’t require any software installation and runs right in your browser.
While you might associate Skype with catching up with your grandparents, Microsoft’s cross-platform video-calling app is still a powerful tool for meetings. The generous free version is able to host virtual meetings for up to 50 people at once, while built-in file sharing and messaging capabilities helps keep teams organized and in one place.
Four tips for keeping people engaged and productive during virtual meetings
Successfully managing a virtual meeting requires a slightly different set of skills, as the attention span of participants is much more likely to wander when they’re not in the same room as one another. Here are a few ways to keep minds focused and alert.
1. Have participants give a quick tour of their surroundings
By simply describing the room they’re in, as well as any potential noises or interruptions colleagues can expect to hear, each participant gets a chance to exercise their individual hosting skills. Speaking at a virtual meeting can feel alien at first, so this task gets teams warmed up and ready to collaborate.
2. Make casual conversation
Without the benefit of face-to-face interaction, virtual meetings can feel awkwardly formal to start out, so spend a few minutes making small talk before diving into business, especially if any participants are running late. This helps to build rapport while also identifying any technical issues participants might be experiencing with their audio and video software.
3. Assign tasks
Having nothing to do will quickly turn participants into passive listeners, so give your team small jobs before the meeting begins to keep things active. These can be as straightforward as taking minutes, keeping notes, or controlling the slides of a presentation. Keep things interactive and your participants will remain engaged.
4. Make time for the introverts
Some participants will naturally be less inclined to speak up than others, especially if the meeting is crowded, so make the effort to call on them for their input. Try to end meetings by going around the virtual table to get everyone’s final thoughts. That way all participants have an equal opportunity to get their voices heard.
Conducting a virtual meeting can be a little daunting in the beginning, as you and your colleagues gradually figure out what works and what doesn’t. These are strange and challenging times for businesses, and by getting the most out of virtual meetings, teams can remain engaged and productive while feeling just as connected to one another as though they were in the same room.
Steve Hogarty is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the travel editor of City AM newspaper and the deputy editor of City AM Magazine, where his work focuses on technology, travel, and entertainment.