How To Tell If Your Virtual Meetings Waste Everyone's Time

Last Updated May 26, 2011 8:58 AM EDT

Webmeetings,virtual meetings, "WebExes" (even when you're not actually using WebEx. ); call them what you will, they can save a lot of time,travel and money. As we also know they can be frustrating and not always accomplish their goals. How can you tell if your meetings are getting the job done?

The trick is to stop thinking of them as something exotic and strange. The key word, after all, is meeting. The way to judge a meeting's failure hasn't changed in thousands of years. It either gets the job done, or it doesn't. You want to pass on information, gain buy-in, get everyone's best thinking and keep the project moving. The medium is just a tool you use to accomplish your goals.

Your criteria for success shouldn't be any different than in a face to face meeting. Here are some of the questions we have participants in our virtual meetings training classes ask themselves and their meeting participants to assess how well things have gone. If you don't like the answers, do something about it:

  • Did they know the agenda, what they should prepare and the expected outcomes? Because time is of the essence in the virtual workplace, it's critical that participants show up on time, are prepared to contribute, and don't have a miserable attitude coming in. A real agenda, links to any documents or information they need, and a rough idea of what will be expected of them and the meeting in general are crucial to creating a productive mindset. Oh and they need that information well before the meeting starts (and not in an email 5 minutes before start time).
  • Was the process of getting started so frustrating they wanted it over before it started? The mechanics of setting up and kicking off a virtual meeting can leave everyone so frustrated and cranky it's difficult to have your head in the right place as either the meeting leader or a participant. Make sure everyone has the audio and log-in information in advance- preferably with an automatic calendar entry and a link in the invitation. Even if it's the same information all the time, include it. Start and end on time. Ensure people are comfortable and know how to use the technology before you get into the important stuff. (Telling people to "submit questions or comments in chat" is great unless they don't know how to do that).
  • Did the leader sound like they knew what they were doing? The first minute or two of a virtual meeting set the tone--especially if there's a history of ineffectiveness. If participants have to hear you setting things up, muttering to yourself or sounding uncertain, it will only reinforce any negative attitudes they already have. If you're leading the meeting, be the first one on. Have visuals, application and your technology good to go before people start logging in so you can relax, greet them as you would in a live face-to-face meeting and have your head in the game. Oh, and there's no shame in having a co-presenter to run the technology or even lead the meeting so you can focus on listening, questioning and actually focusing on the desired outcome instead of the process.
  • Were participants able to contribute to the meeting? If all they're going to do is sit there and answer email, why are they there? Can't you just send them the data? Can you record it and have them listen later? If you're going to ask for their input and questions, then make it easy. Use the tools at your disposal. Leave the phone lines open to make conversation easier--or at least encourage people to unmute their phones and pipe up. Use chat for those who don't want to barge in but have questions or comments and really encourage them to use it. Don't hold questions til the end if they're relevant and move the process forward. The good facilitation and listening skills necessary to conduct a good meeting are even more important online. If you can't run a traditional meeting there isn't much hope for your remote team.
  • Do they have to ask, "so what was that all about?" Nothing kills the energy of a meeting (and often subsequent meetings) like ending a call and staring at the phone wondering why you bothered to show up at all. When you wrap up a virtual meeting it's critical that there is a wrap up of what was accomplished, the action steps, and thank them for their time and make explicit how this time was useful. Any meeting that concludes with "well we're out of time so we'll pick up next week. Thanks..." is not going to inspire warm, fuzzy feelings.
How effective are your team's virtual meetings? If you can identify specific behaviors or problems, it's easier to address them. If you don't take the time to identify why they're painful, they'll just continue to suck the life from all concerned.

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