If you’re looking to cut travel costs and increase efficiencies, running videoconferences instead of face-to-face meetings is a good place to start. “You save a lot of time and money,” says Nancy Settle-Murphy, who heads Guided Insights, a Boxborough, Mass.-based consultancy specializing in virtual collaboration. “And you can even include more people, because you don’t have to worry about travel schedules.” Done well, they also can be more effective and focused than a traditional face-to-face meeting.
Still, says Settle-Murphy, “If they’re not planned wisely, virtual meetings can be a huge waste of time.” Here’s how to avoid that fate.
Decide whether you need video or not. In some cases, you may want to run the meeting virtually, but seeing the other participants might not be necessary. For example, if a group needs to work intensively on a common project, then it might be better to use a screen-sharing program through which participants view a shared document, but not each other.
Make sure everyone is on the same page. That means, first of all, checking that all participants have the necessary tools and technology, along with reliable Internet access. And confirm that everyone is comfortable using the technology. “Encourage people to do a test run if they haven’t used the equipment for a while,” says Settle-Murphy.
While you’re at it, consider cultural factors. “People in the U.S. tend to be shyer about showing themselves on video than a lot of other countries,” says Grace Kim, senior product marketing manager for Cisco Systems, which sells videoconferencing equipment.
Remember that everyone can see you all the time. When you’re sitting at your desk, alone in your office, it’s easy to forget that your meeting colleagues are watching, even when you’re not speaking. For that reason, make sure that whatever can be seen in the background isn’t highly personal or something you don’t want other people to see. Also, take a look at the lighting in your office, to ensure it’s not too dark.
Another tip is to avoid eating or drinking while the meeting is on. Not only can that be distracting, but, according to Settle-Murphy, some cultures regard it as extremely rude. “I’ve had European clients tell me they were shocked that Americans ate their lunch during a business conference,” she says. With some technology on the market, you have the option of pausing the video, although your voice can still be heard. The upshot: If you simply have to take a bite of your sandwich, freeze the picture for a moment.
What’s more, curb your tendency to sneak a peak at your smart phone or email: Everyone can see you doing it. One tip: At the beginning of the meeting, set some ground rules, such as turning off any potentially distracting equipment.
Stay on track. According to Settle-Murphy, attendees to any virtual meeting tend to have a shorter attention span than people at the regular variety. That means discussions need to be shorter and follow the agenda tightly. In addition, the meeting facilitator has to take steps to keep people engaged and focused. One effective technique, says Settle-Murphy is “to keep them guessing.” For example, if you see that people aren’t paying attention, then jump in and ask them a question. “Go around the virtual roundtable and don’t call on them in order, so they won’t know what’s coming,” she says.
Make sure you don’t really require a face-to-face conversation. In some cases, you can use videoconferencing to supplement regular meetings. Kim, for example, points to the owners of a financial services practice who meet in-person with clients every quarter, but conduct shorter monthly discussions through video-based conversations.
At the same time, some meetings always need to be conducted in person, period. A discussion about a highly sensitive issue or a potentially tough negotiation, for example, shouldn’t be done virtually. “When trust is a factor or the matter is likely to be highly contentious, you need to meet face-to-face,” says Settle-Murphy. “If you’re talking about the company picnic, video is fine.”