9 ways to fix awful virtual meetings

Are your colleagues playing conference call annoyance bingo? Bad virtual meetings can drive people crazy -  in multiple locales. Here's how to do better
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Meetings can be the glue that holds virtual teams together. But bad virtual meetings simply leave people groaning in various locales across the country. They may even breed resentment. How can you avoid this?

The most effective virtual teams meet once a week, according to Darleen DeRosa, Ph.D., managing partner with OnPoint Consulting and co-author of "Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance." 

Telephone and video conferences, however, come with a host of challenges that can result in decreased effectiveness. Virtual meeting participants may be located in different time zones with some meeting participants just starting their day while others are trying to wrap up their work. Virtual conferencing technology has improved, but technical difficulties can create additional frustration for attendees. Infrequent face-to-face contact and lack of visual cues makes communication more difficult. 

[ It's not your imagination: Some meetings hurt your brain. See our related story: How to run meetings that hurt less. ]

“Creating a culture of trust is hard enough when everyone is local and shares the same office,” says Donna Steffey, president of Vital Signs Consulting. “When they are dispersed, communication can break down and cooperation can disintegrate into distrust. Reducing the degree of social or emotional distance and increasing cooperation and quickly building trust becomes the primary challenge for the virtual leader during meetings.”

Poor virtual meeting management can lead to degradation of virtual team performance. However, virtual team leaders can take to several actions to better facilitate meetings from a distance.

Skip the status updates

The vast majority of information sharing or status update meetings are a waste of time for participants, DeRosa says. Employees report they spend more time preparing for a status update call than the time they are on the call. More importantly, 60 percent of managers report they multi-task during status update calls, says DeRosa. “If there is no expectation for interaction among team members to solve a problem or make a decision you should consider using shared sites or email to get people the information the need,”she says. 

Share an agenda

“While having an agenda is always important, it is doubly important in a virtual meeting,” says Dick Axelrod, who with his wife Emily Axelrod co-founded leadership and organizational consultancy The Axelrod Group and co-wrote "Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done." “Virtual meetings require a clear road map which shows tells participants where they are going and how they will get there,” he says. 

To make it as productive as possible, outline what will happen before, during and after the meeting, adds DeRosa. Use the agenda to determine who needs to attend and send a copy to all participants, noting the purpose and expected outcome for each agenda item. “Allotting a certain amount of time for each agenda item gives attendees the option of joining the meeting just for their portion of the discussion, rather than having to sit through the entire gathering,” says DeRosa.

Match the tools to the tasks

The more complex the virtual meeting agenda, the more advanced the meeting technology should be. “If your team needs to resolve a conflict or make a decision, for example, video conferencing tools or collaborative software can be your best bet,” says DeRosa. IT leaders can keep participants engaged during the meeting by using poll and chat options to solicit feedback on key issues. 

Test the technology

Virtual meeting leaders often assume everyone knows how to use the meeting technology or that it will work, says Steffey. But those ten-minute technical delays add up. Checking the technology ahead of time is critical to avoid wasting participants’ time.  

Make meetings short and sweet

Attention spans are shorter during virtual meetings. Reduce the possibility of attendee multi-tasking by scheduling shorter but perhaps more frequent meetings of 30 to 60 minutes – 90 minutes tops. “These shorter gatherings are likely to keep everyone more engaged,” DeRosa says. Also make sure to rotate meeting times to accommodate for time zone differences. 

Build in relationship-building

 Relationships are just as important in a virtual team as they are for a co-located team, but virtual team leaders tend to focus more on task than connection, says DeRosa. In some cases, you may want to distribute photos and short biographies prior to the meeting. Also, a quick 30-second roll call at the start of the meeting can make sure that participants are connected to one another, particularly when they don’t work together day to day, Axelrod says. “Just like in a face-to-face meeting, we should greet people when they join the meeting and take time to connect on a personal level,” DeRosa says. To accommodate this – and give your team the chance to build relationships – add time to the agenda for casual conversation.

Be an active facilitator

When verbally interacting with virtual participants, use their name to address them. “This not only pulls that participant more into the meeting but identifies that participant to others and serves as a direct reminder to all that the named participant is actively engaged,” says Steffey. 

Actively leading the meeting – paraphrasing comments, calling on people, periodically referring to the agenda noting what’s been accomplished so far and what remains to be addressed – creates a more dynamic virtual meeting, says Axelrod. “When posing a question to the group, don’t be afraid to call on people,” he adds “The surprise element keeps people motivated and alert.”

Engage attendees 

“Correspond personally in advance with each participant directly to confirm their participation in the meeting and engage their vested interest,” advises Steffey. You may want to assign regular or rotating meeting roles (such as facilitator) to further involve participants.  

Ensuring that everyone is responsible for an agenda item and limiting participation (no more than ten attendees per meeting) can also boost virtual engagement. “Research shows that the highest performing virtual teams are ones where everyone shares responsibility for keeping the group on track,” DeRosa says.

Attend to the end

It is particularly important to provide clarity when wrapping up virtual meetings. You should review decisions and assignments before bringing the meeting to an end, says Axelrod. It can also be helpful to conduct a quick assessment at the close. 

Axelrod suggests asking participants to answer three questions: Was this meeting time well spent? What worked today that we should continue doing? What didn’t work that out to be improved? This feedback can be used to improve the effectiveness of virtual team meetings over time.

[ Would you ask people to pay up - in cake - for wasting time? Read also: Time to rethink your team's approach to meetings. ]

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Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.