For a long time, physical meetings were considered far more productive and collaborative than online meetings. As technology continues to progress over time, however, this thinking has slowly been changing especially as more and more companies are starting to embrace remote working. Fast forward to today and we have a truly unique situation on our hands where the whole working world has been forced to work online. But many of us still face the challenge of how to run effective online meetings.

The coronavirus outbreak means millions of workers around the world are now working from home, many for the very first time. This means that teams are spread out so virtual meetings are on the rise. As almost 65% of a senior decision maker’s time is spent in meetings to gather updates on work progress, as you can imagine, the challenge now is to run effective online meetings to ensure that morale and productivity are affected as little as possible.

As business meetings are an integral part of any organisation’s daily schedule, here is everything that you need to know for preparing, participating and following up on remote meetings whilst working from home. Here is how to run effective online meetings…

How to run effective online meetings: Preparation

Preparation is key if you’re wondering how to run effective online meetings. Without it, you can’t be sure that communication is crystal clear and that important details and tasks won’t fall through the cracks. Here are 4 steps you need to take before the actual meeting.

1. Test the technology ahead of time

Nothing kills momentum (and productivity!) at the start of a meeting like a 15-minute delay because of technical issues so make sure to prepare your system in advance. Do your research and choose the best software for one-on-one meetings and ones that support multiple participants (e.g. Skype and Zoom). The day before, make sure that everybody has downloaded the software and have checked if their video and microphones are working.

2. Set a clear agenda

If you do nothing else to plan and prepare, make sure to create an agenda for the meeting. This is how to run effective online meetings as it reduces confusion and therefore, a lot of wasted time. According to Daniel Mittleman, an associate professor at the DePaul University School of Computer Science, Telecommunications and Information Systems, if there’s no written agenda, participants are “more likely to lose place, lose focus and lose attention to the meeting.”

To help everyone come to the meeting on the same page, prepare a formal agenda including:

  • The key issues to be discussed in the meeting prioritised according to your business needs,
  • What role you expect from each participant in the meeting or who will lead the discussion for each agenda item,
  • Room for last-minute additions or questions.

Make sure to send this agenda out at least 24 hours before the meeting and seek acknowledgement from all participants. This will allow people to familiarise themselves with the topics so that they can come with their own ideas and questions ready.

3. Set a time limit

Time capping your meetings can significantly boost your productivity and help you extract a lot more value in the limited time that you have. For example, allocating times to each section of the meeting (e.g. 5 minutes for personal greetings, 30 minutes for the meeting with 10 minutes for each agenda, and then 10 minutes of questions at the end), is a great way to minimise your presentation length and to keep participants focused and on-track.

4. Prepare your space

According to research, it can take nearly 20 minutes to get your brain back to where it was before you were distracted, so if you want to know how to run effective online meetings, eliminating distractions should be a priority.

Before your meeting, prepare your space beforehand to limit distractions. Find a quiet environment with a plain background and use headphones to minimise background noise and prevent audio feedback. If you are struggling with sitting for long periods of time, have a read of our article how to avoid back and shoulder pain from sitting too much.

How to run effective online meetings: Participation

There are certain things that you need to do in the meeting to ensure that everyone participates and stays on task. Here are 11 tips you may want to implement in your online meetings to increase their effectiveness.

1. Encourage the use of video

Video versus voice calls can make a massive difference to communication and productivity during a meeting so find a software that has both video and audio functionality. When we communicate it’s not just our words which convey our intent and feelings, it’s our body language too. As such a big chunk of communication is missing if you don’t use video, try to have everyone on video if possible.

2. Connect with people initially

You may be tempted to cut chit chat short when running online meetings, but this might be causing more harm than good.

Studies have shown that people perform better when they are comfortable with each other, which affords a greater degree of candour and mutual interest. One study, in particular, found that colleagues who shared an embarrassing story about themselves with their team produced 26% more ideas in brainstorming sessions than the people who didn’t. Now we’re not saying to let the chatting run free, that won’t do wonders for productivity. What we are saying is that it is worth scheduling in the time at the beginning of the meeting to check in with everybody one by one, especially during this time of social distancing. Just a minute each can make a massive difference.

3. Assign a moderator

Depending on how many team members you have, it may be worth appointing someone as the moderator or facilitator of the meeting to keep it running effectively. This individual will guide the conversation making sure participants are on-track and are focused on the priorities. If you set the rule that no one can speak without the moderator’s permission, then they can also ensure that all voices are heard and any questions are resolved.

Assigning a moderator is particularly important in online meetings as there is a high chance of miscommunication due to internet connectivity and audio/video quality.

4. Talk slow and steady

This may seem like a strange tip for how to run effective online meetings but talking slower can speed things up.

Online meetings should move at a slightly slower pace than in-person meetings,” suggests Susan Colaric, assistant vice president for Instructional Technology at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Florida. This is because most systems tend to have a 2-3 second delay in communication. If you talk at a slower pace and pause before asking a question, you can be sure that everyone understands and is on the same page instead of having to waste time repeating yourself.

5. Encourage collaborative problem-solving

Standard “report-outs” are boring and are rarely effective; they can weigh a meeting down, especially if not relevant for many of the team.

To run an effective online meeting, encourage a collaborative problem-solving approach. This means that everyone will come to the meeting ready to discuss a topic and will work together to generate fresh ideas in response to any challenges that arise.

6. Give everyone time on the agenda

One of the biggest challenges of running online meetings is getting everyone to participate without talking over each other.

As we mentioned previously, your assigned moderator can periodically call on individuals to speak to give everyone their time to ask questions or voice their ideas. Some software packages even allow attendees to “raise a hand” if they want too which can help the moderator drive closure without the risk of excluding an introverted participant’s views. Along with collaborative problem solving, going around the table and giving each person some time on the agenda fosters greater collaboration and input from all the team members.

7. Ban multitasking

It’s still a common misconception that multitasking is an effective method of getting many things done at once. It’s actually the best way to do many things poorly.

Many studies into multitasking have shown that, despite the brain’s remarkable complexity and power, there’s a bottleneck in information processing when it tries to perform two distinct tasks at once. Not only is this bad for the brain; it’s bad for the team. Whilst running online meetings, there should be a firm policy against multitasking as it’s important for everyone to be present and focused on the task at hand.

Here are three ways that you can enforce the ‘no multitasking’ rule:

  • Use video so that your team members can see you and you, them.
  • Have the moderator call on people randomly to share their thoughts.
  • Give people different tasks in the meeting and rotate these regularly (e.g. keeping minutes, tracking action items etc).

8. Take great notes

Taking notes and encouraging others to take notes during the meeting can make them far more effective. Why? Because as the Virgin Group founder, Richard Branson, himself says “If you don’t write your ideas down, they could leave your head before you even leave the room.”

As well as keeping track of potential ideas, taking notes can also reduce stress levels, keep you on task and make you more productive – all of which you’d want in your online meetings. Encourage note-taking and find what works best for you and your team. It could be something like ‘online mind maps,’ software which allows participants to add notes and ideas as they come up, in real-time. This is a great way to keep everyone engaged, to create more clarity and, to get input from all team members involved.

9. Conclude with clear action items

One of the best ways to ensure that this online meeting was effective, and therefore the next one too, is to have a quick recap at the end.

When the meeting’s about to end, have everyone recap the action items that they’re responsible for and when they will be delivering it by. Not only does this reassure you that everyone understands what they have to do, but it also ensures accountability so that you’re not left with vague promises and assurances at the end of each meeting.

Remember that the key rule for effectiveness is three-fold: identify an action item, assign it to an individual, and agree on a deadline. Without these three things, no action item can be tracked effectively.

10. Set a timescale

Another important point to make when thinking about how to run effective online meetings is to always assign time. Time is your best friend if you use it right.

For a meeting to be effective, everyone needs to leave it with a clear objective. They need to know what their deliverables are, when those deliverables are due AND when the next meeting or check-in will be. It’s really easy, especially in this technological world where you can “miss an email,” to fall behind on deadlines, so this is why it’s essential to set a date for that next meeting in advance. This ensures accountability and has the extra benefit of giving everyone plenty of notice to add it into their schedule.

11. Allow time at the end for questions/concerns

Depending on how you like to structure your online meetings, you might have a chunk of time at the end dedicated to allowing people to clarify certain things or to voice their concerns. Sometimes there will be no questions and in that case, the meeting ends early! In others, however, people may disagree with something or they may have certain concerns that they wish to discuss. By allocating some time to this in the actual meeting, this will help people to ‘vent’ now instead of harbouring any resentment to people later.

How to run effective online meetings: Follow up

When the meeting ends, it shouldn’t just be over. Here are a couple of things that you need to do at the end of an online meeting (and beyond) to maintain clear communication from everyone involved.

1. Capture real-time feedback

If you want to make sure that your online meeting was effective, consider gathering and processing real-time feedback from your participants. Not only will it give you insight into how this meeting went, but it will also give you valuable information that you can use to improve future meetings.

You can do this during the meeting by using a phone-based survey tool such as Poll Everywhere, which collects on-demand feedback from participants on specific topics in real-time, or immediately after the meeting, you could send out a follow-up to check in with your participants. This can be a simple email but it’s easier to send out a quick and anonymous feedback survey. Just make sure that you ask for ways to improve, not about problems – “anyone can point out flaws, even when it can’t be fixed or didn’t really matter. You don’t want to solicit a negative rant at the end of a meeting.”

2. Share meeting notes

Thinking about how to run effective online meetings is as much about what happens after the meeting as it is during.

To make the time after the meeting as effective and productive as possible, make sure to send a summary of the meeting notes to every participant. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just a list of the action points for each agenda item along with the name of the person responsible for its delivery and when it’s due will suffice. Just like the recap at the end of the meeting, it drives home the next steps and ensures accountability.

3. Make your online meetings as effective as possible

Not being able to work together in the same room is going to be a major challenge for many over the next few weeks and months, but if you know how to run effective online meetings, then the impact of this will be less. As a recent article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) acknowledges, making virtual meetings work will involve several adjustments – but once these are in place, it goes on, there’s no reason why remote meetings should be an ineffective way to get things done.

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