Top Tips for a Successful Virtual Meeting

I met Clare Aitken (@LibClare) at the Cambridge Cultural Heritage Web 2.0 workshop I ran earlier this year. Clare is an information specialist working for a global Fortune 500 company. She runs one of the company’s research libraries, based in Cambridge, UK, as well as contributing to a small multinational team offering virtual library services to their 70,000 employees of 140 nationalities in 80 countries.

Last Week Clare attended a virtual meeting and has jotted down her thoughts and advice for us.

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I attended a two-day meeting as a remote participant last week. In a different time-zone to my own. That sounds like the definition of hell doesn’t it, but it was a surprisingly positive experience. I tweeted about this a few times during those couple of days and as a consequence Marieke asked me to write this post. I thought it would be a very good opportunity to reflect on the experience as although I have attended quite a few webinars and teleconferences in my role as a librarian in a multi-national company (mostly training sessions from our US vendors), I had not attempted to attend a professional meeting in this way.

The meeting was organised by one of our small specialist vendors, and was hosted in the US. I’d gone to a meeting (face-to-face) they organised a few years ago and found it well worth attending – it was set up as a forum for fellow librarians in the same industry to share experiences and best practice. So I felt it was worth the effort to dial in.

A lot of credit must go to our hosts, who recognised that many potential attendees were not able to travel for budget, time, or other reasons (child care, for example). They signed up with a web conferencing service with the aim of not only hosting this meeting but holding virtual training sessions throughout the year. They took the trouble to arrange a practice meeting a week beforehand so that we all (there were six groups or individuals calling in) could make sure we were comfortable with the technology, the features of this particular system, and the ground rules for the meeting itself.

So, here are six tips for making the most of remote meetings:

  1. Take it seriously
    It’s tempting to feel that as no one is watching you can multi-task throughout; answer emails, make tea, work on that next project. I must admit I tend to do that. But I found in this case, with a small group of participants (the six dialling in and about the same attending in person) it really didn’t work. I found that if I didn’t give a session my whole attention I didn’t get any benefit from it.
     
  2. Plan, and be prepared to contribute
    In this case a schedule was provided in advance. But your meeting organiser may not have thought to send you a virtual pack so you may have to retrieve documents from various emails and websites ahead of time. Decide which sessions you want to attend, as for any conference. Our organiser helpfully chunked up the teleconference into four different segments over the two days, so we could pick and choose if we wished (I think it’s also related to the charge made by the web conference vendor). As it was a small focused meeting I liked the look of everything so I did attend each session. However the advantage of not being seen can become a drawback, as the host can suddenly decide to ‘go around the table’ and start with you (I’m alphabetically disadvantaged in that way). One thing the organisers could have done was provide a table plan (including the remote participants), as I never quite got the full ‘picture’ of who was in the room. All in the meeting were experienced teleconferencers and mostly remembered to say who they were when they chipped in with a comment, even if they were in the room, but that wasn’t always the case. One session consisted of a round-table where each person gave a short account of their library’s activities in the last year. Each account lasted several minutes and when it came to my turn I felt very conscious that I was broadcasting to a room full of people who may be bored, interested, amazed, or incredulous at what I was saying, and signalling it in outrageous mime-style to each other, but I wasn’t getting any of those cues. Not quite the same as a telephone meeting where all are in the same boat. I know I’m being overly sensitive about this but it’s fun to imagine too!
     
  3. Make sure you have a decent technical set-up
    I recognise that I’m fortunate to have an excellent IT environment where I can download the conferencing software plugin without resorting to grovelling to IT, I have a good quality telephone headset (which I use all the time, not just for teleconferences – I cannot imagine not having one), and a fast network connection. However I also joined the afternoon sessions from home as it was evening UK time, and the speeds provided by my ISP were fine to carry both the presentations, and the audio, which I then selected to take through my computer. That did lead to my one technical hitch of the two days, where I found that my computer headset wasn’t working correctly and no-one could hear me. I then had to type my responses into the chat box, and then hear the host read them out (which is an odd experience).
     
  4. Practice beforehand
    As I mentioned above, a familiarity with the software and the conventions from all participants helps a great deal, as it’s just as impolite to be late joining a meeting online as it is in person. I find that setting a calendar reminder at least 10 minutes before a meeting starts helps me to get organised to click-in and dial-in. And making time to get a mug of tea to hand, of course!
     
  5. Keep to the teleconference conventions
    The big one is to mute your phone. Mine has a big red button that makes it really easy, but it’s sometimes necessary to find the key sequence needed – usually *6 to toggle on and off. The next is to take turns and not interrupt – that’s made much easier with a virtual table plan as I mention above. And don’t shout “helloooo” as soon as you are placed into the teleconference, particularly if you are late, as you may be interrupting the Provost of the University giving 5 minutes of his valuable time with a welcome message (as an unfortunate participant did this time).
     
  6. Accept that you won’t get as much out of it than going in person
    When you ask someone about the benefits of conferences, they say “it’s all about the networking”. Yes, you do miss out on those chance conversations. But – you will avoid all those travel hassles, sore feet, and being laid low by a hessian bag full of vendor literature that you ditch at the first opportunity. You can use the travel time productively, wear your killer heels (or whatever you want), switch seamlessly between parallel sessions, and there’s still that Twitter back-channel!

I’m not able to attend the SLA annual conference in New Orleans in June, but they are offering a virtual option. That sounds like a real challenge, but after this positive experience I may give it a go!

7 thoughts on “Top Tips for a Successful Virtual Meeting

  1. Hi Clare,

    Thanks these are really useful tips. I carry out a lot of virtual meetings with my team (who mainly work from abroad) and I think the more you have the more successful they are. I would even hesitate to say that for me they are almost more successful than a face-to-face meeting because they are so focussed – no dilly dallying, you get straight to the point. The hours I save travelling are put to much better use too.

    All the best.

    Clarke

  2. That’s a very interesting thought about providing a table plan for a ‘virtual meeting’. I can imagine a situation where halfway through the day you can’t quite remember someone’s name or quite what their function/position is. A table plan showing this information would save the embarassment of having to ask. Even for smaller meetings I can see this would be beneficial.

  3. Most of my virtual meetings have been held with work colleagues so you know names and voices, but if you are meeting with people you don’t know then a ‘table plan’ is a great idea.

    Clare – I forgot to ask you to tell us what software you were using and if you rate it.

    Marieke

  4. Thank you for your interesting comments. Clarke – I do agree that virtual meetings are all the better for being focused. Both you and Marieke say most of your meetings are with team members and I think this is where they are particularly successful. We know that a lot of communication is non-verbal but I feel that if you know a person at the other end of the line really well, much of that gap is filled in (I don’t know how to explain this properly but I hope you know what I mean). And proportionally less, the less well you know the person.

    Adam – I love the link, it’s a very easy site to use. The table plan idea came from a blended e-learning course I did a few years ago where we explored the differences between face-to-face and virtual communication. We succeeded in learning a lot from a two-hour teaching session entirely by chat, but it was only possible due to the table plan — we knew who was who, and whose turn it was to ‘speak’ next.

    Marieke – we were using WebEx but I’ve used others too (AT&T and BrightTalk come to mind) and all have their strengths and weaknesses. Which do you all use?

    Clare.

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