Despite an increasing necessity to organize virtual meetings, project managers still fail to understand the uniqueness of this type of meeting and consequently neglect its specific requirements. With remote working becoming more and more of a trend, project managers are expected to be increasingly agile and highly adaptable.
A study ran by Penny Pullan in 2008 showed that virtual meetings often fall short because of one of the following reasons:
- Different external environments distract participants from successfully engaging and actively contributing to meetings;
- Technical glitches get in the way of getting messages across to the other participants;
- Meeting organizers allocate insufficient resources to preparing the meetings in advance and to doing proper follow-ups;
- The lack of dynamism and diversity in the types of interactions between participants lower their levels of engagement over time.
So what can project managers do to ensure they lead a productive meeting? How to drive action through carrying a virtual meeting with remote participants?
Make no mistake. Common meeting rules (like having an agenda and SMART objectives) still do apply. But be prepared for unexpected challenges, such as increased difficulty to read cues, overexposure to external information and impossibility to guarantee a sustained high level of attention of the participants all throughout the meeting.
Before you start designing your next successful meeting, here are some recommendations you should consider.
Don’t leave out info that helps action
You wouldn’t jump out of a plane without a parachute, would you? Allow yourself enough time to send to the participants the agenda with the main talking points, the login information, and all necessary technical instructions. Share your expectations and make sure all those involved understand in advance what is the desired outcome of the meeting. Is it a project planning meeting? Weekly status? Brainstorming session? A milestone? Do all participants know what is the decision to be made, the kind of information to be shared?
As project managers, you must make sure the team stays on-topic throughout the whole meeting. Set clear guidelines for all participants to comply with:
- Removing all potential external sources of distraction beforehand
- No multi-tasking or side conversations allowed during the meeting (for both in person and virtual). Take parallel topics offline.
- Compulsory active participation to the conversation
- Using/not using the “mute” button. Yikes this could be devastating! And it happens A LOT.
Project managers set the tone of the meeting just like the daily standups for each project team. Keep it short, but productive, by not allowing unnecessary digressions. Make it fun and stimulating for your team members, by encouraging and rewarding good ideas and results. Meetings don’t have to be boring! A more relaxed environment is oftentimes more productive for teams, so don’t be afraid to change your usual routine! Choose whatever rules work for you, but make sure all those involved are well aware of what is expected from them.
Test your connectivity
Regardless of how tech savvy you are as a PM or digital PM, technical glitches are still very likely to occur. Run a full connectivity test well before the actual meeting. Make sure all participants know the software to be used, to avoid any potential interruptions or delays. Have a tech connoisseur around, to intervene in case of need.
It’s important to choose a web conferencing tool that best fits you and your participants’ communication limitations and needs.
Allow interruptions, really
Participants’ attention spans are significantly shorter in the case of virtual meetings, simply because there are more distracting factors when individuals are in separate environments. While allowing interruptions might not be the best idea in face-to-face meetings, since they can lead to endless digressions, virtual meetings actually work best when interventions from participants are encouraged. Add worthwhile new ideas to the parking lot, without straying too much from your agenda.
The biggest challenge in a virtual setting is keeping participants engaged and interested. That is why a balanced flow and cross-team communication is key. Pausing frequently, asking questions and allowing group input and verbal exchanges is the best way to do it.
Because virtual meetings don’t allow reading cues and getting real-time non-verbal feedback, project managers often feel at a disadvantage. Use video conferencing tools, if available, or ask for verbal feedback to surpass this hindrance.
Include clarification checkpoints and process checks every once in a while, to ensure all team members are on the same level of understanding.
Do not keep the Q and A session for the end of the meeting
Did you ever wonder why asking if there are any questions at the end of a meeting actually leads to no questions being asked? Time constraints, feeling the pressure of being at the centre of attention, having to formulate questions exactly when asked are all potential reasons behind this fact. On the other hand, if you’re limited on time asking too many detail-oriented questions, you’ll never get to your CTAs, or actionable items.
Get a little personal
It is the project manager’s job to keep things on track and to ensure that all participants stay engaged throughout the whole conversation.
- Go round the table during your stand-up and status meetings.
- Ask specific questions to specific people.
- Call people by their names and check in frequently with the participants.
- Keep track of who’s participating and who’s not and seek input from the people with low levels of participation.
- Alternate visual and verbal (or individual and group) interventions to sustain the momentum.
- Assign different roles to the participants: note-takers, time-trackers and moderators are essential to guaranteeing a good flow of communication during and after the meeting. Rotating these roles can also prove useful in keeping your team members engaged and motivated during the meeting.
Following-up the meeting is just as important as the meeting itself, if not even more important!
Review all action items, sum up the main points discussed and share them with the participants. Make sure all team members understand what the new assignments are and who the people in charge are. Already start setting up any potential next meetings! Making people accountable for specific tasks will ensure a better understanding of the overall goals and a better result delivery.
Gather feedback from the participants and seek to improve on your weaknesses. A good rule of thumb is to set measurable objectives before the meeting, or you can think of it in agency terms, “CTAs” (call to actions), which will then allow you to assess the results obtained.
Keep these recommendations in mind when you set up your next virtual meeting. Organized properly, such meetings present unexpected opportunities and can be just as productive and rewarding as face-to-face meetings.
Discussion: Do you organize virtual meetings for your team? What are the challenges you’ve experienced when designing them? Let us know what your strategies were for making virtual meetings successful.