Running an Effective Teleconference or Virtual Meeting

Virtual teams are becoming commonplace, but the old rules for running a meeting don't necessarily apply. Managers need to learn new skills to keep people engaged and to use the time (and technology) effectively. These tips will make your next remote meeting a success

Meetings are hard enough to run when the participants are all in the same room, fighting over the last chocolate doughnut. But any meeting you call, nowadays, probably has at least one person attending who works in a remote location. In some cases, everyone in the teleconference is dialing in. You may be great at orchestrating an in-person meeting, but running an effective teleconference requires new skills.

To help you get the most out of your meeting time, we asked professional meeting facilitators-and several ordinary people-to share their advice on conducting live meetings with remote participants (whether by phone, WebEx or videoconferencing).

Ordinary Meeting Guidelines Apply

Most of what you know, as a manager or meeting organizer, remains relevant. You still need to start the meeting on time, define the meeting objectives, invite the right people, etc. But if you don't have good in-person meeting skills, teleconferences will only make it worse.

Management consultant Steven M. Smith says, "People in organizations don't follow the guidelines for leading effective face-to-face meetings," he says. "Teleconferences, because of signaling and bandwidth issues, exacerbate those problems."

For example, it's good manners to send information in advance of any meeting, but it can be critical for teleconferences. Gerry Mann, Web development manager at Unitrin Business Insurance, urges organizers to prepare ahead. "Send out items to review well in advance and set the expectation for attendees to review the items," he suggests. Include an agenda (short and focused) and ground rules, such as when to use the Mute button, the keys this conference service uses to place the call on hold and so on.

An Aside: The "on hold" thing is a major irritation. Jim Coughlin, managing director of Foundation Systems, complains that people forget that they're not on an ordinary phone call. "I've had people on 50-person conference calls put their phone on Hold; and everyone else in the conference gets to hear their infomercial on Hold." Some teams may be willing to sing along with your on-hold music. Most are not.

An agenda isn't about your ability to lead a meeting; it is about the people at the distant end, says Daniel Mittleman, associate professor at the DePaul University School of Computer Science, Telecommunications and Information Systems, whose research focuses on group support systems and virtual meeting technologies. "They have no access to your nonverbal cues. They will lose place, lose focus and lose attention to the meeting." Also, in a meeting room, you intuitively notice if your audience doesn't get you, and instantaneously adjust. "Virtually, you won't notice if they don't get you; they won't tell you. So you have to be clearer-more explicit-the first time," he says.

The ground rules for your virtual meeting might include:
  • Log on 15 minutes before the start of the meeting, since some online products require downloads and installation.

  • Be aware of background noise.

  • State your name when you speak.

  • If you catch yourself multitasking, be responsible for your full participation.

  • Turn off cell phones and PDAs.

  • Stay out of your e-mail.

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