Physical Requirements for Good Virtual Meetings

It may seem odd to talk about the physical requirements of a virtual meeting.  Yes, we need some technology support, but physical requirements? We may recognize that the physical setting affects face-face meetings (for more on this, see You Talk as You Sit). For effective virtual meetings, physical requirements are not just whether all present can hear or see each other, it is also about whether the setting supports productive engagement.

Virtual meetings “permit” different, not necessarily useful meeting behaviors than are likely in a face-face setting (Taming the Wild West of Virtual Meetings). A virtual meeting held under effective physical conditions can improve focus, engagement and productive use of time by all present. The following checklist can help you set up such conditions, no matter what type or level of technology you use.

A Virtual Meeting “Fitness” Checklist

  • Participant location. Choose between having all be remote (best choice), or mixed with some face-face with others calling in or on-line.  A mixed setting is harder to manage as those who are remote will be at some disadvantage to those in one room together.
  • Audio.  Avoid use of mute and speaker phones.  Instead have everyone stay connected, ideally on head sets.  The use of mute enables more parallel processing and lower overall attention to the substance of the meeting.  Speaker phones create the possibility of distracting back-ground noise, and audio interruptions.  Some speaker phones also make it harder for others to contribute as the phone “cuts out” interjections.
  • Pictures of participants.  It is always helpful to put a face with a name and a voice.  Pictures remind us of to whom we are talking.  Some technology platforms show pictures of all participants in the meeting, but even if you don’t have this capability you can still provide pictures.  Have participants send you a small self-portrait in advance and create a page to send to each participant.  Ask participants to keep the pictures In front of them as the meeting proceeds.  As the leader, you can also use these pictures to keep track of whether all are able to contribute to any discussion.
  • Visible notes in real time. One of the best ways to keep a discussion focused and efficient is to make sure all can see the progress of their discussion through real-time notes. Publicly accessible “free”  technology, like Google Drive, enables you to share a virtual “flip chart” so you can keep notes just as you could in a meeting room. Ask a volunteer to take the notes as you lead a discussion. See the tool Visible Note Taking for more on this.  Also, Google Drive and other web technology enables you to share a document so that anyone can add his/her comments to the document.
  • Participant questions and interjections. It is important to enable participants to get their comments into the discussion without “stepping on” the speaker. This can be difficult since you can’t see body language as you would in a face-face meeting, Some platforms support “virtual” hand raising and instant messaging – assuming the leader or speaker remembers to check for these.  A simpler, technology-independent method is to stop every ten minutes or so to check-in with everyone on the subject of discussion.  Do this by conducting a quick Go Around of participants: Each person gets to speak briefly to the point of the discussion. If you make this a regular practice, so participants expect it, and don’t see it as an attempt to control some speaker.

Related Tools and Information

For more on structuring effective virtual meetings see the article I coauthored with Nancy Settle-Murphy, Structuring Successful Virtual Meetings: A Counterintuitive Approach, or the video of our recent webinar Naked Meetings III: Going Virtual.

The Virtual Meeting Fitness Checklist is one more way to help you structure a better meeting.  A better meeting structure naturally leads to more effective discussions and decision making and minimizes the need for the leader to “facilitate” better behavior.

Tools mentioned in this checklist include Go-Around and Visible Note Taking, two of the tools in the Meeting for Results Tool Kit.  This e-book is available from all e-book retailers.  It is designed as a job aid to help you structure a better meeting wherever you are.   You can take it with you on your e-reader, lap-top or smart phone.

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