Meetings Will Never Be the Same after COVID-19

The lockdowns and social distancing that came with the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 have changed business meetings.  Meetings will never be the same.  People used to think they needed to meet face-to-face to conduct business.  They thought they needed to walk down the hall, drive across town, or fly part way around the world to hold meetings.  Now, they only need an internet connection to meet with people anywhere.

Has this been a good change for you?  Are virtual meetings saving you time?  Are they helping you to be more effective?

The nature of my work over the last 12 years has been such that I have hosted and participated in many web meetings.  So, the virus has not changed the way I work.  However, I know many other people are trying to adapt to this new way of doing things.  In this light, the following tips may help you.

Hold Web Meetings

Web meetings are effective for collaborating with coworkers, consultants, suppliers, and clients.  It is easier to coordinate activities, check progress, and review production statistics through online meetings than in person.  When working together on spreadsheets, schedules, computer code, presentations, and team-written documents, screen sharing software is highly effective.  It is easier to see the details and stay engaged when working from your own computer screen than looking over someone else’s shoulder in their office or viewing the same material projected on a large screen in a conference room.  Not only is it easier to see what is going on, but it is also easier to take notes and to bring to bear more information to the topic.

Viewing webinars and presentations from your own computer—rather than in a room with other people—also enables you to efficiently make notes either by writing by hand or by typing.  Of course taking notes is possible with face-to-face meetings, but typically notetaking is less complete when in a room with other people, because attendees are less comfortably situated and there is the expectation that you will look at the presenter or fixate on the materials being presented. In the privacy of your home or office, you can multitask—listen and glance as needed at the presentation while taking notes or checking information.

The downside of virtual meetings is selling is more difficult.  Salespersons cannot see and discern facial expressions and recognize body language from all of the meeting attendees as they used to do in face-to-face meetings.  On the other hand, buyers have not lost anything meeting online with potential suppliers.

Most business web meetings are best conducted without viewing other people.  Nothing is gained by seeing people sitting in front of their computers or electronic devices.  Almost always, seeing the attendees is a serious distraction.  It diverts attention from the topic.  Seeing the presenter is useful when the presenter is well prepared and persuasive, but much of the time the presenter is ill-prepared, unappealing, and unconvincing.

Consequently, most business status meetings work better with audio only for discussion supplemented with screen sharing to show presentations or common work tools such as spreadsheets, schedules, and engineering drawings.

I have been using GoToMeeting since 2008; and when it was free, I also used Join.me.  Recently I have attended Zoom meetings.  In my work, it is common to hold virtual meetings with persons who are physically present in Beijing, Hong Kong, London, Santiago, Toronto, Vancouver, Antalya, New York, Denver, Phoenix, Tucson, or many other locations.  With senior executives, managers, engineers, scientists, and accountants online together, we collaborate by looking at PowerPoint slides, engineering drawings, and Gantt charts or by modifying Excel workbooks with everyone seeing the changes and their impact.  It is highly effective and very productive.

Make Web Meetings Effective

Before you host or join a web meeting, prevent interruptions.  This may be as simple as closing the door to your office.  It might mean moving to another part of your home, placing the dog outside, or asking your children to leave you alone until you emerge from your web meeting.

Learn how to use your technology.  If you use GoToMeeting, learn the ins and the outs of the software.  If you use Zoom, do the same.  It is sad, but I see people who have been working with virtual meeting software for years who still do not know how to use it effectively.  Watch a few tutorial videos on the application.  Take time to read up on the technology.  Test the sound, microphone, screen sharing, and messaging features.  Ask for feedback.

If you host a web meeting, start up the software at least 5 minutes before the meeting is scheduled to start.  If you are traveling or at a new location, start the software even earlier. 

It helps if the web meeting organizer takes charge of the meeting and directs talking traffic when needed so attendees do not talk over one another.  When seeking input, ask people by name to comment, rather than opening the floor up to any comments.  This helps people avoid talking over each other.

Encourage attendees to place their microphones on mute when they are not talking.  With most software, the organizer can mute or unmute all attendees.

When you are the presenter, be brief and clear.  As an attendee, be equally succinct. 

As stated, it usually is unnecessary to use a camera.  However, if you are trying to persuade people, such as making a sale or influencing decision makers, then consider using the camera.

If you show yourself on video, do the following:

  • Wear clothing and jewelry that is modest and non-distracting—black, white, and solid colors are the best
  • Control what is in the background of your camera—keep the background as simple and uncluttered as possible
  • Raise the camera so it is eye-level
  • Position lighting so it illuminates your face—do this by facing a window or by placing a lamp in front of you
  • Use a lapel or small headset microphone
  • Sit up straight and lean slightly toward the camera
  • When speaking, look directly at the camera
  • When listening, be alert and continue to look at the camera

Kathryn Janicek emphasizes many of these points in the following video.

Have a Good Reason to Meet

Before COVID-19—probably forever—people complained about the time consumed by in-the-office meetings and the lack of benefits for attending.  Web meetings also can be wasteful.  However, do not avoid holding a meeting, when one is needed.  Getting together with coworkers or stakeholders often is essential to communicating information and motivating action.

Make Meetings Effective

Meetings are most effective when:

  1. The organizers and presenters prepare for the meeting
  2. The host or a designated meeting leader conducts the meeting efficiently
  3. The organizer or another authority figure holds people accountable for assignments given during the meeting

Prepare to Meet

The best way to prepare for a meeting is to provide invitations and an agenda.  People want to know why they should attend a meeting and what to expect.  An effective invitation provides this information.

You can extend invitations by phone, email, text message, electronic messenger, snail mail, or verbally.  In businesses, you generally will use a calendar tool such as Microsoft Outlook or Google Calendar.  These applications allow you to schedule virtual and face-to-face meetings, keep track of who can and cannot attend, change times and places, and provide supporting information.

It is imperative to describe the purpose of the meeting and make it clear when and where the meeting will occur.

Determine if you need to provide supporting information to attendees before the meeting.  This background information can improve discussions and decision making. 

Each meeting needs an agenda.  You might include it with the invitation.  If not, send the agenda separately, but sufficiently ahead of the meeting so invitees can prepare.

Each agenda provides:

  • Meeting title
  • Purpose
  • Date, time, and duration
  • Location and directions for travel or for connecting electronically
  • Person calling the meeting
  • Person physically or electronically hosting the meeting
  • Person conducting the meeting
  • Persons invited
  • Topics to be discussed and time allocated for each item
  • Decisions to be made

In the following video, Rod Eichhorn teaches how to prepare effective agendas for sales meetings, but these techniques also apply to other types of meetings.  He recommends reviewing the agenda in detail with the meeting sponsor a week before the meeting.  This reveals important information that often is critical to making a sale.

In the following video, Brent Stubbs recommends recording presentations before a meeting and sending them to those invited to attend a meeting so they can listen to the presentation before the meeting and come to the meeting with their well-considered thoughts to share at the meeting.  I have yet to see this done.  But it appears to be a good idea.  (Jeff Bezos says most senior executives seldom come prepared for meetings.  He blames this on their being too busy.  However, I have worked in organizations where professionals came prepared having read material distributed before the meeting.  So, I believe it depends upon the organization’s culture.)

Skillfully Conduct Meetings

Meetings proceed best if one person conducts the meeting, others do most of the talking, and still another person takes minutes.  The person conducting the meeting or actively participating in the meeting should not take the minutes.

The person conducting the meeting should follow the agenda, determine who should speak, referee comments, and enforce time limits on participants’ comments and on the overall length of the meeting.  The person conducting the meeting exercises these controls by:

  • Starting the meeting on time
  • Keeping the discussion on topic and within the limited time
  • Reiterating and listing assignments
  • End the meeting on time or early  

In the following video, the trainer discusses how to:

  • Save time when meeting
  • Use agendas to better prepare for meetings
  • Keep the discussion focused on the most important business
  • Manage the dynamics of personalities

Ellen De Bruin, author and reporter for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, states that meetings are a poor format to share information or to brainstorm solutions to problems.  She reports, “Research shows that people who talk the longest in meetings are the ones who systematically overestimate what they know.”  I wish I knew how to get around this problem when not in charge.  But generally, only those in control can solve this obstacle.  Even if you are not in command, this insight is important.

In the following video, David Phillips advocates telling stories during meetings.  Effective storytelling consists of creating suspense, generating empathy, and eliciting humor.  Storytelling induces:

  • Dopamine, which promotes focus, motivation, and memory
  • Oxytocin, which promotes sympathy and relaxation
  • Endorphins, which promote pleasure and creativity

Follow Up

A key to effective follow up is meeting minutes.

Meeting minutes provide a record of discussion, decisions, action items, and assignments.  It helps if the person taking minutes enters as much information into the document before the meeting begins using information from the agenda.  In this way, the minutes taker can focus on capturing the essence of discussion and recording decisions and assignments.

The minutes document should include:

  • Meeting title
  • Purpose of the meeting
  • Time and date and meeting length
  • Date minutes were issued
  • Location
  • Person who presided at the meeting
  • Person who conducted the meeting
  • Person who prepared the minutes
  • Person who approved the minutes
  • Attendees
  • Summary of the discussion
  • Decisions made
  • Plans made
  • Assignments made

To be most effective, minutes should be completed, approved, and distributed as soon as possible following the meeting.  For project teams that meet regularly, it is best if the minutes are distributed the same day as the meeting.  When minutes are distributed long after the meeting has occurred, attendees will have forgotten much of what transpired in the meeting and will have moved on to other work.  Minutes have much higher value, if they are distributed promptly.  Prompt receipt of minutes can reinforce decisions and help drive action.

The following short video discusses how to record effective meeting minutes.

In the following longer video, Alison Miles-Jenkins expands on how to record meeting minutes by providing many specific tips.

Conclusion

Virtual meetings now are an essential part of business everywhere.  Make your meetings effective by following this check list:

  • Prepare for the meeting
  • Craft an effective agenda and get it into the hands of meeting participants before the meeting begins
  • If you want attendees to come prepared, consider sending them a pre-recorded presentation to watch or a position paper to read
  • Understand your web meeting technology
  • Start the meeting on time
  • Avoid using cameras to show people, unless it is truly necessary
  • Within your power and authority, steer discussions to avoid those who are most vocal from dominating the time
  • When appropriate, have someone take minutes
  • Write down decisions and action items
  • Distribute meeting minutes promptly—ideally the same day

Let me know what has worked for you.  What has been the impact of web meetings on you and your organization?

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