Video conferencing isn’t new — and many industries have seen its use increase as technology has improved. But meeting virtually held new importance in 2020, when the global health crisis arrived. While the world shut down almost completely for a few weeks in 2020, somehow business had to go on — and one of the most effective communication methods had its moment in the spotlight.
Now, more than two years later, we’ve resumed much of pre-COVID life, and that includes attending meetings in person. But the pandemic-caused disruption gave rise to newer video conferencing technologies and innovative meeting approaches including incredible flexibility, tools, and other benefits.
Where Virtual Meetings Shine: Promoting Interaction
You’ve probably attended in-person meetings where people sat around a table to chat but also spent time staring at conference phones listening to disembodied voices of remote participants. You couldn’t share documents easily, and a lack of video meant an inability to see all attendees, read their body language, capture the full picture or understand the complete message they were communicating.
Now, however, we have tools to do things in our meetings that were much more challenging during the days of flip charts and conference tables. Here are just three ideas — but it’s certainly not an exhaustive list.
Polling in virtual meetings is quickly and easily deployed. It allows people to vote either publicly or anonymously. And if you ask people to share how they feel about something on a scale of 1 to 5 (1=no, I don’t support it; 3=maybe, but I’m not sure; 5=yes), it opens up the opportunity for further discussion.
It’s a strategy that hadn’t been used often in many in-person meetings, because someone could gauge people’s level of comfort with an idea by reading body language — tricky to read when you’re facing a screen of postage-sized faces. But this type of polling encourages people to air possible concerns and opens the door for discussion.
In pre-COVID times, thousands of companies hosted multiday offsite meetings. When people participated from all over the world, it wasn’t practical nor cost-effective to fly them in for a half-day session, check into a hotel, and go home again. Other companies may not have had budgets to fly in their people for an extended meeting. Airfare, travel time, hotel and meal costs add up quickly!
But with virtual meetings, costs to attend decrease exponentially. And instead of meeting in a two- or three-day marathon session, it becomes easier to schedule multiple shorter sessions over several weeks. You can even rethink how people meet (via function, level, topic, region, even hemisphere) and attend different presentations. And perhaps best of all, you can record every session so people who wanted to attend two scheduled simultaneously won’t have to miss one — and anyone can go back to rewatch a keynote or other speaker — all from the comfort of their own homes or offices.
If you’ve ever faced a conundrum or sticky problem, scheduling a brainstorming session makes sense. But how often have you found yourself in a room with everyone (or worse, no one) talking, ideas getting lost or never shared at all.
Now picture a videoconference to which you’ve invited your 12 direct reports. You create breakout rooms and assign four people to each room, having appointed a leader to facilitate each discussion. You can choose who works together, so perhaps you put all your introverts in one room and al your extroverted leaders in another. Each room has a virtual whiteboard to capture their thoughts, and you can move from room to room listening, commenting, and contributing.
A 30-minute breakout brainstorm session can generate a host of actions or ideas which everyone shares when you reconvene as the original group to debrief, share, and further refine the strategy. This is a more efficient approach that offers you structure, speed, control, and clarity it might be difficult to capture by sitting around a table in person.
Strategies for Running Smoother Virtual Meetings
Video conferencing is a wonderful strategy, but it can encounter the occasional snag — and not just from misbehaving technology. A virtual room of participants may accidentally speak over each other (and get caught up in the “You go. No, you go ahead” loop) or go off-track all too if one person’s tasked with taking notes, facilitating discussion, and moving the agenda forward.
Here are a few suggestions to conducting effective virtual meetings.
- Create — and stick to — your agenda. Send the agenda to everyone ahead of time, share it at the meeting’s outset, and use it to guide your discussion.
- Choose a moderator. The greater the number of participants, the higher the likelihood of getting a little (or a lot) out of hand. A moderator helps keep everyone focused, ensures voices are heard, and prevents anyone from monopolizing the conversation.
- Solicit opinions. The agenda is your roadmap, but once you’ve completed those discussion items, ask attendees if anyone has something additional to share. This approach encourages participation — and it may surface ideas not covered during the initial conversation.
- Align objectives. Connect those objectives to the agenda and clarify the purpose of the meeting. When you align everyone’s goals, meetings become much more productive.
- Use visuals. PowerPoint decks help organize calls and are a boon for those who learn and retain information better when it’s presented visually. Stick with a simple, engaging approach. Use a large enough font and avoid clutter.
- Develop a system of notifications. Especially important for meetings with many people, if it’s a Q&A or an “Ask Me Anything” type meeting, set ground rules for how someone will ask a question or interact to cut down on confusion.
- Embrace an “around the horn” approach. If your whole team (or most of your team) works remotely, you probably have a weekly huddle or check-in. Take time during your meetings to go around the horn asking everyone to answer a question or two: What’s top of mind for you right now? What do you want to accomplish this week? Where are you stuck at the moment?
- Use the chat window. The chat window’s a great place for someone to drop a question or comment. The moderator can review the window and call on people individually to share further, and everyone who wanted a chance to speak gets that opportunity.
- Take notes or record the meeting. A designated note-taker fills an important role — but you can miss something being said if you’re busy writing down a previous comment. Zoom and other video conferencing platforms allow you to record meetings. You can also run Otter.ai and other transcription programs in the background to generate a full transcript at the meeting’s conclusion.
- Use the mute buttons. If it’s not your turn to speak, keep yourself muted. If you’re hosting a meeting with many participants, choose to mute everyone’s mic by default when they join.
- Avoid background noise. Visually busy backgrounds can create a distraction. Opt for an uncluttered background or use the blur feature.
- Headphones help. If you’re in a meeting with in-person and virtual participants, if you’re listening to the audio from your device’s built-in speakers or chatting through its built-in mic, you may get feedback. Another option is for one person in the room to unmute and everyone uses that mic — but it can be hard for virtual attendees to hear everyone (more on a solution in a bit!).
OWL Videoconferencing Technology
There’s a ton of good tech available today. If you didn’t know about Zoom before the pandemic, you’ve probably encountered it a good bit since 2020.
If you attend or host video conferences regularly — and especially if you’ve got people in your office chatting with folks “dialing in” remotely — hearing everyone can be a challenge. Meet the Meeting OWL a 360-degree video conferencing device created by Owl Labs.
Its camera allows it to see all directions simultaneously and provide a panoramic view of the room and all its participants without any stitching or moving parts. It focuses automatically on whoever’s speaking, thanks to audio and visual cues, and can highlight up to three speakers automatically. The eight-microphone array has a 12-foot range (24-foot diameter), but if you’re sitting at a larger table, you can also use a portable mic to capture comments from those outside the range.
And it’s just one of a range of technologies available today. If your budget is limited, there are other free videoconferencing platforms available as well. Here’s a list of the top 10 most popular platforms.
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