Are Virtual Meetings a Waste of Time?

How to keep conference calls, e-mail discussions and teleconferences on track

Many people feel that regular meetings are, so why should technology change that? Regardless of the chosen technology, the common denominator is people, and unlike computers, people have not yet developed artificial intelligence. People have true intelligence, which gives them far more choices than can be pre-programmed into computers. One of those choices is to procrastinate, do nothing, or otherwise focus on something other than the task at hand. But true intelligence means that people can learn to improve each time they perform a task.

Unfortunately, few people improve upon the task of using electronic communications. The common belief is that using it is common sense, but the only thing common about it is that nearly everyone struggles with determining how to use technology better. This comes from being too focused on the task and not being aware of the process. Interestingly, the same applies to face-to-face meetings across a boardroom table.

In “real meetings,” people arrive unprepared, formulate ideas on the fly, and then drone on too long. To complicate matters, comments are taken out of context and heated debates driven by emotion often ensue. Moving these meetings out of the boardroom and into a virtual setting solves none of these problems. (It sometimes seems that the only real benefit is that you can doze off or keep yourself busy with other tasks without anyone noticing while you wait for something interesting to be said.)

So how do we improve our electronic meetings? One answer is to begin by taking a look at the common problems that plague any meeting, and then look at what advantages technology offers us for providing solutions:

1. Distribute the agenda listing the desired outcome via e-mail, with a clear heading and concise points well ahead of the meeting.

If all participants have an opportunity to preview the meeting via an agenda, they can take the time to prepare their thoughts and arrive with concise points to address. Any objections or concerns about the discussion topics can be voiced ahead of time so that any appropriate changes can be made before the meeting begins. Distribute the agenda listing the desired outcome via e-mail with a clear heading and concise points well ahead of the meeting.

2. Begin on time

We often feel compelled to wait for latecomers, but why not condition attendees to feel compelled to arrive on time? There are many excuses for being late, but a new one is popping up. “I had trouble logging on, calling in, getting connected…”

3. Prepare ahead of time

Test the connectionand work out technical hiccups on your own time.

4. Reward those who show up early

Share some worthwhile information or annecdote with them before the meeting starts. "If you want it first-hand, you've got to arrive on time 'cause it won't be repeated during the meeting."

5. Stick to the issues on the agenda

In any meeting someone has to have the power and the backbone to stop a discussion that does not relate to the immediate topic. In a virtual meeting, the rules don’t change. If the meeting uses voice or video technology, it should be handled in the same way as a face to face meeting, but it is even more important to have a moderator who will restrict the number of comments or questions that each recipient has. Attendees should know their quota ahead of time.

6. Have a timekeeper move the discussion along at a reasonable pace, and bring each topic to a close

At round-table meetings, a topic should be given a specific number of minutes before discussions are brought to a close. With electronic meetings, discussions may be stretched over days or weeks. Regardless of the medium used, a deadline for concluding the discussion topic must be imposed. Particularly with electronic meetings, this adds some sense of urgency to expressing one’s views. Without urgency, less important points creep in, or people don’t participate since they may not schedule time to participate in what has become a low-priority task.

7. Move side discussions to a separate meeting involving sub-groups

With e-mail, the topic heading of new messages should reflect the new subject. If the topic is being discussed in an electronic discussion group, a new thread should be started so that all members (including those who will view the historic records that this medium provides) will be able to easily find the information they are looking for.

9. Follow up with minutes for all to see

Minutes are important since they serve as a record of what was said, and, more importantly, what decisions were made. If a topic re-appears, the meeting chair can save time by simply referring to past decisions as documented in the minutes.

Minutes of teleconferences can be recorded and stored in a voice mailbox that people can call later, or distributed on tape for review during the drive home. With e-mail, the traditional thinking is that each recipient is responsible for maintaining his or her own records; but, a summary is still worthwhile in order to clarify and consolidate any points that may be open to interpretation.

Electronic discussion groups are dynamic records of what was said. They provide a history of how the discussion progressed and, at various points, thoughts can be summarized either by the participant, or for the participant, depending on how the discussion is managed.

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