IF TELEVISION IS TO BE BELIEVED every modern office is kitted out to the max with the latest gadgets and gizmos to allow virtual working: Telepresence, videophones – you name it, the office has it.
This might be true if you work in a cutting-edge startup or a bleeding-edge corporate like Google, but if like me you work in a sprawling, historic FTSE 100 company that hasn’t so much as updated the carpets in the last 10 years these technologies will seem a distant fantasy to you.
However slowly the infrastructure of these companies advances, there has been an inexorable move towards sprawling, disparate team working that has made ‘virtual teams’ an everyday occurrence. I’m attending ‘Virtual Meetings’, or ‘teleconferences’ as we call them in my workplace (does that translate to other parts of the globe?) on a daily basis and for the most part the technological wizardry stops at having a shared conference line that up to 50 people can join at once.
I would estimate conservatively that 80-90% of these meetings are complete or partial failures. In my experience these meetings could have been very successful if the organisers and participants hadn’t made the following simple mistakes:
1. Poor Chairing
This is the number one failure and is I believe a reflection of the fact that companies forget that chairing a meeting is a skill best taught and learnt. Why don’t more companies provide training for this?
The single biggest symptom of a poor chairperson is failure to establish control. Virtual meetings are a difficult beast to master and an effective chair needs to simultaneosly establish their authority whilst cultivating the trust and respect of the attendees. Poor behaviours include:
- Allowing the loudest people to speak the longest
- Allowing people to interrupt and talk over each other
- Failing to bring in those people who have tried to speak but have been shouted down or talked over
Virtual teams have no visual clues to act on so the chair must make their verbal signals clear and overt. Messages like “I’m going to move us on in the interest of time.” or “I’d like to focus the discussion on…” will help keep people on track.
If you do have to shut an individual or a discussion down, try to demonstrate that the speaker(s) views have been considered and at the very least that they have been noted.
2. Acting like it’s a normal meeting
This is another mistake most often committed by a poor chair but can also extend to the wider meeting. Examples of this include asking open questions like:
“Do you all agree?”
“Let’s do introductions. Who wants to go first?”
These questions guarantee a 10-second polite silence followed by everyone trying to chime in at once. The lack of visual clues means that nobody can tell when someone else is going to speak and inevitably results in that horrible cycle of:
“Sorry, go ahead….No you go ahead….Ok well….oh sorry….” (silence)
Effective chairs should take control and be more directive than in a normal meeting. Start with:
“Let’s do introductions. [person A] can you introduce yourself? Now [person B] please.”
Try to limit questions that solicit the opinion of the entire group, but when absolutely necessary run through them one by one:
“Bill do you have anything you’d like to add? Susan?
3. Poor introductions
This is really an extension of the point above, but meetings often fail to ensure that everybody knows who everybody else is. The problem with this in a virtual meeting is that it’s much more difficult to skirt around the fact that you’ve forgotten the name of the person you’re addressing:
“I agree with the point that the lady made before…”
It’s an embarrassing turn of phrase to have to use (particularly if there’s a risk ‘the lady’ might be important – or even worse if you’re not sure it’s a lady…) and in worst cases it might put your attendees off from making their point.
Resolving this mistake requires a combination of three techniques: – Carrying out structured introductions – Making sure everyone is clearly announced by name and role in the meeting (this is not necessarily the same as job title) – Limiting the number of attendees to make it easier to keep track (see below).
4. Too many attendees
One advantage of a physical meeting is that it is often constrained by the size of the available rooms. It’s so easy to add one, two, ten or twenty more attendees when there is no issue with physical space and you can quickly find meetings with ten, twenty or thirty attendees.
A meeting with thirty people isn’t a meeting, it’s a seminar.
Poor virtual meetings do not set clear expectations about who should attend (and importantly, who should not). I would recommend that attendance should not exceed:
- 6 where ideas need to be shared, discussed and developed
- 10 where decisions need to be made based on known information
- 15 where little feedback is needed but a consensus is required
Tight population control can involve difficult messages, including turning people away and telling people that they can’t bring a support team with them.
5. Poor timekeeping
I don’t know what it is, but where I work people seem to think that because you’re on the phone it’s ok to start late and run over.
It’s the responsibility of the chair to ensure that the meeting starts promptly (1 or 2 minutes leeway is acceptable) and that the meeting concludes in good time, with sufficient allowance for AOB (if appropriate) and to allow the participants to get from their phones to their next meeting (I recommend aiming to conclude AOB 5 minutes before the scheduled finish time).
An overunning meeting will quickly descend into chaos as the presenter tries desparately to plough on amidst a deluge of ‘now leaving the conference’ messages, subjecting the hangers-on to a painful extra 5 or 10 minutes.
In times of absolute desparation if you simply must carry on (shame on you) then it’s good form to do a quick check before you overrun:
“We have about 5 more minutes of content that we absolutely have to cover. I’d like to check if you’re ok to hang on or if we need to reschedule for later today. Alice, how are you fixed for time? Geoff?”
6. Background noise
This may seem bleeding obvious but I’ve lost count of the number of times background noise has derailed a meeting. Failure to deal with this will disenfranchise your participants and waste everyone’s time.
I recommend a ‘three-strike’ policy in trying to deal with this. A polite request:
“Could I please ask everybody to mute their phones.”
“There’s still a lot of background noise. I need you to mute your lines to allow us to continue.”
If the offender still hasn’t cooperated and can’t be readily identified, then a last resort:
“I’m afraid we’re still suffering with background noise. Can I ask once again that you all mute your phones. If this doesn’t resolve the issue I’ll need to end the call/ask you to dial out and back in.”
There is no point trying to plough on if you have a mystery noise/heavy breather on the line. One alternative is to use your conference line’s “force mute all” option if you have one – this will suppress everybody’s line but is only a feasible option whilst the chair is presenting and will prevent them from raising any issues (e.g. not being able to hear you)
7. Reliance on technology
Sometimes Virtual meetings will be supported by additional technology – a collaboration or webinar tool of some kind. I have been in too many meetings where I’ve joined to hear:
“we’re having a few teething problems here…give us a few minutes to get up and running”
Chances are that it’s going to take more than a few minutes, and everyone’s time is being wasted in the meantime. If the meeting is short (30-60 minutes) then your agenda is already shot beyond repair. If you have a contingency plan (e.g. email the slides to the attendees) that is immediately actionable, do it. If not, abandon the meeting and reschedule.
8. Forgetting the people on the phone
This is a common issue for ‘hybrid’ meetings where a large group is in the same room but others dial in from remote locations. All too often the large group falls into ‘normal meeting’ mode, including:
- interjecting / talking over each other
- breaking into micro-conversations
- failing to project their voice / address the mic
I have been in long workshops like this where the chair has failed to inform the people on the phone that those in the room have taken a coffee/lunch break. This does not engender warm feelings of inclusion for the virtual attendees!
9. Lack of engagement
The thing about a face-to-face meeting is that it’s a lot more difficult to switch off without getting caught. You can’t sit and blatantly check emails, surf the web, examine your fingernails or in extreme circumstances walk off for a coffee/chat without being noticed.
Engagement is a difficult thing to maintain in a virtual meeting and failure to achieve it will result in a group that are either unwilling to commit to a decision or will later undermine it (as they weren’t committed to it in the first place).
The key is to maintain engagement by maintaining a focus on what’s important, using trusted and capable presenters and by being alert to long periods of silence.
Effective chairs will identify the right moments to check engagement and understanding by validating with one or more of the attendees:
“Jim, I know that’s something you’ve raised before. What are your thoughts?”
##10. Flogging the dead horse
Sometimes things just don’t go right. The technology doesn’t work, half the attendees don’t turn up, the group can’t agree on the agenda. In these instances, many meetings fail to take the appropriate course of action:
go back to the drawing board.
This isn’t failure. It’s not unprofessional. It’s recognising that something isn’t working and that a a virtual meeting isn’t the place to fix it.
Virtual meetings are here to stay. The majority of these mistakes centre on the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the chair, but even if you’re not in control of the meeting you can make efforts to steer the group – and its defective chair – through the major pitfalls by observing these suggestions.
How do you avoid these mistakes in your meetings? Add your suggestions in the comments below!
I’m experimenting with Sketchnotes. Why not check out the 10 reasons Why Virtual Meetings Fail Sketchnote