Online meetings: Part 1

Choosing to go virtual.

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Photo by Julia Darnton, MSU Extension

As more and more meetings are taking place online, leaders are thoughtfully considering what makes meetings most effective and how to work together to accomplish the goals of the group. Too often, meetings are scheduled without forethought of the meeting purpose and how to structure the meeting process (couldn’t this just be an email?).

With the abundance of online meetings, it is especially important to consider what makes an online meeting effective. In a recent metadata study on workplace meetings, researchers determined a few practical ways to ensure success:

  • Carefully plan before the meeting
  • Facilitate effectively during
  • Identify clear outcomes for follow up afterward

 But how do you know which meetings may be effectively led online and what is best saved for in person?

Online meetings are an efficient use of time and resources. They allow for quick gatherings without travel or transition time in between, and without venue restrictions, there can be a wide range of participants from distant locations coming together with little cost. Virtual meetings also allow for a personal connection. Rather than participants coming to the same space to meet, each participant brings a small square of their personal space to the meeting - their home or office in the background becomes part of the meeting, inviting the opportunity to connect personally. Why arrange a video conference instead of placing a traditional phone call? A 2017 global survey of 333 executives from Forbes Insights shared that video conferencing improves the quality of communication and degree of understanding as opposed to audio.

However, there are limitations to online meetings. Without the physical proximity to one another and full body social cues, some nonverbal communication and freedom to move around the room is lost. Jeremy Bailenson, Founding Director of the Virtual Human Interaction at Stanford University, shared in the Wall Street Journal virtual meetings can exhaust us by the way our brains respond. Seeing colleagues’ faces up close for extended periods of time and not being able to choose and adjust our spatial proximity to them can have negative impacts and cause stress. During virtual meetings, it is much more challenging to have “human moments” or times of meaningful connection with others while sharing space. These connections can be important aids in times of tension and conflict. For meetings where the purpose is team-building or resolving conflict, gathering in person when possible may be advantageous.

When planning a meeting, the process begins the same way regardless whether it is in person or online. First, determine the purpose for gathering. Is it to share information, discuss issues, or make a decision? Then you can consider the best process to fulfill that purpose. If you are strictly sharing information, a one-way communication method may be appropriate such as email or webinar. Scheduling a meeting with the entire group may not always be necessary. This is especially true for routine or non time-sensitive information. If you are discussing or making a decision, you may plan an interactive meeting either online or in person.

In the Michigan State University Extension Facilitative Leadership course, participants learn there are two things to consider when planning meetings: process and content. Process is the means of communicating and convening, and content is the information produced or shared during that process. Carefully plan your agenda in terms of both process and content ahead of time. Dedicate time for introductions and ground rules or guidelines at the beginning, engaging activities that include all participants throughout, and time for wrap up and action items at the end. Share the agenda with participants prior to the meeting and let them know what to expect when they arrive virtually.

Another important factor if you choose to go with a virtual meeting is to invite the right participants and assign roles. Typically, for in person meetings, it is common to have a facilitator, content expert, and note taker. In an online meeting, you may add the role of host or technology facilitator who can assist with the online platform and help troubleshoot if needed. Multiple people can help with a backup plan if technology fails. Planning for these roles for each meeting helps with coordination.

In your virtual meetings, having a thoughtful purpose, a coordinating process, engaged participants, and clear outcomes is a recipe for success. For more information and resources, visit MSU Extension

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