Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 19;   May 6, 2020:

New Virtual Meetings for Teams

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Now that so many members of so many teams are working from home, the virtual meeting has taken on a new form, and new importance. Here are suggestions for making your virtual team meetings more effective.
A video call during a pandemic

A video call during the COVID-19 pandemic. Notice that she's well lit from the front, which is good. But her laptop lid is tilted at an angle from the vertical. The result is that her conversation partner will be viewing her from slightly below eye level.

For some time now, virtual meetings have borne a well-deserved reputation for ineffectiveness compared to face-to-face meetings. But that reputation was earned in an environment in which virtual meetings co-existed with face-to-face meetings of subsets of the attendees of the virtual meetings. Those face-to-face meetings served to make teams more effective than they would have been if they had to depend on virtual meetings alone. With the COVID-19 pandemic, that is now changed. Virtual meetings are all we have.

To recover some of that lost effectiveness, we need to approach conducting virtual meetings more effectively. In this post, I've gathered together a set of tips for doing just that. These tips assume that all interaction between attendees occurs through text messaging, email, teleconferences or videoconferences. They're aimed specifically at teams that meet regularly or nearly so. Included are tips for:

Running the meeting

  • Keep the meeting short. 30 minutes is about the maximum. If there's more work to do than 30 minutes will allow, take 10-minute breaks between 30-minute segments. Longer segments aren't really an option. People will cease paying attention if you try to go longer.
  • Keep presentations short. Distribute a longer form of any presentation's slides electronically in advance to enable people to preview the presentation.
  • Avoid round-robin status reports. Borrriiiiiing. Handle this function in advance in email. In the meeting itself, instead of a status report on a given activity, open the floor to questions about that activity — questions that weren't covered in the email status report.
  • Avoid aggressive or confrontational questions. If you must ask such a question, do it in a smaller group so as to avoid publicly attacking anyone.
  • If someone asks an aggressive or confrontational question, as Chair, suggest that the questioner and the person questioned take up the issue off line, and that any interested parties can join them. As the person questioned, if the Chair fails to make such a suggestion, offer it yourself.
  • In discussions, keep comments short and to the point.
  • Be polite to Before the pandemic, face-to-face
    meetings served to make teams
    more effective than they would have
    been if they had to depend on
    virtual meetings alone. Now,
    virtual meetings are more central.
    each other and respectful of each other. Politeness is even more important in virtual meetings than it is in face-to-face meetings.
  • For more than three or four participants, designate a speaker queue manager who determines the order of speakers. For videoconferences, devise a hand signal for getting the queue manager's attention. For software-mediated meetings, use the "hand-raise" feature of your meeting software to request a spot in the speaker queue.
  • Limit attendance to 15 people or so. Videoconferencing for larger groups isn't really practical. Think about it: in a one-hour meeting for 30 people, each person gets (on average) two minutes to speak. That isn't a "conference." Keeping everyone's attention will be difficult.
  • Don't interrupt others. Wait your turn.
  • Designate a parking lot valet to capture discussion items that come up but which aren't suitable for that meeting.
  • Encourage self-parking — if someone has a comment that isn't urgent but needs to be captured, he or she can offer it as, "Here's something for the parking lot: 'Hoop jumping.'"
  • Designate someone as the digression detector empowered to interrupt the meeting at any time to suggest that a digression is underway. When this happens, the group halts the discussion to decide whether it's a digression, and if so, whether to add it to the parking lot.
  • At the end of the meeting assign "owners" to all parking lot items.

Crafting agendas

  • Circulate the agenda in advance — 24 hours or so. Your motto: urgent items only. Solicit agenda suggestions even earlier.
  • If a particular person is expected to lead a particular agenda item, append that person's name to the agenda item.
  • Express agenda items as commands: "Review the most effective techniques for jumping through hoops"; not "Hoop jumping."
  • Have a "Not-Agenda" — a list of topics that are out of bounds for this meeting. Circulate the Not-Agenda in advance along with the Agenda.
  • Review the agenda and not-agenda at the outset of the meeting. Make adjustments as needed to gain consensus of all participants that the agenda items are right for the current meeting.
  • Allocate time to each agenda item. Time allocations are necessary because they provide the only way to know whether you're on track to finish on time.
  • Designate a timekeeper whose job it is to alert the meeting when time is exhausted for the current agenda item.

Preparing your environment for a videoconference

  • Have a glass of water at the ready in case you need a sip.
  • Use a headset instead of your computer's speakers. Headsets reduce the chances of annoying audio feedback.
  • Set your phone(s) on vibrate.
  • Feed your dog a snack about a half hour before the meeting. Some dogs feel an urge to join the conversation when they notice you talking. You want your dog to snooze through the meeting. Something in the belly helps.
  • If you have more than 8-10 people in attendance, use a large screen for a gallery view of all participants. A laptop screen is too small.
  • Silence any alerts or notifications that your computer(s) might display during the meeting.
  • Alert others in your home that you're attending a meeting and you need a quiet environment in your immediate vicinity.

Managing your video presence

  • Have a test meeting in advance to enable people to verify that their technology is all ready to go.
  • The camera built into your laptop is probably good enough for participants in team meetings. But for presentations to groups, or for media interviews, invest in a webcam. COVID-19 and work-from-home has resulted in a mad rush to buy webcams. The best deals are sold out, so the sooner you order yours, the better. Read reviews of the best webcams for work.
  • Even though you're at home, dress for work-from-home, not home-at-home. For most of us, that level of dress is the more casual of (a) business casual, or (b) whatever you would wear at work.
  • When you're addressing the group, look directly into the camera. Don't look at the image on your screen.
  • Mute yourself when you aren't speaking.
  • Unmute yourself to speak.
  • Mute your video (stop the image) if you must sip some water, or sneeze or cough or answer a phone.
  • Don't have a bright light behind you. Light yourself well from the front and slightly above.
  • Position your computer's camera at eye level, looking straight at your face, about 14 inches (35 cm) away.
  • If you're ill and coughing more frequently than once every five minutes, don't attend the meeting. Call in sick.

Speaking

  • Begin your comment with "This is Rick" (using your actual name)
  • If someone else has the same name you do, then say something like, "This is <name> in <geographical location>."
  • Speak slowly and clearly so others can understand you. Virtual audio is usually imperfect.
  • Pause strategically so as not to be interrupted. See "Chronic Peer Interrupters: I," Point Lookout for May 30, 2018.
  • Unless you have something to add, don't repeat what another participant has already said. If you want to agree with a previous contributor, that's fine, but add something new. It needn't be much. Mere repetition adds little, but even a clearer restatement is a contribution.
  • You needn't speak in perfectly formed, grammatically correct sentences. If perfect grammar doesn't come easily or naturally for you, don't try to achieve it. Value lies in substance, not form. Express yourself clearly and unambiguously.
  • If the language of the meeting isn't your native language, be especially careful about diction. In face-to-face meetings, people can hear you and see you far more clearly than they can in a teleconference or a videoconference. Clarity of diction is paramount in virtual meetings.
  • End your comment with an agreed-upon ending phrase, such as, "over." If there is a facilitator or meeting chair, end your comment with the chair's name.

Last words

If you're leading the meeting, and someone is ill with COVID-19, and unable to attend, mention the person and express gratitude, appreciation and hope for a speedy recovery. If someone has passed away, ask for a minute of silence.

Consider this collection a start. Add, edit, or delete based on your own experience. Go to top Top  Next issue: Neglect of Probability  Next Issue

303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsIs your organization a participant in one or more global teams? Are you the owner/sponsor of a global team? Are you managing a global team? Is everything going well, or at least as well as any project goes? Probably not. Many of the troubles people encounter are traceable to the obstacles global teams face when building working professional relationships from afar. Read 303 Tips for Virtual and Global Teams to learn how to make your global and distributed teams sing. Order Now!

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More articles on Effective Meetings:

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See also Effective Meetings and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choicesComing October 27: Five Guidelines for Choices
Each day we make dozens or hundreds of choices — maybe more. We make many of those choices outside our awareness. But we can make better choices if we can recognize choice patterns that often lead to trouble. Here are five guidelines for making choices. Available here and by RSS on October 27.
Ecotourists visit an iceberg off GreenlandAnd on November 3: Way Over Their Heads
For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives. Available here and by RSS on November 3.

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Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

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