Time for another virtual meeting. We sign in from a remote location — either as individuals sitting alone in cubicles or home offices or in groups gathered around conference phones. The company’s teleconference facility, which has full audio and video capability, was already booked (as it usually is), so once again we hover over a phone together. We fire up the projector, ready to watch the PowerPoint deck we’ll all page through together.
Some of the attendees who are supposed to be joining us are late. A few of the callers are having trouble connecting. Finally, everyone is on the line, but not everyone has the slide deck. “It’s in my email, just a minute,” says one. Then there’s confusion about which slide we’re on. We lose ten minutes waiting for everything to come together, but eventually everyone says they’re ready, and we get started.
A few minutes into the call, the people on the other end mute their line to share a side conversation they’d rather we didn’t hear. What are they saying? When they hit the mute button again to rejoin the conversation, it’s clear they banded together during the silence and now oppose the idea we were just discussing. “Walk me through what you disagree with…?” the meeting leader asks, since the rest of us weren’t in on their discussion.
And none of that, alas, is unusual for a virtual meeting.
Ineffective and Normal
Virtual meetings have become an accepted — and ineffective — norm. Companies far-flung around the globe, managing tight budgets that make travel impractical, depend on virtual meetings more and more. There’s an underlying assumption that traditional and virtual meetings are equally effective because they both depend on mere audible conversation as the principal means of communicating.
But the truth is that conversation is only part of what makes a meeting work. Successful communication in traditional, in-person meetings is more complicated and robust than surface discussion. Assuming virtual meetings are as effective as traditional in-person meetings ignores the fact that work often gets done not through the mechanics of conversation but through relationships. Like long-distance romances, virtual professional relationships are hard to sustain. Virtual meetings, as they’re usually conducted, do nothing to promote and nurture personal connections. Not even the experience the richest technology creates, integrating video, graphics, and sound, can compete with live, in-person connections.
That doesn’t mean we should scrap virtual meetings (which of course we won’t). Nor does it mean we should just resign ourselves to their shortcomings. It means we need to understand their limitations and make up for them.
Optimize your audio — and by that I don’t mean fine tune your technology. I mean put life in your voice. No one can pay attention for very long to a flat, monotone delivery of even the most captivating information. No doubt your everyday conversation varies in pitch quite a bit — higher tones for enthusiasm, lower tones for more serious phrases. Don’t strip all that out of your delivery just because you’re staring at a speakerphone or a screen. Put zing in your speech. Imagine you are your own audience. Would you want to listen to you?
Keep it to one conversation at a time. In a live, in-person meeting, you can get away with multiple conversations erupting at once, for a minute or so anyway. In a virtual meeting, when you have two, three, or more voices going at once, the result is noisy murk. Meeting leaders: intervene! Blow a whistle if you have to — hey, that’d get everyone’s attention — and restore order: one speaker at a time.
Enunciate. Native speakers of English from North America, this is for you: affix consonants to the ends of your words. I realize that takes more effort than usual, since we tend to burble syllables together. Example: “Ju eat?””No, ju?” which means “Did you eat?” “No, did you?” A linguistic shortcut like this one might work when you’re right next to someone whose native language is the same as yours. But if you’re depending heavily on audio in a virtual setting, especially if you have speakers of several different native languages on the call, make the extra effort to add consonants to your words where you might not otherwise.
Take breaks. My friend, public-speaking guru Nick Morgan, said in Forbes magazine that we should “plan the virtual meeting in 10-minute segments. Recent evidence suggests that attention spans may be about 10 minutes long in this computer-addled, information-overloaded age. Our attention spans are certainly no longer on a phone.” Even if you can’t justify a full-on break, shift the action from one speaker to another or from one subtopic to another. Insert a question for the group to respond to. Anything to break it up. You know from your own experience that remaining fully engaged in a virtual meeting for an entire hour is challenging at best.
Anticipate and intercept distractions. This is for you, meeting leaders. You know what’s happening “out there” during your meeting: people are checking email, texting, looking in on open problem tickets, preparing for their next meetings, or pressing the mute button so they can talk about something else. They’re sort of listening, or they’re not listening. Here’s my advice: call them on it. “Before we start, let’s agree: no side conversations and no punching the mute button to veer off or hold a side meeting.” Another: “If everyone stays focused here, we’ll be done faster and you’ll be on to whatever’s next.” Multitasking damages personal productivity. (Want to work more slowly? Multitask!) And it certainly has a damaging effect on meetings, virtual or otherwise.
Foster relationships virtually. Of all the suggestions included here, this one takes the most creativity and planning. Here are a few ideas:
Start the meeting early. Fire up the technology ten minutes before the start time, and let people chat across the miles before diving into the subject at hand. Be ready with questions for other people, and not just “How’s the weather?”
Get to know key people personally. If you’re meeting virtually with the same group every week, set aside a few minutes to chat or email with them separately from the meeting time. If you were in the same building or block, you might invite them to meet for coffee. Since that’s not practical, suggest they grab a cup of whatever they drink and Skype with you for 15 minutes. If you’re thinking you don’t have time for that sort of thing, consider that the payback comes in the meeting when he or she is listening, asking questions, and interacting more because you’re both comfortable in the situation, thanks to your personal connection.
I once worked in a company where we held weekly virtual meetings with a team in Bangalore. We’d been meeting every Monday morning (West Coast time) for weeks when one of the managers in our group hit on an idea. Unbeknown to the rest of us, he asked the team in India to take photos of themselves and email them to him. He then printed a picture of each person on our color printer and, before we arrived for the meeting, he affixed these individual, grainy color headshots to chairs in the room. As we arrived, he introduced each of us to Ravi, Lakshmi, Venkat, and the others, faces we’d never actually seen before. When we started the call, he explained what he’d done and that we were all looking at them, and everyone laughed together.
The effect was that it brought us closer to them. During the week that followed, they asked for our photos, and they posted our likenesses around the meeting room on their end. Silly? Okay, maybe. But it was charming, too, and fun and (oh, by the way) inexpensive.
If you have the opportunity to meet in person with people you usually only talk with by phone — whether they’re colleagues, vendors, or other service providers — don’t miss the chance to make that personal connection so you’ll be better connected to them next time you’re attending another virtual meeting.
Meeting with Holographs?
I’m picturing a day in the future when I walk into a meeting room and sit down next to a vivid, lifelike, full-body holograph of someone who’s actually on the other side of the world at that very moment. Imagine an entire conference table where such holographs are interspersed with live, in-the-flesh people! There we all are, talking and gesturing and exchanging ideas and sharing the moment. That will certainly make up for some of the inadequacies of today’s virtual meeting.
But until that day, whether you’re leading a virtual meeting or participating in one, recognize that virtual meetings have shortcomings and it’s up to you to compensate for them with creativity and leadership.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.