6 Critical Success Factors for Running Powerful Virtual Meetings

This weekend I am speaking about running effective virtual meetings at the “Best of the West” Conference sponsored by the Bay Area OD Network. With the current state of the world economy, it’s easy to understand why there is a surge of interest in virtual collaboration as a way to eliminate the expense of bringing people together in physical time and space. Some managers jump in feet first assuming a meeting is a meeting is a meeting, others put an apprehensive toe in the water, concerned about the lack of visual cues, the reliance on technology and so on. In my experience consulting with global organizations in many industries, the transition away from face-to-face interaction is not an easy one, but it is manageable if you recognize and address its unique challenges.

What is a “Virtual” Meeting?
A virtual meeting is an event or series of events where participants join in from multiple locations. A virtual meeting may be held “real time” where everyone is participating as the same time, often by teleconference or video conference. A virtual meeting may also have asynchronous components where participants are working at different times appropriate to their time zone or schedule.

For the purposes of our discussion we will consider virtual meeting as distinct from online chat, bulletin boards or social networks. A meeting is more formal and structured than these types of events and will most usefully have defined objectives and outcomes, an agenda and a facilitator. Our focus is on that facilitator or meeting manager and the skills we need to get great results from the virtual sessions that we design and facilitate.

As facilitators and meeting managers we have a lot to pay attention to from the planning and design of a meeting, to who should attend and how to manage the group dynamics. Everything that we already know about good facilitation applies to virtual meetings and using web meeting tools. In addition to the normal meeting planning activities there are some particular issues that we need to pay attention to as facilitators of virtual meetings. We can summarize these issues into six critical success factors for getting great results from virtual meetings.

Six Critical Success Factors for Getting Great Results Virtually
1. Planning a viable agenda or series of agendas
2. Effective use of technology
3. Preparing participants and pre-work
4. Keeping participants focused and engaged during a virtual meeting
5. Building trust and social capital
6. Maintaining momentum between meetings

I have written a paper about these critical success factors that I invite you to read and provide feedback.  Are there more important factors that I have neglected?  How has transitioning to virtual meetings worked for you?


11 Comments Add Yours ↓

The upper is the most recent comment

  1. Stevo #

    To your list I would add one more.

    Empower all participants to use their voice assertively.

    Virtual meetings risk drawing out the extroverts and sending introverts more deeply into their own thoughts. Its a special challenge to the facilitator to manage these tendencies to assure that all available wisdom is being tapped.

  2. Thanks for your paper. It succinctly makes a lot of important points.

    As one who runs a number of virtual meetings of an international variety where not all of the participants share the same first language, I wanted to mention one or two pitfalls and open the general question of cross-cultural/language virtual meetings.

    1. Problems with the meaning of words. Let me give you an example. In planning several virtual meetings, I had occasion to work with a senior colleague whose first language was Spanish. He spoke English quite well nonetheless we had some interesting and illuminating communication issues. He wanted the agenda we were working on to address what he called the “outstanding” issues. Most native English speakers would understand the word “outstanding” in this context to mean something like “not yet completed or resolved.”

    I agreed we need to cover “outstanding” issues and dutifully made by list of topics that needed to resolved. He was supposed to do the same and then we would compare and combine as necessary. When we met (virtually) to discuss the lists and develop the agenda. I discovered that his list and mine were completely different. He was senior to me and asked what happened and implied that I had not done the task correctly. What ensued was a Monty Python like conversaton in which we both claimed to have listed the “outstanding” issues.

    To make a long story short, it turned out that we meant different things by the word “outstanding.” I meant “not comleted and in need of completion” and he meant “most important.”

    I am not sure that there is a really easy way to catch all of these sorts of things beforehand. What I am sure is that when you have an obvious disconnect with an internatinal colleague, one place to look for the root of the problem is misunderstandings of word meanings.

    Subsequent to this experience, I have found it useful to contract with international colleagues and set the expectation that we may misunderstand each other from time to time because of language issues.

    2.People who attend virtual meetings in a second language are sometimes less talkative than native speakers and less able to express affect. Many second language participants are more comfortable typing in the chat box in an applicaiton like GoToMeeting of LiveMeeting. Ground rules and procedures for this need to be established. It is also a good idea to have a co-facilitator who speaks the dominant second language fluently to serve as an interpreter especially when summarizing critical points and checking for understanding. Also, I have found that this co-faciliator is particularly useful addressing issues of affect. He/she can ask how people feel or clarify a statement made in the secong language.

    Language issues are also related to the whole question of maintaining the active participation of all participants.

    3. Social networking and teambuilding are very important in multi-country collaborations. We need to put a human face on all the participants. Photos, background biographies, even webcam tours of the other folks offices can help. There are lots of tools and techniques but the more you can bring all the participants into the same virtual space as people and co-workers the better.

    I could go on with this list. But, I am runing out of time just now and would love to hear others thoughts on this topic.


  3. Tom – Thank you for all your thoughtful comments. I am going to reflect on each of them in turn. As you say, there is so much to think about on this topic! – Julia

    Problems with the meaning of words…
    I really like this story and see it as a very useful example to open a conversation about language and understanding in future client and group situations. I am struck but how important checking for understanding is in all situations – when we meet in person, when we work together from afar and especially when we work across cultures. Paying attention leads to awareness, and awareness allows us to take action. I think that the need for attention and awareness are the same whether meeting face-to-face (a term open to misinterpretation?) or virtually, but that we need to be even more attentive in a virtual environment. Seems like you have a great ice-breaker exercise in the making with this story.

  4. Conversing in a second language…I share your experience with some participants who find it easier to type responses rather than speak in a second language. Our online facilitation tool FacilitatePro (www.Facilitate.com/Technology) provides just such an interactive environment with shared flip charts for brainstorming and idea generation voting and prioritizing. We found this collaboration technology valuable in a meeting room environment, well before the Internet was available, for just the same reason – to allow everyone an equal voice. The tools provide options for both anonymous and attributed input allowing the facilitator to adjust the group dynamic as appropriate to the topic and situation. Anonymity gives people an opportunity (and sometimes the courage) to speak openly – whether they are writing in a second language, afraid of reprisals, intimidated by their boss, not sure if their idea is a good one or just plain shy. In our virtual meetings we tend to opt for lots of opportunities to have everyone typing ideas – in fact our technology emphasizes this over slides and presentations.

  5. Social networking and team building…I completely agree with you that taking time to get to know each other greatly enhances the level of interaction, collaboration and trust within a virtual team or even a relatively short virtual meeting. A lot of this can be done before a meeting with introductions and photos. I have also found that posting a business head shot or a family holiday snap elicit different kinds of responses and set up different tones for our interaction. When working with virtual teams I think it is important to take time for this “getting to know you” activity upfront and again at regular intervals. Even if we check in and agree that the team is working well, it is time well spent. If we find out that there are misunderstandings or dissatisfactions we can catch them early and forestall bigger problems.

  6. Great post and follow on comments from everyone. Trust and social capital – what in my work I call Emotional Bandwidth – might actually be moved forward on the list, if the list were prioritized. Communication misunderstandings and technical hesitancies/challenges are more tolerated when the emotional bandwidth among the people involved is expanded enough that not only trust is built, but we ‘read between the style/culture/personality lines’ better.

  7. I appreciate your article, but one thing really strikes me – everything in your list is as applicable to in-house, face-to-face meetings as it is to virtual meetings.

    I strongly believe that there is too much emphasis on the ‘differentness’ of remote work vs. in-office work. In my Venn diagram, the overlap is huge. Work is work, relationships are relationships and good meetings or bad meetings can happen in any environment.

    Looking at your points individually:
    1. Planning a viable agenda or series of agendas – As necessary in-house as remote. No agenda meetings don’t run well and don’t drive towards results.

    2. Effective use of technology – Yes, I give you that remote requires more technology, but there are countless stories of in-house meetings gone wrong because of technology glitches that usually have to do with laptops and projectors. Even in an in-house conference room there are times when people can’t hear each other or can’t see the slides. making sure your meeting technology is working before the meeting is essential.

    3. Preparing participants and pre-work – I started my career in Marketing in the last 80s (OMG, did business exist back then with no web and no email?). And early in my career I got great advice from a mentor about pre-selling ideas and preparing meeting participants. If your meeting is to get buy in or agreement, this pre-work is a must no matter the meeting format.

    4. Keeping participants focused and engaged during a virtual meeting – Again, just a big an issue with in-house meetings. Pre-laptop, people just doodle and pass notes. Now, at almost every in-house meeting I attend, everyone brings his/her laptop anyway “to take notes.” So the in-house and virtual environment for the meeting is not that different. What is great is when the online access adds to the meeting by allowing participants to gather information in realtime. Certainly the lack of body language and visual clues in a virtual meeting has its disadvantages, but many of those are hard to see even in-house. Is that person taking notes on his laptop or checking email or skyping another participant?

    5. Building trust and social capital – again, I just don’t see any difference here when it comes to meeting format. No trust or social capital dooms an in-house meeting too.

    6. Maintaining momentum between meetings – Again, just as important in-house as virtual. In some ways, I think a distributed group has an advantage here over an in-house one. They have to communicate in distributed ways (email, IM, etc) and that often facilitates better group communication.

    I do agree that there are aspects of communication that are more challenging in a distributed environment than face-to-face, but your ideas are crucial to any good meeting.

  8. Carrie – I couldn’t agree with you more! The only exception I have is the “but” in your first sentence. When we train facilitators in the art and practice of virtual facilitation our first message is what you know about designing and running face to face meetings applies “in spades” to virtual meetings too. We see lots of opportunities for experienced facilitators like yourself to extend your reach and fill a void in the often un-facilitated world of virtual meetings. – Julia

Your Comment