While virtual meetings were viewed a nice alternative for most teams just a few weeks ago, they’re now a necessity in our new coronavirus induced remote work environment. For many this means days filled with back to back virtual meetings and conference calls. Unfortunately, when these sessions are poorly run, they don’t just waste a lot of precious time, the inefficiencies can also impact bottom line results. As a facilitation expert, I’ve not only led more meetings than I care to count, but I’ve also taught facilitation skills for nearly two decades and along the way I’ve learned the really common problems teams encounter when meeting virtually. Here are my top five along with recommendations on how you can minimize them.
Problem #1 – Rambling Discussion
Everyone knows the price we all pay when someone starts rambling during the conference call or virtual meeting. They’re going on and on – maybe they’re venting about their soapbox issues, they’ve detoured onto a tangent topic or they’ve gotten way down in the weeds on something that really shouldn’t be covered on the call. The problem is that it can be hard to figure out how to reign them in. There are many ways to do this, but here are a few of my favorites:
· Ask them to summarize their point for the scribe – When you use this technique to interject, it provides an opportunity for you to compliment them while encouraging them to get to the point. It might sound like this - Jill, that’s such a great point about the potential impact on inventory, and I want to be sure we don’t lose it. Would you mind boiling it down to one bullet point that we can capture in the notes?
· Develop a ground rule to help combat rambling – One of my teams developed a ground rule that anytime anyone on the call thought we were rambling or getting off topic, they should just hit the # sign and that was the signal that we needed to move on. It was so effective in part because it was anonymous so even if the VP was the one rambling on, people weren’t shy about hitting the # sign. For video conference meetings you might issue everyone a flag and ask them to raise it when they think discussion is rambling. Some teams rotate a team member to act as the “rambler police” to keep an eye out for rambling discussion and alert the team as soon as they feel discussion has gotten off track.
· Ask if the discussion can be taken offline – While it can feel almost confrontational to tell someone that their issue is not relevant, it’s much easier to ask them if the issue could be addressed offline. It might sound like this – Jake, you’re bringing up important issues about the system configuration, but I’m just wondering whether we should try to hash this out now or possibly take that discussion offline?Problem #2 – Late Attendees
Cumulatively, organizations waste a lot of time and money when meetings don’t start on time. It’s so common for the 9:00 meeting to really not get started until 9:10 because we’re waiting on a straggler or two or sometimes, the group will start around 9:05 but then have to backtrack or repeat information as the meeting progresses for those who joined late. Either way, starting the meeting late is a common problem. Here are a couple techniques you can use to avoid it.
· Adopt 50/80 minute meeting formats – One of the reasons that people are often late dialing into their meeting is that they’re late getting out of the previous meeting so if the entire organization moves to a “spa scheduling” type format (e.g. 9:00-9:50), it provides the needed 10 minute buffer that people often need to wrap up one meeting and possibly get in a bathroom break before dialing into the next meeting. Also, an odd meeting time signals to attendees that the organizer is more serious about timeliness.
· Develop a ground rule to encourage starting on time – One of my previous teams developed a ground rule that anyone not on the call when the meeting started had to sing a song of their choice when they joined. It was hilarious and effective!
Problem #3 – Missing the Relationship Building Opportunity
One of the biggest disadvantages not being face to face with coworkers, clients, suppliers and other stakeholders is the missed opportunity for relationship building. In many ways relationship building is the foundation for trust which really fuels team productivity in so many ways. Believe it or not, virtual meetings and conference calls can be great ways to inject relationship building into the day in a subtle way. Here are some ideas:
· Use creative introductions – If you’re including introductions at the beginning of the call/virtual meeting ask each person to also share their first paid job. This takes so little time but can really spark connections and add a bit of levity. It’s also a great way to allow junior level employees to connect with more senior level executives. Once they hear that VP Jeff started out as a bag boy at Piggly Wiggly (just like them), it creates a subtle connection.
· End the call with kudos – One of my previous bosses would end staff calls with 5 minutes of kudos, tips or gripes. He included kudos as an opportunity for team members to publicly acknowledge each other. Too often we don’t think about kudos or awards until the project is over/end of year. Oftentimes, we might appreciate someone going above and beyond, but we don’t take the time to tell them. This type of public acknowledgement can really help develop and nurture feelings of goodwill within the team.
Problem #4 – No Follow Up
For many meetings the most important element is not the meeting discussion but instead what gets accomplished after the meeting. It’s such a tragedy when teams discuss critical issues, but then neglect to follow up on the items discussed to achieve real progress. To avoid that trap, use these techniques.
· Make sure someone is documenting action items (preferably not the meeting leader) – Be sure someone is designated to document each action item, owner and due date, then review this information at the end of the meeting. If possible, have the scribe write them on a virtual whiteboard so everyone can see them real time during the meeting.
· Ask the owner to suggest the due date – Avoid proposing due dates and instead ask the owner to suggest a due date given their workload. When they publicly agree to a date, it minimizes the likelihood that they’ll miss the date or complain that they couldn’t get to it.Problem #5 – Distracted Participants
We all know that any meeting is only as effective as the level of attendee involvement, and virtual meetings bring so many more distractions from attendees scanning their email to making a quick smoothie. During this time of near home confinement, distractions are to be expected so here are a few suggestions.
· Discuss the issue early on and customize ground rules that work for your team – During this unprecedented time, it’s important to be realistic. It’s not helpful to set strict rules if they’re not going to be adhered to anyway so facilitate a really open, honest discussion about individual challenges and what would be most appropriate. Then customize the ground rules/expectations to best suit your team.
· Consider scheduling shorter meetings – It’s much easier for attendees to avoid distractions for a shorter period of time so lean towards a 30-40-minute meeting instead of the typical hour-long meeting. With a shorter timeframe it’s typically easier for attendees to avoid distraction.
· Call on different people periodically – People tend to perk up and focus when you call on them during a meeting so develop a habit of randomly calling on different people (particularly in the first 10-15 minutes of the call). When people realize that they’re likely to be called on, they tend to naturally focus on the conversation more intently.
Virtual meetings will enable teams across the world to continue to be productive so let’s make them as productive as possible. We know many of the pitfalls so avoid the temptation to stick your head in the sand and continue to meet the way you’ve always met. Discuss these challenges with your team and make the changes necessary to enhance your team’s productivity.