5 Tips for more productive online meetings

We’ve all been there before: meetings that go nowhere. You stop whatever it is you’re doing and march into a generic conference room. On the way, you meet other people on their way to the same meeting, laptops or notebooks in hand. It’s time. 80% of the people have arrived, while the other 20% are still on their phones somewhere or sending one last email, or still on their way to the office. Ten minutes in, everyone is there. Now, all of a sudden, everyone’s thirsty. Or need to grab a stale cookie for their coffee. Or they need catch up on how everyone is doing, or talk about a recent project, or discuss last night’s football match. 15 minutes in, the meeting begins. Someone says something, which may have been an actual beginning of an effective discussion, but someone has a remark. About something else entirely. It is remotely reminiscent of what the meeting is supposed to be about, but directly connected to the first speaker’s job in the project. They get into a heated argument. The rest of the attendees lose interest. They get back to their phones, their emails, or more often than not – Facebook. 50 minutes in, someone says: this is totally irrelevant. And someone else rises to leave, saying “I have another meeting”. An hour has passed, with little, if any, progress.
In conference calls, things could actually get worse. You don’t have to wait for people to grab a coffee or a cookie, but every time, almost everyone is late. Or they’re talking to you from the underground parking lot, or they’re on their way to a weekend in the desert, and their connection is bad. And then, when everyone is finally in on the meeting, no one really listens, just like the birds on the wire. They’re busy with other stuff, comfortable in the knowledge that they cannot get caught. Check out this brilliant video to see how conference calls look like in real life.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Here are some tips for effective meetings. You’ll have to follow them diligently, but they’re worth the effort:

1. A good reason to meet

Sometimes meetings happen just because someone thinks that meetings prove they’re working. Sometimes, the number of people sitting around the virtual conference table is bigger than 20, just because 20 people want to prove they’re working. So, before every meeting, stop to think: do I need this meeting? Do all the people invited have to be in it, and have something to contribute? If the answer is Yes, proceed as usual. But if it isn’t, have a one-on-one talk with the person in charge, either of your work in the organization or the meeting, and work out if the issues can be worked out between you two or with one or other two relevant people, and cancel the meeting.

2. Choose the right service

There are plenty conference-call services out there, but not all are equally trustworthy. A mediocre service may save some money in the short run, but in essence it wastes the time of a lot of people – and wasted time never saves money. I use QCONF. I like it because no one ever gets disconnected, and it saves everyone the hassle of entering a 22-digit code to participate. Also, it is cheap and the price is fixed, so I know what I’ll have to pay in advance.

3. Work according to schedule

There is no reason why meetings cannot start on time and end on time. It hardly ever happens, so what you need to do in your next meeting is this: present the most important issue first, without waiting for late comers. Then, present the issue on a PowerPoint slide that everyone can see. If anyone joins in late, say: Thank you for joining us, we’re in the middle of a discussion; the issue discussed is summarized on this slide. Then, continue with the discussion pleasantly but assertively. After a few times, everyone will know that your meetings always start on time.
How to end a meeting? That’s simple enough: treat the end of the meeting as seriously as the starting time. If, during the meeting, you see that you’ll need more time, shorten the meeting by a few minutes and schedule another meeting with the same participants.


4. What would you like to achieve?

According to an appalling (yet entertaining) study published in Forbes, 90% of people do not understand the purpose of the meeting they’ve just attended. Anyone who has been in more than three meetings in the course of his/her life knows why: meetings that aren’t run effectively tend to fade into nothingness. So, in your next meeting, after everyone’s arrived on time, state the purpose of the meeting. During the meeting, try to ask yourself constantly: are we keeping to the purpose? If not, feel free to steer everyone back onto the right path. You’re making both your life – and theirs – easier.

5. Who does what?

There’s a manager I work with who always says: a meeting with no action items is a meeting wasted. In online meetings, it’s really simple. You’re sitting by your computer as it is. So, as you approach the end of the meeting, make sure that everyone agrees on what needs to happen as a consequence of the meeting, and send a meeting summary immediately afterwards. Now, everyone knows why they came, and that they’re a part of a team that needs to move things forward.

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