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7 ways to host more productive virtual meetings

Now more than ever, people are working remotely — from home offices, coffee shops and couches. Distributed teams are becoming the new norm in today’s work world.

According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, 43% of employed Americans spend at least some time working remotely. This number has increased dramatically during the COVID-19 crisis. Gartner now reports that 88% of companies have implemented mandatory work-from-home orders.

And with distributed teams now the norm for many, virtual meetings over Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts have become the standard. But making these meetings as effective as in-person get-togethers can be a challenge. 

Below, we’ve outlined seven actionable tips to make your virtual meetings worth the attention of your team. This guide includes:

What are the right tools for hosting virtual meetings?

When planning for virtual meetings, choosing the right online meeting tools is essential. The three main things to prioritize are ease of use, audio and video quality and how seamlessly the tool can accommodate other collaborative tools (think screen sharing a Google Doc or shared   PowerPoint, for instance.)

Popular and effective video conferencing tools like Zoom, WebEx, Google Hangouts and Slack all offer a wide range of components. As you do your research, prioritize these features:

1. High-quality audio & video

While every meeting is unique, you will, at the very least, need a conferencing tool that supports high-quality audio and video — in fact, the higher the quality the better. This is non-negotiable for any successful virtual meeting.

Rany Ng, director of product management and meeting solutions at Google advocates a “video-first” approach to virtual meetings. Ng says, “With video, attendees can interpret facial expressions and social cues, which allows everyone to ‘read the room’ and react accordingly.”

2. Simple screen sharing

Allowing participants to watch the same presentation and view or share documents is key to hosting an engaging meeting — by choosing a tool that makes screen sharing easy, you can keep everyone on the same page no matter what time zone they’re in.

3. Reliability

Anyone who’s ever been on a video conferencing call has, at some point, had connectivity issues. Someone’s video might freeze — or their audio might drop. And in a business setting, this can go beyond annoying. It also makes picking a reliable video conferencing tool all the more important.

Todd Horner, Cloud Engineer and Systems Administrator for a large San Francisco-based SaaS company, helps coordinate meetings for team members all around the world. With offices in multiple countries, he prioritizes reliability in a virtual meeting tool above all else.

“What you don’t want is to get everyone on a call only to have connectivity issues, bandwidth problems like latency, glitches or echo — you need to choose a tool that has a solid track record of handling large meetings,” Horner says.

4. Additional collaborative tools

For next-level collaboration, consider incorporating additional tools in your meeting like Google Docs, Box, Dropbox, Airtable, Trello or any other software your team deems essential.

The goal here is to use something that allows multiple people to work on the same document or scheduling tool. For planning purposes, tools like Airtable and Trello offer great solutions (with workable free versions, too).

These extras can allow multiple team members to collaborate on a given project, easily share files and add annotations to what’s on the screen.

How do you schedule a meeting with members in different time zones? 

It’s hard enough to schedule meetings with a team spread across a single state or region. At Hana, we have team members in London, New York City, Dallas, Chicago and San Francisco — among other places. This can make scheduling meetings difficult.

So, how do you plan a virtual meeting when you have a distributed team spanning multiple time zones?

1. Find a time that works for everyone

Lean on email calendars to find times that work for everyone. This seems basic, but it’s not uncommon that meetings get scheduled at unreasonable hours. After all, a 9am in New York might be a bit off-putting for a West Coast colleague to attend.   

Most email services — like Gmail and Outlook — have features that allow you to toggle on and off the calendars of your colleagues, making it easy to see who’s available when.

Be considerate about not starting off too early — or late — for anyone on the team. To see time zones at-a-glance, tools like Every Time Zone make it easy to see what time it is around the world.

2. Know who’s essential

Without face-to-face interactions, some companies fall prey to scheduling far too many virtual meetings. As with anything in life, there’s an inherent risk of doing too much of a good thing.

Before scheduling a virtual meeting, ask the question “How many people really need to attend this meeting?” There are some quick huddles where you don’t need everyone, which may help minimize how many time zones need to be included on a given call.

If you do want to connect with everyone but schedules just don’t align, take it as an opportunity to think about hosting separate meetings.

How to set an agenda for a virtual meeting

Like all good meetings, effective virtual meetings don’t waste people’s time. The best way to keep a meeting on task is to set an agenda.

Here’s how:

1. Map Out Your Goals

Well before your meeting, plan out:

a) What you want to accomplish

b) What you need from each participant

c) What the likely actionable next steps will be

Consider using a PowerPoint slide or Word document to outline your priorities for the meeting and share your screen to keep everyone on track and on task.

2. Stay on Topic

If the meeting starts to veer off-topic, politely redirect the conversation and offer to talk separately about any issues that aren’t on the agenda. A great way to do this is to set aside time at the end of the meeting for any questions that may come up — and be open to discussing topics one-on-one outside your scheduled meeting time.

Simple etiquette tips for virtual meetings 

In order for everyone to have a great virtual meeting experience, it’s wise to follow some basic etiquette tips — and set etiquette expectations prior to the call.

This breaks down into two key elements: what you do before the call and what you do on the call.

1. Before the call, you should:

      • Prepare anything you need to contribute
      • Test your technology and make sure it’s working properly
      • Tell attendees ahead of time if you expect this meeting to be a video call
      • If possible, try to take your meeting in a quiet spot — and encourage others to do the same 

2. On the call, you should:

      • If not everyone knows one another, offer short introductions that highlight roles and responsibilities
      • Give everyone the opportunity to speak at some point during the call when possible
      • Don’t check email or your phone during the meeting — be present
      • Mute yourself when you’re not speaking, especially if you’re typing

How to keep everyone engaged on a virtual meeting


Image credit: Runa Sandvik

A Harvard Business Review survey found that 65% of respondents admitted to doing other work while on a conference call.

As funny as conference call bingo might be, it isn’t something you want people playing at your company. Here’s how to keep people engaged during virtual meetings:

1. Make it interactive

    • Where possible, ask everyone on the call to introduce themselves
    • Call on team members directly, and especially include those who are less likely to talk
    • For large meetings, it may make sense to enable polling, Q&A or virtual hand-raising features if your software provides them

2. Enlist help

    • Make sure each attendee is responsible for an agenda item or knows why they are on the call and what they are expected to contribute
    • Assign tasks or roles to participants
    • Prep some team members ahead of time to take the lead when sharing out or having a discussion to avoid prolonged moments of silence — this will help others feel more comfortable chiming in

How to prioritize privacy & security on a virtual meeting 

In the era of data breaches and “Zoombombing”, people are rightfully concerned about privacy and security when it comes to online meetings. Fortunately, there are easy ways to keep your virtual meetings protected.

1. Prevent unwanted visitors from joining your call

Horner tells us that, while all services encrypt meetings by default, there are additional ways to ensure your virtual meetings are safe. First, he says, “avoid using the same virtual meeting number for every meeting.”

Doing so puts you at a greater risk for unwanted visitors. Instead, let the software assign a new, random number for each meeting and include that in calendar invites.

He also suggests setting up a password for each meeting and providing that to invited guests only. Once your meeting is underway, many virtual meeting tools will also allow you to lock the meeting to any new participants.

2. Protect your data during & after the meeting

Make sure that whatever service you choose provides full encryption for any audio or text logs that remain after your call and understand how long these are stored and where. 

How to effectively follow-up after your meeting

In our rush to move on to the next task, it’s easy to forget to follow up after a virtual meeting. But this crucial step ensures what was discussed is documented and everyone stays in sync.

1. Send out a meeting summary and plan for next steps

The most important things to follow-up with after a meeting are:

      • Next steps
      • Expected deliverables & laying out a clear understanding of who’s responsible
      • When action items are due
      • Setting a date for a future check-in

You can send this via email along with any key meeting notes you have. But don’t simply send along a laundry list of items without structure — keep emails organized, succinct and to the point.

One tip, courtesy of Elon Musk, is to “bold the important: if you need a reply from a particular person on a thread with multiple people, put their name in bold with action items and timeline.”

2. Gather feedback in post-mortem breakdown

Conducting a postmortem on a simple virtual meeting may feel like overdoing it. But collecting feedback — whether by asking colleagues individually or sending out a simple anonymous survey — helps improve your future meetings and gives participants the chance to let you know what they thought worked or didn’t.

Take this with you

Hosting effective virtual meetings may seem daunting, but when approached thoughtfully — and with the right tools — can be just as effective as in-person meetings.

Follow these steps to host a successful virtual meeting:

    • Choose the right software solution for your business, and encourage the use of video whenever possible to more closely mimic in-person meetings
    • Plan out a detailed agenda — and stick to it
    • Be conscientious when scheduling meetings for team members in different time zones
    • Promote and follow good online meeting etiquette — be attentive, use the mute function liberally and include everyone when possible
    • Encourage participation and interaction to keep your attendees engaged
    • Make sure your meetings are secure and privacy is protected
    • Always follow-up after a virtual meeting with action items and next steps

And if you’re wondering how to look your best over a video call, listen to this advice from fashion icon Tom Ford.

Looking for a better place to work? Explore the workspaces and amenities 1,000+ office workers value most in our white paper, Forget Foosball: People Want a Better Place to Work, Not Play.

Apr 14 2020

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