There are a lot of advantages to the virtual meeting. Conferences can be held anywhere in the world. Meetings can be easily recorded for later reference. Offices are no longer required.
The only downside? It’s not in person.
There’s no controlling that. But that doesn’t mean virtual meetings always have to feel like they’re “virtual.” Taking the steps to hold your meetings the right way, even online meetings can have the familiarity of a face-to-face meeting so you’re free to focus on the business at hand:
Step 1: Remember Your Manners
A good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t do it in person, don’t do it via teleconferencing.
Here’s how to practically apply this rule of thumb to virtual meetings:
- Dress well. Dress always depends on several factors, from the position you occupy to the culture at the company with which you’re working. But unless you’re in a prominent position like the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, stick to a minimum of business casual to make the best impression. You don’t have to don a business suit for every virtual meeting, but leave the sweatshirts in the closet.
- Body language. You wouldn’t roll your eyes or cross your arms in person. The same rules apply if someone can see you, even if it’s from another continent. That means a basic attendance of manners: keep gum-chewing, arm-crossing, and eye-rolling to a minimum. If you wouldn’t wear out Angry Birds on your smartphone during a face-to-face conference, there’s no reason you should give any less focus to a virtual meeting. Let people know that they have your undivided attention; you’ll be much more likely to receive it in return.
- Make proper introductions. This is particularly true if you’re hosting or leading the meeting. If you notice that two people in on the virtual meeting haven’t yet met, break the ice with a quick introduction, just as you would in person.
For most people, these tips will be intuitive. Even if they aren’t, remember to stick to the rule of thumb—you’ll do fine.
Step 2: Prepare for the Meeting Ahead of Time
Professor Robert Kelly thought everything was going smoothly on the BBC. Though he was reporting remotely, he donned a suit, sat in front of a background that included a world map and bookshelves, and carried himself just as well.
Where did Robert Kelly go wrong? Although the hilarious blooper of an interview made headlines around the world, there’s a chance Kelly would have preferred a much smoother experience. He should have locked the door so he could have total privacy and give his undivided attention to the BBC.
Since your kids likely won’t interrupt a meeting at your office, it will feel more like a face-to-face meeting if you can keep your environment in check.
Give Kelly points for maintaining professionalism and apologizing for the interruption. But if you want your meetings to go a little more smoothly, don’t forget to seek out privacy and a suitable environment for a meeting.
Unless you want to end up on YouTube.
Step 3: Involve Everyone
The fastest way to make a virtual meeting feel more like a lecture is to ask that no one get involved or offer their input whatsoever.
Do the opposite—involve everyone—and you make the meeting the interactive experience that meetings are supposed to be. Even dropping a simple question like “can I get your input on that?” is a great way to invite someone to share what they’re online to share: their contribution.
The last thing you want are meeting attendees who feel like their presence not only went unnoticed, but wasn’t even necessary in the first place.
The more meetings you have—and the more people you involve—the harder it gets to keep tabs on who has offered their two cents. But when serving as the host, make it a point to open the meeting up for questions at some point.
Step 4: Adhere to the Normal Rules of Meetings
Psychology Today points out the importance of establishing “ground rules” for your meetings. Here, an interesting territorial response comes into play: most meeting hosts feel far more comfortable setting the ground rules when a meeting takes place on their “turf,” so to speak.
With virtual meetings, there is no turf. There is only a connection of several remote locations. Suddenly, the idea of setting ground rules seems more like you’re imposing on each attendee’s personal time.
Of course, that’s not the case. Each attendee owes each other their attention and their time, since that’s what they ask in return. You’re perfectly within your rights to set some ground rules for a meeting that include:
- Turning off cell phones.
- Letting only one person speak at a time.
- Avoiding other digital age mishaps like using the mute button to escape the bounds of manners.
Don’t be afraid to set some basic rules so that each attendee feels that their time is respected. In the end, your meetings will be better off for it.
Step 5: Don’t Pretend That You’re in a Face-to-Face Meeting
Part of making a virtual meeting feel like it’s face to face is to forget the fact that your meeting is online and to focus on the work.
The problem? Too many overzealous managers want to succeed at this so badly that they go too far in the other direction: they treat the virtual meeting as if it really is in person.
- Don’t ask that everyone dress up in their Sunday best for a virtual meeting. Professionalism is always to be expected, but depending on the context of your meeting, it can also leap into “overzealous” territory.
- Don’t expect live demonstrations to always work. There is a lot you can do with software like GoToMeeting, but putting any individual on the spot—especially when they’re new to virtual meetings—can be asking for a bit too much.
- Don’t use an unusual “meeting kickoff” strategy you wouldn’t use in person. This just gets counterproductive and reminds attendees that they’re in a virtual meeting.
The beauty of this step: it’s easy to incorporate. Simply keep the meeting professional and casual. Focus on the work, and that “face-to-face” feeling is sure to follow.
Step 6: Make the Interaction as Real as Possible
With a service like GoToMeeting, an ordinary laptop becomes a mobile meeting station. Your voice, your face—all of it will get captured as you video conference.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps you can take to increase the feeling of a live event. Researcher Zhengyou Zhang, who attends regular virtual meetings, will set up multiple monitors and cameras to capture as much of the authentic experience as possible.
While a veritable virtual reality system for meetings might not be commonplace, there are other ways you can enhance the feeling of a real-life interaction:
- Invest in hardware. An instrument that accurately captures your voice can have an immeasurable impact on the way you’re perceived in virtual meetings. Some people even rig multiple monitors to get the feeling of sitting at a table in a live meeting.
- Use High-Definition when available. GoToMeeting’s paid offerings enable HD video conferencing for a much more realistic view of other attendees.
- Get used to the software. The better you are at handling the software and exploring its features, the more you’ll be able to produce the feeling of a live event, even if all that’s changed is your ability to host the video conference.
Put it all together and your technology will enable a face-to-face experience with minimal interruption and maximum authenticity.
Step 7: Have Fun
Finally, no meeting will ever feel like it’s face-to-face if you subtract the human element.
It’s tempting to try and run a tight ship every time you host a video conference. But don’t be afraid to include some elements of fun, either. Keep the conversation light and on topic, make idle chit chat while waiting for team members, and throw in a joke or two during the presentation to keep up the pleasant mood.
Eventually, the idea is to forget that you’re video conferencing at all. The virtual face-to-face experience is most effective when it allows each attendee to focus on the work and conversation at hand.
Throwing in a little bit of fun into the mix? It won’t get in the way. If anything, it will help people forget they’re talking to a computer and remind them that they’re talking to colleagues and fellow human beings. There’s nothing that feels more “face-to-face” than that.
Harvard’s Business Blog points out that a fun question at the end can be enough to change how attendees viewed the overall video conferencing experience. This serves as a great reminder that your meeting can be 95% business and still be remembered as light and fun.
How do you make your virtual meetings feel real?
Have you used any of the steps above to make your meetings feel face-to-face? Do you have any tips to share? Offer them in the comments below.