Effective online meetings – a lot more can be done!

The landscape of meetings is changing: in 2017, for example, as many as one in four personal meetings in German companies were replaced by a virtual one. However, online conferences and jour fixe meetings in online meeting rooms often feel like an unpleasant waste of time. Alexandra Altmann, a business psychologist and expert in virtual cooperation, explains why that is.

Successful Web meetings and online conferences – the best tips and tricks

Whether it is in the automotive industry or retail, the service industry or construction: managers and employees of small and medium-sized businesses are increasingly faced with the challenge of customers, business partners or colleagues not being in the same place. Personal meetings are therefore becoming less common and require both travel costs and the associated time. So it is no surprise that in German companies in 2017, for example, as many as one in four personal meetings were replaced by a virtual meeting – to interact with customers, or colleagues working from home or on the road.

Video conferences are often used (e.g. via Skype Business, WebEx, GoToMeeting, vitero or Adobe Connect Pro) so that the participants can see each other when they are speaking to one another. But that is also the first factor in which many online meetings lag far behind their possibilities, ‘because experience shows that 95% of all conference participants do not turn their camera on or do not have a functioning camera’, reports business psychologist Alexandra Altmann. The consultant has more than 25 years of experience in international business consulting, and in 2015 she founded the online business consultancy virtuu. Here, she explains what the standards are for an effective online meeting

Expert in virtual cooperation

Alexandra Altmann

Alexandra Altmann is the founder of virtuu and provides online workshops for managers. That makes her a pioneer of virtual management development in the German-speaking world. The business psychologist has over 25 years of experience in business consulting and leadership training, for Accenture and FranklinCovey, among others.

Portrait Andrea Altmann

1. The central idea – what matters when planning successful online conferences and video meetings

‘In my experience, for many employees it is not sufficiently clear what exactly the meetings are supposed to be about,’ says Alexandra Altmann. ‘In most cases, there is no agenda and it is not made clear what each individual should contribute. The conference participants see a screen with the names of the other participants, but no evaluation or presentation of facts. Upcoming decisions or results of meetings are not visibly recorded for all. After the meeting, you therefore often hear: “What have we actually decided?”’

The corporate consultant and business psychologist therefore repeatedly emphasises how important a carefully planned agenda including well-thought-out time planning is, so that meeting and conference participants play an active role and stay involved. Alexandra Altmann: ‘In our surveys, 90% of participants in online meetings regularly say that they do something else at the same time: the majority read emails, check social media or continue to work on other tasks. Some even do exercise.’

But the expert in virtual cooperation is aware that without a central idea and specifically planned time for discussion, it is not possible to generate a creative meeting atmosphere. ‘The essential point here is planning not only time for presentation, but above all time for discussion,’ explains Alexandra Altmann. ‘The discussion should then also be actively moderated – with the tools that this kind of online meeting room provides, such as chats, polls, whiteboards, etc. Our rule of thumb in this case is: plan in 1/3 of the time for presenting and keep 2/3 of the time free for discussion.’

2. Pros and cons of online meetings

Around 100 million online meetings a month take place with Skype for Business alone. One clear advantage of online meetings is that travel costs and time are saved, with the time factor in particular benefiting everyone’s work–life balance. If the right tools are known and meetings are planned thoroughly, the overall productivity and quality of the cooperation increase, together with the engagement of the participants.

However, if online meetings are not professionally planned and moderated, it is not possible for an atmosphere comparable with that of a personal meeting to develop. Small talk or jokes that make the atmosphere in personal meetings more relaxed are seldom used. Creative exchange is missing, participants get bored and switch off, and there is a lack of results. ‘A huge waste of resources’, says Alexandra Altmann. The problem: in many SMEs, it is assumed that managers, team leaders or project managers are automatically qualified to manage good online meetings. But online, competences that go beyond managing a personal meeting are required. The following problems and solutions demonstrate which competences are most in demand online.

3. The first time – why things don’t work out initially in many online meetings

‘Can you hear me?’ – ‘You’re breaking up!’ – ‘Can you see my screen now?’ – these are sentences that everyone will have heard before in Skype calls or online meetings. ‘Of course, a technology check beforehand is essential,’ explains Alexandra Altmann, ‘but people are too quick to blame all problems in online meetings on technology. It is not the tools that are the cause of ineffectiveness, but the mindset and skill set of the people working with them, who have little expertise in how to make such online meetings productive and inspiring.’ Expert handling of online tools is required. The virtual cooperation expert sees three main problems in this area, and provides tips below on how these can be solved:

The problem: confusion – the solution: clarity

It is often not made clear what each individual should contribute to meetings, and results are rarely recorded visibly for all.

Alexandra Altmann advises:
Prepare an agenda for the meeting. Put the agenda in a document that can be accessed from all locations simultaneously. Let everyone contribute something to the agenda in advance – in this way, everyone is involved.

The problem: lack of atmosphere – the solution: emotion

In personal meetings there are jokes and laughter, whereas online meetings rarely allow emotional connections between participants to develop. In many cases, everyone is exhausted and frustrated after an online meeting, because no real connection has been made.

Alexandra Altmann advises:
Plan in time for a personal exchange and inspiration. Let the participants speak and show appreciation for the others in the room – there can never be too many of them in virtual teams.

The problem: wasting of resources – the solution: planning

An hour-long online meeting with ten people doing something else at the same time – that is a waste of time, energy and creative potential.

Alexandra Altmann advises:
Distribute information in good time before the meeting for everyone to read through. In the meeting, concentrate on collecting and discussing the points of view and experiences of team members. If you want to make decisions jointly, use the poll tools in the online rooms.

4. With or without – does everyone in the online meeting need a camera?

Absolutely – but the reality is quite different: in most online meetings, the camera is not switched on, is not ideally placed or does not exist. Alexandra Altmann says: ‘That reminds me somewhat of a virtual campfire: you meet with others, listen to a storyteller in the dark, compare notes and then leave again.’

Of course, meetings like that can be justified in company life, for example when there is important news to spread or to increase the sense of togetherness. However, most teams have a shared task and want to achieve aims and results together – ‘and in that case, a “campfire” meeting is simply insufficient’, says Alexandra Altmann. So for her, there is no room for discussion: ‘In an efficient online meeting where everyone is present and works together optimally, each individual needs a camera.

A web meeting can also be very personal and is far cheaper – as long as everyone turns their camera on and takes time to get to know each other #jobwizards #onlinemeetings http://bit.ly/2vQ735h

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5. Project kick-offs online: plan online meetings professionally and start them successfully

‘At the start of a new project, it is important that the project stakeholders and colleagues in the team get to know each other, build trust and develop enthusiasm and an understanding of mutual goals,’ says Alexandra Altmann. But is that possible in an online meeting? Don’t you have to meet in person?

‘If travel costs and time are planned and approved in the budget, then a personal meeting is certainly the best choice,’ says the business psychologist. ‘But a Web meeting can also be very personal and is far cheaper – as long as everyone turns their camera on and takes time to get to know each other. People generally find it far easier to keep two hours in their appointment calendar for an online meeting than two days in a row to meet in the same place.’ The costs for an online kick-off meeting also tend to be far lower than those for an event involving travel, a meeting room and catering – ‘even if everyone receives a good webcam for the online meetings,’ says Alexandra Altmann.

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