Secrets to the Best Online Meetings

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Telecommuting has its benefits, but a company that allows its employees to telecommute does face some unusual dilemmas. One of the most crucial is how to handle meetings. There are advanced tools out there that make online meetings a simple matter. Instead, the real question is how to keep your employees on track.

Employees who don't see each other on a daily basis and may have limited interaction beyond your meetings. That can turn a simple meeting into a time for catching up and sharing information that only one or two people actually need. Keeping a meeting focused can take some effort, but it is not impossible.

Set Agendas and Stick to Them

Just like when you're meeting in person, setting an agenda and sticking to it is critical for managing a meeting. If you simply schedule a reoccurring meeting and let the conversation wander, accomplishing much of anything is a miracle. Having a set list of what you need to cover is the first (and most crucial) step to making sure that your employees will be able to stay focused during a meeting.

Many online meeting tools allow you to put together an agenda and share it with your meeting attendees. Some even let you gather input for the agenda. Make use of those tools to create a schedule for the meeting. The faster you can get through what you need to, the less time you'll have to spend keeping your team on track.

As you set your agenda, remember to set time aside for catching up and general conversation, though. For a team to function well, the members have to relate to each other. They need some of the idle chit-chat that used to take place around the water cooler, if only to develop the sort of connections that let them trust and depend on each other. Even saying that the official meeting lasts a set amount of time and inviting your team to stick around afterward just to chat can be worthwhile.

Your agenda may also be affected by time zones. If your team is spread over multiple time zones, each member's relative ability to focus on the meeting can certainly vary. It's not just a matter of scheduling meetings when everyone would be awake anyhow. It's a question of whether one of your team members is going to be just as functional when she's done for the day as soon as the meeting ends.

Get Everyone Heard

One of the difficulties that comes up in many online meetings is that there are very few cues that you can use to see when someone wants to speak. In a meeting where everyone is physically present, it's easier for a team member to interject a point in the discussion. With an online or phone-based meeting, however, a person can wait until the end of the meeting to be able to get a word in edgewise. That can lead directly to losing a team member's attention.

Depending on the tools you have, you may be able to set up some sort of signal whenever someone wants to speak, but even if you don't have a technological answer to the question, you need to take charge of getting everyone's opinion or thoughts out into the open. Otherwise, there's no point to having a meeting; you could just dictate the next steps and move on.

The sense of being unheard during a given meeting can make some of the other issues facing telecommuters worse, as well. For some employees, telecommuting can create a sense of disconnection and it's only through regular interaction (even online) that the feeling can be reduced. After all, your meetings may be most of the social interaction they get in a given day.

Develop Meeting Leadership

When every meeting is exactly the same, company meetings can quickly turn into the worst part of your day. Changing things up can help keep everyone focused. One of the simplest ways to manage that is have different people lead each meeting. Your employees will each bring different strengths to organizing a meeting, letting you see what works best with your team.

As an added bonus, when your team members have sat through a meeting while trying to keep on track, they're going to have more sympathy for your agendas and other strategies to manage a meeting. You may see some decided differences after you put your employees in the hot seat.

In order to develop your team's abilities to lead meetings, you will need to offer some level of guidance. At the lowest level, that can mean an introduction to the management end of the tool you use for meetings. At higher levels, it can include some education on agendas and how to make sure everyone gets heard.

Create Alternative Communication Channels

Because meetings may be among the only opportunities for your team to interact, it's easier for them to become derailed. But, if you set up other ways that your team can interact, you can help set aside meetings as a way to handle specific information and situations. Encouraging your team to use instant messenger to talk through projects and problems (rather than email, which is a slower process), allows for the one-on-one interactions that may distract your team during meetings.

Furthermore, not all information needs to be shared through a structured meeting. In some cases, keeping your employees on task during a meeting is harder because the way information is being shared isn't particularly useful. Meetings are ideal when you need to discuss information, not when you need to simply share it. In an office-based situation, meetings make sense as a way to broadcast information throughout the group quickly. But when your employees primarily telecommute, you can't just tell everyone to meet in the conference room in five minutes — sending a group email is a lot easier.

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