In my previous column, I highlighted how an astonishing 30-50 percent of the estimated 264 billion business meetings (small “m”) held each year are considered a waste of time. I went on to outline what you could do to ensure that the meeting you sit in today would not be among them. But another form of meetings is growing exponentially in popularity and, unfortunately for all of us, it is no more efficient or effective.
Web-conferencing platform adoption rates and usage statistics are hard to come by, but online meetings have been steadily increasing, driven primarily by technological advances and cost savings. Online meeting organizers need to make sure that this still nascent form of meeting – though it’s become routine for some businesses – is held to the higher standard the medium requires.
The SaaS (software as a service) universe of online meetings has exploded with the rise in fiberoptic cable and ensuing increases in bandwidth. This market of hundreds of providers is dominated by a handful of players offering competitive pricing and packages for companies of all sizes. Products like WebEx’s Meeting Center (webex.com), Citrix’s GoToMeeting (gotomeeting.com), Adobe’s Connect Pro (adobe.com) and Microsoft’s Live Meeting (livemeetingplace.com) collectively make up more than 90 percent of the market, according to Frost & Sullivan’s Analysis of the Global Web Conferencing Market (September 2011).
These companies provide similar features:
- Video and interactivity (for example, white board).
- Audio and teleconferencing (feedback, annotation and chat tools).
- Security (authentication and encryption, yet firewall friendly).
- Solid help and support (built-in help menus, system guides, FAQs, direct chat or 24/7 meeting support), because no matter how flawless or intuitive the technology, there will be the occasional challenge.
Some of the most common online meeting applications include:
- Sharing information with remote colleagues.
- Conducting internal or external training.
- Promoting new products or services.
Among the top reasons cited for conducting meetings online is to improve collaboration and productivity and to accelerate decision-making. But ask anyone who has participated in these meetings, and it’s obvious the bad habits that often epitomize face-to-face meetings become magnified in the online world. The lack of proximity in online meetings dictates that they should be designed even more consciously than their face-to-face counterparts.
In the online world, meeting challenges are exacerbated. Participants are more likely to:
- Feel disengaged, isolated, or bored.
- Have difficulty paying attention.
- Find it hard to focus on shared tasks.
- “Go along” rather than participate in real agreements.
However, just as with their face-to-face counterparts, successful online meetings can be measured across three dimensions:
1. Relationship. To build good working relationships online, you need to engage everyone, using collaborative tools such as questions that keep participants involved and productive. Encourage authentic connections by being candid about your own views and feelings so that others can constructively express theirs. And you need to share responsibility for key meeting functions in order to facilitate teamwork and improve collaboration.
2. Process. Keep the meeting focused and on track with a solid agenda and clearly identified and agreed-upon outcomes. No meeting, online or face-to-face, should be held without these. Facilitate the conversation in a way that conveys useful information, highlights the merits of any particular proposals, and closes with informed conclusions and decisions or action plans. Finally, navigate the meeting through bottlenecks or dead zones to help participants stay present and involved.
3. Result. In order to ensure quality results – typically the greatest error of commission when it comes to meetings – it’s important to call out and document key agreements and decisions and, most of all, measure the meeting’s effectiveness so that all participants can learn to improve their meeting performance.
Making online meetings more effective involves making them more inclusive, so participants feel more socially present – something basic to the face-to-face experience. This is mostly a function of fostering informal encounters that help establish common context and perspective, which support productive teamwork. Without these informal exchanges in online meetings, collaboration is less likely to occur and less productive if it does.
At the end of the day, web conferencing tools are just that – tools. And the tools you use are only as good as your skill in using them. So be aware of thee tools’ limitations, and design your online meeting accordingly.
John Nawn is the founder of meeting design firm www.theperfectmeeting.com. Its Meeting Design Audit™ evaluates face-to-face and online meetings on 10 key dimensions.
Reprinted with permission from the Spring 2013 issue of ConferenceDirect MeetingMentor (access the complete issue online at conferencedirect.com or meetingmentormag.com).