Guidelines for Virtual Meetings & Teleconferences
Lela Vandenberg, Ph.D., with Kathryn Foerster, M.A.
Michigan State University Extension 2010
Working effectively and productively as a virtual team is possible, but there are obvious impediments to communication, motivation, decision making, and accomplishment. Studies have shown that the total amount of information exchanged by virtual teams tends to be less than in face-to-face groups. This can be attributed to limited communication channels, as well as the lack of nonverbal communication. Motivation to share opinions is negatively affected by disagreement and a tendency to rush consensus. In virtual meetings, the first opinion offered tends to dominate, and people with minority opinions find it difficult to enter conflicting ideas into the discussion. Without a full discussion of issues and opinions, decision making, planning, and coordinating activities can be difficult. In fact, virtual teams tend to spend more time discussing the procedural aspects of a meeting than engaging in meaningful work, which can lead to frustration and undermine motivation. (Duarte & Snyder, 2006).
There is a bright side! Other studies, and many case studies, have shown that these problems can be overcome. With a variety of communication methods and a good electronic meeting system (EMS), such as the Adobe Connect Pro system available to us through MSUE, virtual teams can even be more productive and efficient than face-to-face teams. Duarte and Snyder point out that “With the right task, agenda, and facilitation, virtual teams can actually surpass in-person teams in many areas.” Virtual team members can actually participate more fully than they would be able to face-to-face through the use of various methods such as round robin discussions, chat pod brainstorming and polling, and asynchronous dialogue. Through these and other methods, the contributions of every team member can be maximized in exciting ways.
Guidelines for Effective Teleconferencing
One thing scholars agree on is that virtual meetings need even more careful planning and facilitation than face-to-face sessions. Collected here are some guidelines and tips for making virtual meetings as interactive, participatory, and productive as possible. These guidelines are organized under four key tasks: creating structure; building a sense of community; maximizing interaction; and minimizing groupthink.
Creating Structure. Structuring the meeting in advance is probably the most important thing a leader can do to ensure that tasks are accomplished and goals are achieved. Here are some tips for doing that:
- Have a clear purpose, a set of objectives, and an agenda, including a time frame for each item. Send these to everyone in advance, and ask for input.
- Send instructions for how participants can prepare for the meeting and what information and documents they need to have at hand.
- Gather opinions about non-controversial items through email before the meeting and report results at the meeting to avoid spending time on things everyone agrees on.
- Solicit opinions on purpose, goals, time frame and processes at the beginning of each meeting. Check for agreement before proceeding.
- Summarize agreements and next steps at the end of each meeting. Periodically summarize progress during the meeting.
- Keep meetings short—one hour is good. Two hours is the maximum most people can concentrate in a teleconference. Take a break half way if meeting is more than 1½ hours.
- Keep meetings small. With more than eight people on a call, having full participation of all becomes very difficult. If meetings have to be larger, use the small group breakout feature of Adobe Connect Pro and have groups report back. Or use a ‘fishbowl’ technique, where small groups rotate holding the discussion while the others listen.
Building a Sense of Community. Motivating ongoing participation is a challenge for teams that rarely meet face-to-face. Successful virtual teams are not only productive, they also appreciate each other and feel group ownership of their work. Building this sense of community takes extra effort in virtual teams, but it is possible. It usually begins with getting to know each other, and grows as team members accept and work through differences, and demonstrate reliability and trustworthiness. Here are some ideas for building a sense of community:
- Begin each call with a round-robin ‘check-in’, inviting participants to respond to a question. This could be something personal (e.g.: What is something exciting you’re anticipating? What’s a good book/movie you’ve read/seen recently? What’s one thing you’d rather be doing right now? What are your plans for next weekend?), or something related to the work of the team (e.g.: What are your hopes for this meeting? This team? What about our work most excites you? What do you appreciate most about this team?). Be sure to put a time limit on this kind of sharing, and do a little at each meeting.
- Have participants identify themselves each time they speak.
- Have one meeting devoted to teleconference training, and involve participants in discussing guidelines for making meetings effective. (See sample guidelines below).
- Most importantly, involve participants in developing guidelines for handling disagreements. Talk about the value and inevitability of having different opinions, and the importance of openly discussing and resolving differences before moving forward with plans and agreements.
- Send minutes of the meeting within a day or two, asking for input or corrections. Be sure to include any agreements and next steps.
Maximizing Interaction. The best way to build community is to ensure everyone is engaged and in agreement with the group’s work. Without the benefit of nonverbal channels, virtual meeting facilitators have to create other ways for people to stay involved and participate fully. On conference calls, there is a tendency to ‘half listen’ while checking email, and doing other tasks. How can we keep people fully engaged? Here are some tips:
- Frequently check with people who haven’t spoken recently to see if they have anything to add.
- Assign meeting roles and rotate them in future meetings. Roles can include facilitator—moves the group through the agenda, periodically summarizing progress; recorder—takes notes, making special note of agreements and next steps; time keeper—watches the time for each agenda item; process observer—pays attention to and encourages participation; conflict observer—highlights and encourages further discussion of points of difference; participant—participates respectfully, listens carefully, keeps on track, supports group decisions.
- Use a round-robin process for discussions and brainstorming, to avoid having a few people dominate the conversation.
- Ask quiet people if they have anything to add before closing discussion on each topic.
Minimizing Groupthink. Without the benefit of non-verbal communications, it is difficult to ‘read between the lines’ of a teleconference to understand what is not being said. People tend to say nothing if they don’t agree with what seems to be the dominant view. The result, artificial consensus, can undermine a team’s success and lead to a lack of participation and withdrawal from the team. Here are some ideas for minimizing this ‘groupthink’ phenomenon.
- Gather opinions on controversial topics before the meeting through email, and present a summary of the various opinions for discussion.
- Do a pro-con discussion of differing ideas or approaches. Thoroughly list the pros and cons of each point of view.
- Increase the amount of discussion time devoted to areas of disagreement.
- Make time for the conflict observer to periodically share any observations.
- Do a round-robin poll when making a decision. Have each person, one-by-one, give their opinion or share their concerns about a potential agreement before making a consensus decision. Silence is not consent.
- Use the ‘propose & poll’ tool (also called ‘gradients of agreement’) to move towards consensus. Someone shares a proposal—a suggestion for action or agreement, in specific words. Going round robin, each person states their level of agreement with the proposal on a scale of one to five. After discussing their ratings, the group modifies the proposal and takes the poll again, beginning with a different person. This process can continue several times until the group agrees that an appropriate level of consensus has been reached.
- Use a semi-anonymous poll through email if an issue is especially sensitive.
These should be discussed and revised by the team so that they own them as shared expectations.
- Be on time for the call, and announce your arrival if late but do not interrupt a speaker just to introduce yourself.
- Come prepared with relevant information on hand.
- Use others’ names, and give your own name each time you’re speaking.
- Take turns speaking, using round robin when appropriate.
- Take turns filling the meeting roles: facilitator, recorder, time keeper, process observer, conflict observer, and participant.
- Avoid early or false consensus. Be open about differences and disagreements, and discuss them thoroughly.
- Avoid side conversations with others at your location.
- If using a phone conference line, use the mute button (or *6) to eliminate extraneous noises (shuffling papers, eating, drinking, heavy breathing, coughing, dogs barking, and so on). Do not put your phone on hold - you will not hear the conversations being held
- Take responsibility for staying on track.
- Announce when you’re leaving the meeting if you have to leave early.
Duarte, D.L. and N.T. Snyder. Mastering Virtual Teams: Strategies, Tools, and Techniques that Succeed. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2006.
Fisher, K. and M.D. Fisher. The Distance Manager. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.
Gerke, S.K. and L.V. Berens. Quick Guide to Interaction Styles and Working Remotely: Strategies for Leading and Working in virtual Teams. Huntington Beach, CA: Telos Publications, 2003.
Nemiro, J.E. Creativity in Virtual Teams: Key Components for Success. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2004.