Virtual vs. In-Person Meetings

Office Work

The onset of the pandemic in 2020 impacted almost everyone in terms of their job, but it clearly didn’t affect everyone in the same way. Pretty much all workers can be grouped into one of a few categories:

Must work, can’t work remotely – This group is who we have referred to as Frontline or Essential Workers. First responders, healthcare, and individuals that staff essential businesses like grocery stores, gas stations, and similar.

May work, can’t work remotely – A worker in this group would be a restaurant server or cook or retail workers. Many businesses were able to remain operational but at a reduced level. Offering things like delivery and curbside pickup / takeout only reduced staff requirements. This meant many workers were either not working at all or were working reduced hours.

May work, CAN work remotely – This is a very large group of workers consisting predominantly people that would work “in an office” of some sort. This article is written with this group of workers in mind.

The Old Way

Prior to 2020, much of our interaction with co-workers, customers, vendors, etc. was done via some form of face-to-face conversation. We sat in conference rooms, talked in the hallway, discussed items across the lunch table, and chatted about things while we walked on our lunch break. When we couldn’t talk in person, we often used the phone for a one-on-one conversation with some conference calls sprinkled in for good measure.

There are a lot of advantages that come with meeting in person: reading body language and facial queues is easy, multiple people can communicate at the same time, there are plenty of ways to communicate that may be verbal or non-verbal, and there’s often a whiteboard that multiple people can draw on if needed.

Let’s be honest, though, and admit that there are some disadvantages to this kind of meeting too. For example, you can have “side conversations” occurring that are disruptive to the primary speaker(s) and there’s no way to “mute” your section of the room to keep background noises from being disruptive. All together, though, we’ve communicating like this for a long time because we understand it and it’s easy to ‘learn’ as a process.

The New Way

At some point during 2020, you may have experienced what so many others did: your employer closed down their offices and had you work from your home. In addition to schlepping some sort of computer home from the office, and maybe an actual phone as well, you had to find somewhere in your home to set it up and sit there every day to work. No more water cooler, no more “walk-by” meetings, no more office printer, and no more walks at lunch with colleagues.

One thing that -didn’t- go away, though, was having meetings. In fact, in many cases, we have been attending more meetings than ever before because most everything we do now with at least one other person actually qualifies as a meeting. Attending a meeting now means not having to leave your work area, no wandering around to find that elusive conference room, and no worrying about entering 30 seconds after someone has kicked off the meeting and you’re making a ton of noise finding your seat.

Instead, you need to have you web cam on, your computer audio connected, and you have to be a wizard with the mute button. Oh, and, you should also probably be sure that you’re wearing pants. We’ll just leave it at that.

Adapting to a New Model

Everything that changes brings positives and negatives. Sometimes, the negatives are easily turned into positives if we give a little bit of thought to it. Here are some ideas that I have come up with about how to participate effectively in virtual meetings.

Scheduling: The very first thing we can do to be more effective is to be smart about scheduling these meetings. In-person meetings are commonly scheduled for full 30 or 60 minute blocks and we have all gotten used to meetings starting 7-10 minutes late as we wait for stragglers to find the conference room after stopping at the rest room. Since we no longer have to physically move from one location to another, certain components of “lost time” go away and we can be more efficient with our meetings. Keep meetings limited to the actual, necessary amount of time to cover the content. And, consider ending your meetings 5-10 minutes prior to the top or bottom of the hour to allow everyone an opportunity to refill their water glass, stretch, or use the rest room before their next meeting starts.

Attendee List: If we are being smarter about when meetings are scheduled and how long they run, people should be able to spend less time overall in meetings. Don’t start inviting people to your meetings now simply because they have open time on their calendar – be sure that having them attend brings a benefit. Also, don’t grow the size of a meeting simply because “more people can fit” than what the conference room would hold. Again, invite people because it’s beneficial to the individual, the group, or both.

Introductions: I spend a lot of time on / in meetings with people I don’t know because of the kind of job I have. When we’re seated at a table in a conference room, it’s easy to say “I’ll start and the person to my left will go next” to do introductions. This is quick and effective when everyone in the room knows when they’re next. In a virtual meeting, there is no one “next to you” and this makes it difficult to determine who should grab the mic next. Consider designating someone as a “host” for the meeting and have them introduce everyone from your team. “I’m Bob and I am the project manager. With me today I have Rachel (the architect), Caroline (the accountant), and Rafael (the foreman)” goes much more smoothly than having everyone try to introduce themselves in turn. Consider having everyone on the team turn their camera on and give a short wave and smile as their names are called.

Establish a flow: If you are the meeting host, set guidelines for the meeting in terms of who will speak when, who is presenting content, etc. and actively pass “presenter” from one person to the next if it makes sense in your meeting.

Agenda: Have one! And share it! In the invite! There’s nothing more frustrating than being invited to five meetings per day with zero information on what to expect. “Project update” in the subject of the invite doesn’t qualify, either. Take two minutes to write out a 3-4 item list of the major topics to be discussed. This is this beneficial for those attending to prepare for the meeting. It also allows people to prioritize one meeting over another when there are conflicts and it gives the organizer an opportunity to ask “can we fit all of that in the time allotted?”.

Camera / Video: There may be a number of factors that go into deciding whether a person has their camera on or off, but here are some general ideas about using it effectively.

  • If the number of attendees is small (maybe up to about 6), consider having everyone on camera all of the time.
  • When screen sharing is being used to show content, cameras can be turned off to prevent distractions from the content.
  • If the meeting has one or two primary speakers (and little or no content), those speakers should have their cameras on and others can be (should be?) off.

In other words, think about where you would be looking if you were in a conference room during a meeting. Cameras should be on or off to cause others to be focused on what they would be focused on in a physical meeting room.

As long as we’re on the topic of cameras and video, it’s worth knowing that you need to have a decent camera and quality lighting. You can add an external camera to your machine for under $50 that will have great quality video. Adding a light source (including cameras that have a built-in light) for FRONT lighting makes a huge difference!

Audio and Mute: This is one of the more difficult areas to really be great with when it comes to virtual meetings. If you aren’t actively speaking, you should be on mute. Period. Audio on a virtual meeting is nothing at all like it is when you’re in person. Things that work well in person can be extremely distracting on a virtual call. For example: short acknowledgements from a listener to a speaker (uh huh, mmm-hmmm, yes, etc.) work fine in person. On a virtual meeting, they “steal” the active audio stream away from the primary speaker and can cause dropped audio bits from them. If you are not actively speaking on the meeting, put yourself on mute.

Here’s one more comment around audio – understand how and when to use your computer microphone and speakers versus your phone. Having yourself dialed into a meeting AND audio-connected on your computer is a recipe for disaster. This can, and will, cause echo and make a mess of audio for everyone else.

PRACTICE!!! Meetings are different when they are held virtually. So, too, is the etiquette and the skills needed to be a good organizer / host / attendee. You should practice the different roles for meetings (organizer, host, presenter, attendee, etc.). Work with colleagues and help each other out so that you know how your meeting software works and you come across as a skilled pro!

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