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The Do's and Don'ts of Virtual Meetings

Working from home has become the norm for many people as the coronavirus has shuttered offices across the nation. Remote work brings with it new challenges, not the least of which is navigating virtual meetings.

While video chat platforms may push some people out of their comfort zone, they can be far more efficient than traditional meetings, assuming they are run correctly. Indeed, some in the industry say once businesses realize the benefits of virtual meetings, they may continue to use them long after the COVID-19 crisis passes.

"When we come out of this, companies aren't going to go back to the old way," predicts Tim Ihlefeld, president and CEO of Harqen, a company providing on-demand digital interviewing technology.

To make a smooth transition from the conference room to a virtual meeting, follow these do's and don'ts.

-- Do have the proper equipment.

-- Don't wait until the meeting time to log in.

-- Do engage in some small talk.

-- Don't stand in front of a window.

-- Do have a meeting agenda.

-- Don't invite unnecessary people.

-- Do mute yourself when not talking.

-- Don't multitask.

-- Do give everyone a chance to participate.

-- Don't forget to send an email recap.

Do Have the Proper Equipment

To participate successfully in a virtual meeting, you need to have the proper video, audio and internet capabilities. Your computer's built-in audio and video hardware is likely sufficient for most meetings, but it's always good to have a backup microphone, Ihlefeld says.

Even more important is having a strong internet signal. With children home from school or college, a Wi-Fi booster may be a good investment to ensure everyone has steady internet access.

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Don't Wait Until the Meeting Time to Log In

To ensure a meeting starts promptly, log in to the video chat platform at least five minutes before the start time. This will give you a chance to resolve any technical problems.

"If you're not used to doing things remotely, do some test runs," says Pegah Ebrahimi, chief operating officer for Cisco Collaboration, which provides business collaboration solutions such as the Webex platform. This is especially important for organizers who may want to create some mock meetings to ensure they know how to use all the system functions.

Do Engage in Some Small Talk

Although some people prefer to log in and wait silently for a meeting to start, there is nothing wrong with engaging in small talk before the start of a meeting.

In fact, an organizer may even want to give each participant an opportunity to say hello and provide a brief update on their day, says Will Bachman, co-founder and managing partner of Umbrex, a global community of management consultants. "Let people be human for a minute," he suggests.

Don't Stand in Front of a Window

Virtual meetings aren't as formal as regular meetings, and most people aren't concerned with what you're wearing or what's behind you. There is one exception though.

"People make the mistake of standing in front of their window," says Justin Anovick, chief product officer of digital experience platform provider Episerver. Bright light from outside could make it difficult for other participants to see you.

Do Have a Meeting Agenda

The ease of holding virtual meetings may mean people are tempted to hold them routinely. However, it's a waste of time unless there is a clear purpose. "Don't just hold a meeting to hold a meeting," Bachman says.

Meetings may be held to share information, brainstorm solutions or make decisions. Ideally, participants will be provided with an agenda in advance that clearly shares both the purpose and desired outcome of the meeting. Otherwise, "What ends up happening is that people don't know why they're there," Ebrahimi says.

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Don't Invite Unnecessary People

Depending on the nature of the meeting, limit the number of attendees, particularly if you want everyone to participate. "Seven seems to be the magic number," Anovick says. More than that and a few people will dominate the conversation while everyone else listens.

If your meeting is to share information, consider whether an email or video would be a more efficient way to share an announcement. Some people may not need to be part of a discussion but will want to hear what has been said. In these instances, consider using a transcription function, such as that available in Webex, so the conversation can be reviewed at someone's convenience in the future.

Do Mute Yourself When Not Talking

Even if you think you're being quiet, ambient noise on a virtual meeting can quickly become overwhelming and distracting. Plus, working at home increases the potential of noise from children, pets or traffic outside. "When you're on these conferences and you're not talking, it's very, very helpful to put yourself on mute," Ihlefeld says.

Don't Multitask

You could miss important information or updates if you're checking email or completing other tasks during a virtual meeting. If you find yourself regularly doing other work instead of listening, that could be a sign you're not needed on the call. In that case, speak with your supervisor to see if it's necessary to participate in future virtual meetings on the same topic.

If you have regular meetings with the same team, consider creating some ground rules, Bachman says. These may stipulate everyone uses the video function and promises to stay out of emails and social media during the discussion. These guidelines can ensure meetings run smoothly and are an efficient use of everyone's time.

Do Give Everyone a Chance to Participate

Meeting organizers need to take steps to keep participants engaged if they don't want them multitasking. Bachman suggests encouraging participants to send comments or questions during a presentation using a platform's chat function or setting up real-time polls through digital tools offered by companies like Mentimeter. Sharing your screen so others have a visual for the discussion may also help.

On a more basic level, meeting organizers should provide opportunities for questions or comments. "You have to learn to pause appropriately," Anovick says. He suggests stopping every one to two minutes to see if anyone wants to interject a question or comment.

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Don't Forget to Send an Email Recap

At the conclusion of the meeting, someone should be designated to send a written follow-up to all participants. This doesn't need to be a long transcript of everything discussed but should include bullet points highlighting any decisions made and action items to be completed before the next meeting.

"You're not going to have the benefit of running into someone at the coffee shop later," Ebrahimi says. That means you can't count on personal, follow-up conversations to clarify expectations after the meeting. However, a written recap can ensure everyone is on the same page about next steps.

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