Guidance to help you improve the effectiveness and efficiency of your virtual meetings, as many of us continue to work remotely due to Covid-19.
Virtual meetings, the current way to communicate and work together, come with obstacles that are absent in face-to-face meetings. “People consider virtual communication less productive than face-to-face interaction,” as Keith Ferrazzi writes in Harvard Business Review. It’s common for people to “feel confused and overwhelmed by collaboration technology.” In one study, 82% of virtual teams fell short of their goals and 33% rated themselves as largely unsuccessful, and, in another, 66% failed to satisfy the clients’ requirements.
Using collaborative technology for meetings — tools such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, FaceTime, Skype or Webex Video Conferencing — comes with challenges. Expect some people to have a sharp learning curve, feel their personal space is intruded, and experience internet connection problems and resistance to using new products. It is more difficult for people to have informal conversations about each other’s lives and how they are feeling, which often happen naturally before and after in-person meetings. Distractions are more likely. It’s more difficult to see facial expressions, look eye-to-eye and read body language. Body language below the neck is often not visible. There are no natural cues as to whose turn it is to speak.
Tip One: Envision and Plan Meetings
Planning and leading virtual meetings ensures efficiency and helps create an atmosphere where people feel as though time was well spent. Plan in advance so that valuable discussions happen, important decisions are made, and people leave knowing what they will be expected to do. Identify the purpose, expected outcomes and agenda.
If a particular discussion or decision turns on whether participants have reviewed and analyzed information, distribute the information well in advance of the meeting with a note to review and analyze before the meeting. If information is not needed for discussion at the meeting, do not put it on the agenda. Do not distribute it at the meeting. Make it available through email.
Tip Two: Use a Driving Agenda
A driving agenda is a detailed agenda, distributed with sufficient notice of the meeting, that drives discussions forward in a focused, effective and efficient matter. A detailed agenda lists expected discussion topics and the relevant information to be digested in advance, decisions to be made, and expected outcomes related to the purpose of your meeting. This enables people to prepare for the meeting and propose changes or additions to your agenda.
Include start and stop times for the meeting, time allotments for each agenda item, and discussion and decision outcomes expected. Add information to connect virtually by phone and computer.
Tip Three: Set the Tone
Successful virtual meetings depend on the ability of attendees to concentrate and participate. Emotions, physical health, and any thoughts taking up real estate in a person’s brain are competing forces that may inadvertently block concentration and participation. Giving people an opportunity to acknowledge and share this information at the beginning of a meeting reduces these problems. For example, clients are anxious about their legal problems. Asking them to use collaboration technology without first defusing anxiety concerns adds another layer of stress and undermines efficient and effective communication.
Norms bring efficiency and effectiveness into discussions and decisions, while also building trust and cohesion. Meeting norms for groups are agreements on behaviors that: (1) set the tone; (2) generate all data relevant to discussion; (3) encourage robust, data-based discussions that lead to decisions; and (4) generate decisions that the people assigned to the project are willing and able to implement.
To figure out the norms needed, consider and discuss these questions with your group during the first virtual meeting:
- What do we need to agree to do so everyone gives their full attention?
- How can we encourage people to offer constructive criticism or new ideas without risking disapproval or rejection?
- How can we disagree and still make decisions that are implementable?
Michael D. Watkins, in a Harvard Business Review article, suggests a written agreement that people will limit background noise and side conversations, talk clearly and at a reasonable pace, listen attentively and not dominate the conversation during virtual meetings. He also suggests reaching agreement on when to reply via email versus picking up the phone or taking the time to create and share a document.
Using people’s names in a virtual meeting improves attentiveness and signals you were paying attention to their contributions. These articles contain additional virtual meeting tips:
- Etiquette Tips: How to Participate in an Online Meeting (Lifewire)
- Teleconferencing Tips: Are You Ready for Your Closeup? (Craig Ball)
- What It Takes to Run a Great Virtual Meeting (Harvard Business Review)
- How to Get People to Actually Participate in Virtual Meetings (Harvard Business Review)
- Working and Meeting in the Age of Social Distancing (Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund)
- Want People to Listen to You in Zoom Meetings? Follow These 3 Rules (Inc.)
- Tips for Women to Stand Out on Zoom (Forbes)
Tip Four: Identify Outcomes
What do you want people to do after the meeting? Coordination of goals, roles and responsibilities, tasks, and processes should be clear before the end of the meeting. Who is expected to do what, by when and how? With virtual meetings, confusion, missed tasks and deadlines, redundancies, and poor quality of outcomes are more likely without clarification. Consider using collaboration software like Trello to organize your team for effectiveness and efficiency.
Exchanging documents, obtaining electronic signatures and protecting confidential and personal information are part of any attorney-client representation. Law practice technology makes this possible and easier. If you are meeting with a client, you may need to send forms or obtain electronic signatures. Look at these options for sending forms to clients: Microsoft Forms, TypeForm and Google Forms; and these for electronic signatures: DocuSign, HelloSign and Adobe Fill & Sign.
Cloud-based law practice management software makes exchanging documents with clients easy. Select a product with a client portal where confidential and personal information can be exchanged safely and securely with end-to-end encryption. Popular products are Clio, Rocket Matter, MyCase and ZolaSuite.
Use the four essential tips above as a checklist for your next virtual meeting.
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This post was written by Susan Letterman White, JD, MSOD, and originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of the Massachusetts Bar Association‘s Section Review, as “Four Tips For Working With Colleagues And Clients Virtually.”