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April 6, 2008

Technology: Making virtual meetings work

Crystal Interactive specialises in building interactivity into events. It works with a range of major names from London Underground, Unilever, Prudential and Defra through to Cancer Research UK, Freshfields and Vodafone. Here, director, Chris Elmitt, offers his advice on how to make sure you get your virtual meetings right – and where they are most likely to go wrong…

Short is sweet

The most successful virtual events tend to last a maximum of two hours.

You cannot expect to keep people engaged in a meeting for long periods if their only connection with the other delegates is via a computer screen. You cannot use the same techniques (such as energisers or breaks) to maintain energy and focus when working virtually.

Remember: the technology that allows participants to meet virtually also provides them with access to holiday bookings, music downloads and email. Try to keep the pressure on participants by keeping the meeting short and sharp so people don’t have the time to wander off.

Narrow the focus
Trying to accommodate too many points of view within a meeting will lead to chaos. The best groups to work virtually are those that have a tight remit and speak the same technical language – such as a project team running update meetings.

By its very nature a virtual meeting feels less structured. Attendees don’t have the unifier of a location or physical cues of body language and eye contact to go on. So in every other way you need to be really focused. The subject matter must be kept tight, the audience needs to have the same level of interest in the subject, and they need to be technically speaking the same language.

Put a face to a name
The most successful virtual meetings occur with a group where people have already met face to face before. It is hard to create trust and house rules over the web, but if you have already done this face to face you can transpose the way of working into a virtual meeting.

There is no substitute for meeting people face-to-face – even if it is just once, so you can put a name to a face and look the participants in the eye.

Who is in charge here?
If it is important to be clear on who is running the process in a face-to-face meeting, it is essential in a virtual meeting.

Before you embark on a virtual meeting, you have to work out who is 'flying the plane' and who is 'serving the drinks' – otherwise the group will quickly lose energy, focus and – mysteriously – their internet connection.

Practice makes perfect
The facilitator and the participants are all experiencing a new form of communication in virtual meetings and they need time to adapt.

Many people who use virtual meetings successfully actually use them repeatedly (such as weekly project meetings) rather than as a one-off.

When to meet – when not to meet

You can now use the internet to run 'same-time' decision-making meetings (where everyone is in the virtual meeting at the same time), and 'asynchronous' fact-finding sessions – where participants log into a site in their own time (such as a discussion forum or wiki) or virtual communications meetings (such as webcasts).

The trick is to be clear on what you’re trying to achieve. It will inform who and how many people you invite, how long the session should last and what technology and expertise you use to support it.


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