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Virtual meetings are part of working in 2016. Especially for smaller businesses and nonprofits, which need to do more with less, meeting virtually is a necessary evil. In order to get more out of your virtual meetings, lead proactively; know the weaknesses of the virtual meeting going in and plan ahead to mitigate their impact.
Problem: No body language means less emotion and memory
How do we know what other people mean and how they're taking what we say? In a face-to-face meeting it's body language that gives us most of this information. In a virtual meeting, we are relying on far less information, and we can't seal those memories with emotion or an understanding of the other person's intent—because we never got that from the meeting.
Bottom line: we remember less.
Solution: Put a face on it
Use video to keep your team connected. This also makes the everyday exchanges about family and health more possible. Not sure that small talk is worth using video? Consider research that shows small talk makes you smarter and creates lasting business connections. And remember that while body language communicates the most when it comes to emotion, the face is next in line for expressing emotion.
Adding to the memory problem is the overlong meeting. As the virtual meeting drags on we can be certain that attendees are feeling their attention stretched thin and pulled in many directions.
Solution: Rein in your meeting times
Make it a rule that you meet for 10 minutes and then take a brief break—maybe two or three minutes. This is essential for virtual meetings in particular because you are making up for your inability to look around and gauge the scene. Let everyone know that this is the plan so your entire team will be ready to break and then re-engage.
Problem: Lack of social clues means we don't know how we're doing
How can you tell whether your audience is right there with you or lost in the weeds? Usually a moderator keeps a finger on the pulse of the meeting's attendees by looking around and reacting as needed. This isn't possible in a virtual meeting.
Solution: Check in a lot and express feelings
Don't let your attendees mute you and go feed the cat or make lunch. Ask each participant for input, feedback and reactions regularly. Make up for your inability to “see” how everyone feels about things by regularly asking for input. As you do this, verbally express your feelings. Let your team know that you're excited or worried and ask about their feelings too.
Problem: That's not what I meant!
We've all witnessed the unnecessary email war—the kind of misunderstandings that multiply and compound on each other when communication is reduced to writing alone. This can easily happen in a virtual meeting too, because typically you're down to audio information alone.
Solution: Build trust to minimize and resolve conflict
Building trust virtually isn't easy. But if trust is already in place when the relationship becomes virtual, you have a much better shot at navigating through conflicts and restoring relationships. How can you be sure that your team members will have a strong enough connection to foster this kind of trust? Make sure you have team building events more than once a year—and always face-to-face.
Problem: Motivation and commitment
Especially in the nonprofit world, our work is fueled by mutual motivation and commitment. This kind of excitement and bonding is very hard to create and sustain virtually.
Solution: Use virtual meetings wisely
Try to keep virtual meetings for housekeeping and less important matters. If you have new concepts to brainstorm, new team members to break in or other important, emotional business to conduct, meet in person. This is particularly important when you must resolve conflicts.
For today's nonprofit, virtual meetings are part of the way we survive and get more from less. Virtual meetings are part of business as usual, but that doesn't mean their weak points need to be. By leading proactively, you can make up for virtual meeting deficits in smart and meaningful ways.
Karla Lant is an experienced freelance writer and editor and an adjunct professor. Her particular speciality areas as a writer include technology, science, technical writing, business, law, finance, insurance, education, course development, copywriting, academic writing, and other nonfiction. Lant serves as the Lead Writer for the Museum of Science and Sustainability.