Today's Bright Ideas for Business blog is provided to us by Michael Reynolds, President and CEO of SpinWeb, a digital marketing company whose clients include the Johnson County Public Library, Johnson Memorial Hospital, the Johnson County Development Corporation, Aspire Johnson County and the Franklin Chamber of Commerce.

Meetings are an essential part of collaboration. While some people like to lament that meetings waste time and hurt productivity, we find that thoughtfully-scheduled and well-run meetings can help us produce better work.

While face-to-face meetings are always preferable for the best communication, virtual meetings can often be a great alternative when travel and geographic factors make it difficult to get everyone in the same room. It also allows us to do business with people in other parts of the country without the time and cost of travel. The screen sharing feature allows us to collaborate with clients on site maps, wireframes, website design comps, marketing reports, and more.

There are a number of applications that make it easy to conduct virtual meetings. GoToMeeting, WebEx, and Join.me are just a few. At SpinWeb, we are long-time power users of GoToMeeting and it seems to work well for us.

Not everyone, however, is comfortable with virtual meetings. Those who are used to face-to-face meetings can often feel out of place and awkward when invited to a virtual meeting. With a little bit of practice and background knowledge, anyone can become a virtual meeting pro. So here is a complete guide to overcoming your awkwardness and becoming a virtual meeting expert.

Joining Virtual Meetings

The first thing to get comfortable with is how to join virtual meetings. GoToMeeting, WebEx, and all the major providers create a website address that attendees can usually click on to join the meeting. This sends you to the meeting provider's website which will then launch a service or application that launches the meeting.

 Virtual Meeting Services

The Johnson County Public Library provides the following at all four branches to help with your virtual meetings:

High speed wireless internet

Meeting rooms

Projectors

Document scanners

Email us about your needs

Once you are in the meeting, you will see a control panel that is usually in a smaller window. It's really important that you locate this control panel and keep track of it, as this allows you control over your participation and audio preferences. GoToMeeting creates a tall, portrait-style control panel as do most of the other services.

I've noticed that a lot of people have trouble finding the control panel after they log into the meeting because they have other windows open. My advice is to close all other programs before joining the meeting so that the control panel is easy to find.

Additionally, since it can take a couple of minutes to launch the application, try to join a few minutes early so you're not the one who beeps in late and distracts the other attendees.

Phone vs VoIP

The next thing to decide is how you will connect the meeting's audio channel. There are two options: phone and voice over IP (VoIP). At SpinWeb, we primarily use VoIP for audio because we have Macs with good audio configurations and they tend to work great. VoIP means that our voice connection travels over the internet. If we use this option, we don't have to call in via phone. We simply speak into our computers or headphones (more on that later) and we're connected as if we are on a conference call.

If you are not sure how well your computer is set up for VoIP, then you may want to call in via phone. With this option, you simply call into a conference line and then enter a passcode to join. When calling in via phone, it will usually ask you if you want to enter an "audio PIN" when joining. A lot of people ignore this, but I recommend using it. When you enter your audio PIN, it connects your voice line to your name in the meeting control panel so that when you speak it shows your name. This helps everyone in the meeting see who is speaking. If you've called in via phone without clicking first on the meeting link, you will not know your audio PIN so I recommend first joining the meeting via the web and then calling in. Your control panel will display your audio PIN.

Your control panel will also let you set your preference (VoIP vs phone). One common mistake is to join the meeting and let the system default to VoIP but then also call in via phone, which results in joining the audio line twice and causes a severe echo. This hurts everyone's ears! Be sure you know where your control panel is and that you find the setting that says "audio preferences" or something similar and set it to the audio method you are using to join. The language will vary by platform, but it will have two options, one indicating "internet" and one indicating "telephone." Click the one you are using.

Headphones Are Your Friend

The next item of business is audio quality. A lot of people join meetings using VoIP but simply talk at their computers. This can work sometimes but more often than not it can result in an echo. We always recommend using headphones to join virtual meetings. Whether you are using phone or VoIP, headphones keep your sound clean and avoids the problem of your computer microphone picking up someone else's voice and echoing it back to everyone.

When it comes to hardware, I've seen people use all sorts of fancy bluetooth headsets and microphones and half the time they end up sounding terrible or they don't even work. I always recommend keeping it simple by using standard earbuds, like the kind that come with iPhones. They don't require batteries, you simply plug them in, and they sound great.

Use "Mute" With Caution

During a meeting, you may be tempted to use the mute option. Before we get into the etiquette side of muting, let's make sure we know how to do it. Remember that control panel I made such as a big deal out of in the beginning? This is also how you mute. If you look for a microphone icon, this is normally what button you press to toggle mute on and off. Now... on to muting guidelines.

Muting is (to me) a double-edged sword. I find that someone failing to mute can totally derail a meeting. I've been in meetings where attendees joined with barking dogs in the background, kids screaming, co-workers being noisy, the dull roar of a Starbucks humming along, or some other distracting sound bleeding into the meeting. If you are in a noisy location, please mute! However, be sure you are quick on the draw with that un-mute option because...

Being an over-aggressive muter can also be distracting in a meeting. I've been in meetings where attendees can't wait to mute themselves and stay on mute during the entire meeting without paying attention. When this happens, the momentum of the meeting suffers because as soon as someone speaks to that person, they either forget they are on mute and no one hears them until they realize it and have to start over, or they fumble to find the un-mute button while everyone else is waiting for their response. It goes something like this:

  • Leader: "These are all great ideas. Mary, what do you think?"
  • [Silence... silence... more silence...]
  • Leader: "Um, Mary? Hello?"
  • [Silence...]
  • Leader: "Ok, I guess we lost Mary so we'll move on t..."
  • Mary: "I'm here! Sorry, I was on mute... haha!"

This is annoying and awkward to the meeting leader and others. For this reason, I recommend trying to attend meetings without muting. This way you stay engaged and can respond quickly without having to spend time un-muting and derailing the meeting flow. If you do need to mute (maybe you're in a noisier place or you just get stressed out by being un-muted) then be sure you keep your sights focused like a hawk on the un-mute button so that as soon as you are called on to contribute you can quickly jump in without causing a long pause.

Issues With Blending Virtual vs On-premise Contexts

One of the issues I often see with virtual meetings is the issue of some people being together in person while others are virtual. When we set up a meeting with a team outside our office, the default for the other teams seems to be that they all get in the same room and cluster around a speaker phone. I can see why this seems natural. After all, if you're in the same office why not get together?

When you're not meeting in person, every little nuance and detail of the communication matters (to me, anyway) and anything we can do to keep the quality high is going to improve the tone of the meeting. When some people are joining remotely and others are grouped around a single speaker phone it ends up causing a voice quality mismatch. The speaker phone team sounds far away and distant while others sound more present and "closer".

This is why when we meet with clients and other outside teams at SpinWeb, we all join virtual meetings from our own offices. If Allison, Heather, and I are all in a meeting with a client from California, we will all go into our own offices, shut the door, and join individually. It just sounds better and improves the quality.

So if you find yourself joining a virtual meeting along with other members of your team in the same office, I recommend resisting the urge to cluster around a speaker phone. Try having everyone join from their own offices and computers and you'll probably find that the quality and tone of the meeting is better. Besides, that way you're also not burdened with getting a large screen set up for screen sharing for the entire group.

To Video or Not to Video

When we set up virtual meetings, we don't usually find a need to use video conferencing features. Most of the major platforms (like GoToMeeting) offer a video conferencing option which lets you see others as you talk to them. This can sometimes come in handy but we rarely use it.

Normally we are sharing a screen so we can go over a presentation or a design so that is the focus of our meeting. If we were to turn on video during this process it would just get in the way.

However, we have had occasions where our client will turn on video conferencing because they feel more comfortable seeing each other face to face. When this happens, we make sure that all meeting attendees turn on their cameras. Similar to the previous points about speaker phones and quality mismatches, this is another important factor in leveling the playing field. If some attendees have cameras on and other have cameras off, there is an imbalance in engagement. Either commit to all cameras on or all cameras off.

If video gives you anxiety, here are some tips on how to look good on a video conference.

Screen Sharing

The most powerful feature of platforms like GoToMeeting and WebEx is the ability to share your screen. Usually, whoever is leading the meeting is the one sharing the screen but that person can also delegate screen sharing control to others in the meeting if there is more than one person that presents.

Just like your mute button, you have control over when you share your screen. The main functions for screen sharing on your control panel are start, stop, and pause. You do still know where your control panel is, right?

Most meeting applications have a big "play" button that starts sharing your screen. The "stop" button turns this off. However, the "pause" button is also really useful and many people are unfamiliar with it. If you're presenting something on screen and you need to reference something else (like an email) and you don't want everyone else to see it, push the pause button and your screen will stay on the frame it was when you pushed pause and no one will see that email you are pulling up. When you're ready to show what's currently on your screen again you can start sharing with the play button.

Verbal Cues

Virtual meetings mean little to no body language is available to fill in gaps in the flow of the meeting. In an in-person meeting, if everyone stops talking because someone is writing something down it's not awkward because everyone can see what's happening. However, in a virtual meeting, pauses can be a little more awkward without context because other attendees can't see what's going on.

If you need to stop to take notes or do something else, use verbal cues to add context in the absence of visual cues. For example:

  • "I'm just going to take a minute to write down a few notes... please stand by."
  • "Let me pause my screen for just a moment while I pull up that email."
  • "I'm scanning my notes right now... let me get back to you in about 30 seconds. Stand by."

This keeps everyone informed on what's going on so they aren't wondering why there is silence with no explanation (is Mary still on mute?).

Virtual Meetings Can Be Productive

Tools like GoToMeeting and WebEx have made it possible to collaborate with others in any part of the world without the time and expense of travel. Sometimes travel makes sense but we've found that a healthy mix of virtual collaboration saves everyone time.

Now that you have the knowledge and skills you need to participate in virtual meetings, you can contribute like a pro.

Bright Ideas for Business is an information sharing program of the following community partners:

Johnson County Public Library

Johnson County Development Corporation

Franklin Chamber of Commerce

Greater Greenwood Chamber

Discover Downtown Franklin

City of Franklin

Visit the Bright Ideas for Business section on PageAfterPage.org.