How to Host Frustration-Free Virtual Meetings

Meetings are not known for being the favorite pastime of the modern employee, even though everyone seems to be spending more time in them. But virtual meetings—now wildly popular thanks to telecommuting, globalization, and improving technology—have an even worse reputation.

If the video above feels familiar to you, you’re used to the frustrations of conference calls and communications platforms:

  • Tech that doesn’t work (or people that don’t know how to use it)
  • Boring, voice-only meetings that drag on and on, losing sight of the original goal
  • Off-topic rambling or inside jokes that only part of the team knows
  • Feeling ignored when you’re the only one not in the room—or the loudest one on the line
  • Lack of body language to gauge participants’ engagement and feelings

Virtual meetings do have some advantages, like reducing travel time and expenses as well as convenient document sharing, recording, and whiteboard features. It can also help unite teams that usually work in different geographical areas. But without some careful thought, the downsides can quickly destroy any potential gains.

Fixing the virtual meeting takes more than just getting everyone up to speed on the software. It requires a few simple, humanizing touches that help bring out the best in every member of the team. Remember, meetings need to help participants do their jobs better. So design the meeting around the job and the people, not the other way around.

Virtual Meeting Design Tips

In order to design human-centric virtual meetings, it’s important to ask these five questions:

  1. How can we make this meeting shorter?

Long meetings and virtual tech don’t go well together. It’s too easy for participants to multitask or lose the flow of the conversation. Once they’re no longer engaged, it’s even harder to generate good ideas and stay on track. If you need to have a six-hour brainstorming session, try to get everyone in the same room or break up the meeting into clearly-defined segments.

Better yet, try to figure out what’s taking the most time and consider ways to do some of that work outside the meeting. Can you post a project in a private workroom for people to comment on beforehand? Can presentations be uploaded centrally so people can view them ahead of time, allowing the meeting to focus on discussion? Could an emailed agenda take the place of some of the information-sharing?

  1. Is this meeting scheduled fairly?

If different timezones are involved, try to make sure that the burden of waking up early or staying late is shared by all participants. If someone is waking up in the middle of the night to join, respect their time and keep things on point. Listen to their input and offer to let them go as soon as possible—and then switch which team gets the awkward meeting time.

  1. What’s the goal?

Is there a clear agenda? Is everyone aware of it? Keep everyone on the same page with a central, organizing document shared multiple times before the event. Refer to it often so no one gets lost.

  1. Does the tech work? Can you control the audio?

Test equipment and send out meeting codes early and often. Try to equip your team with good headsets and mics as well as decent lighting if video is involved. Also, unmuted microphones are the bane of the virtual meeting. Find a platform that allows you to control the mic in case one of your team members forgets to mute theirs.

  1. Do you have a facilitator in palce?

Remember, not everyone knows good virtual meeting etiquette, like introducing yourself before you speak. Work with your team on good protocols and choose a facilitator who will make sure everyone is included. This person can call on others, either in order by name or by their area of expertise, to make sure everyone is sharing. The facilitator can also set aside time for silent brainstorming and get people back on track if the conversation wanders.

Make the People Matter

Most importantly, try to solicit a significant contribution from every team member. This humanizes the conversation and gives people a reason to be invested. Remember that all those phone numbers, screen names, or camera boxes represent real people. Design your meeting around those people, and your virtual meeting can become the center of connection and innovation instead of a dreaded chore.

Learn to think like a designer

Image via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0
Image via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

Designers of all stripes—software designers, graphic designers, and even interior designers—have a unique way of thinking that can solve a whole host of business and marketing problems. It’s more of a process than a business plan, but it creates an environment that fosters creative solutions, innovative ideas, and the opportunity to learn and grow from mistakes. How can you empower your team using design thinking? Consider planning your next project using the following steps.

Big-Picture Planning

Most design thinking processes start with the big picture. What do we have? What do we need? What steps can we take to get there? These steps can go by many different names, but they usually include things like customer/audience research, leveraging available assets, and planning out the whole process from the beginning, paying careful attention to detail.

Design thinking is emphatically human-centered, so it relies on a thorough understanding of the people the product will serve. What are their needs? What are their pain points? How can this product or idea simplify their lives? How can we make their jobs or lives more interactive and engaging? By keeping the intended audience front and center throughout the process, design thinking provides built-in values that streamline decision making. If it doesn’t benefit the end user, it doesn’t get included. Period.

At this stage, it’s also vital to take stock of the assets and limitations you and your team have to work with. This includes manpower, funding, timeline, and specific requests from your client or team. Design thinking is meant to be holistic, balancing the needs of the business, team members, and clients throughout the process, creating a supportive environment that promotes teamwork and motivation. Making this list now also allows for better decision-making later on.

Brainstorming

Once the process is laid out, it’s time to start generating solutions. This can happen in several formal sessions or informally over a longer period of time and usually involves a fair amount of research, interdisciplinary teams, discussions, and focus groups, and prototyping of the most promising options. Many teams also incorporate “refresher” activities into this phase of the process that boost creativity and prevent burnout. This can include attending conferences, participating in enrichment projects like visits to art galleries or film showings, and anything else that feeds creativity and introduces new ideas into the mix. This keeps people’s minds fresh, sharp, and engaged during the most creative part of the process.

In order to generate the broadest variety of options, it is vital to make space for brainstorming and to use it exclusively for idea generation, not idea critique. This protected space promotes new ideas, encourages lateral thinking, and enables creative solutions by making team members feel free to propose unique or even radical solutions without fear of criticism. If you’re working on your own, separate brainstorming from critique to give you the space to explore all possibilities.

Once a list of ideas has been researched and generated, prototypes can be built based on the most promising ideas and evaluated by focus groups and interdisciplinary teams. This step highlights potential issues both on the user/client side and in the production process. If multiple teams will be involved in the implementation of the product (like marketing and tech support, for instance), it’s important to ask for insights from representatives from all of them to red flag any potential issues.

At the same time, when making the final decisions, guiding principles should remain focused on solving problems for end users. This means prioritizing aspects like functionality, aesthetics, experience, and simplicity, even if it requires a little more work in development (within the limitations of available resources).

Launch

The final stage of the process sees the production and implementation of the product. But it doesn’t stop there! Design thinking is iterative, so this part of the process involves collecting user feedback and refining the product as well as taking any lessons learned into account for the next project. This can also be a good time to review all the ideas generated during brainstorming and seeing whether any of them should be applied to other problems before restarting the process.

A “post-mortem” with the design team can also be helpful in order to review any mistakes or difficulties and resolve any outstanding issues before the next project begins.

This structure may be a little different from what your team is used to, so it’s OK to implement it slowly. But if you need an injection of creative ideas, start by focusing on the needs of users and making space for brainstorming, and you’ll quickly begin to see the benefits of design thinking.

Joe Dyer on Stewarding Technical Innovation in Complex Ecosystems

Last week we were able to host a webinar with Maga Advisory Board member ret. Admiral Joe Dyer, sponsored by the Back End of Innovation of Innovation Conference, which Joe will keynote on October 8th. Throughout his distinguished Naval career Joe stewarded many complex innovation efforts – as the Navy’s Chief Test Pilot,  F/A-18 Program Manager, and helping align the supply chain for the business of Naval Aviation as the chief engineer and systems command commander.

Continue reading Joe Dyer on Stewarding Technical Innovation in Complex Ecosystems