Nontechnical tips for improving virtual meetings

After a monthlong crash course, most employees working from home have the basic etiquette for virtual meetings down pat. The camera usually should be on. The microphone usually should be off. But as the "new normal" morphs into just "normal," it will take some nontechnical consideration to improve virtual meetings. 

"These are the questions I think people are asking now: How can I make this work better?" said Cory Arrants, a program coordinator with information technology services (ITS).

Arrants and senior systems analyst Vince Oliver are members of the ITS communication and collaboration team that has helped advise faculty and staff on videoconferencing, sometimes in one-on-one consultations. They shared some strategies for making virtual meetings better.

Expectations: great

Being clear about expectations before a meeting starts is the best way to ensure it runs smoothly. That could include the preferred method for asking questions (verbal, raising hand, chat area), reminders about camera and microphone settings, and a clear and concise agenda. Establishing how a meeting will run is an antidote for distractions such as cross-talk and is especially important for large meetings. 

"If it's a group of 100 or 200, someone's not going to have done this a bunch of times yet," Arrants said.

Agenda setting

In a virtual setting, be thoughtful about what you're trying to accomplish in a meeting and share the agenda in the invitation. Narrowing the scope helps keep it short, which is important because staying focused and comfortable for long stretches of time is more difficult in a work-from-home space.

Also, meetings conducted by video aren't conducive to some goals. If it's a decision-making meeting, limit the participants to those needed to make the call and actively solicit feedback from those less likely to speak. Anything extemporaneous is harder to pull off, which makes brainstorming meetings a challenge. 

"You've got to give people a chance to think about what they're going to do before they come in," Arrants said.

Consider more

Work teams should contemplate meeting more often than they did when they were together in an office and had frequent unplanned conversations. The loss of informal contact bolsters the value of "stand-up" meetings, quick and regular gatherings that give each member of a team a chance to talk about what they're working on. 

"I think that's a type of meeting that takes on a bigger role right now. Some teams do it twice a week. Some teams do it in the morning and the afternoon. It depends on how often what you're working on changes," Arrants said. 

Impromptu meetings with a colleague or two to talk through a specific issue also should be a regular occurrence. They save time, staving off long emails. "That's a way we can really take advantage of this," Oliver said. 

Yes, turn on your video

Whether meeting with the whole team or a small group, enabling video is a must, barring technical challenges. Seeing faces has significant communication value. "That's why we're doing videoconferencing instead of a phone call," Arrants said.

Keep it simple

Not everything needed to be a meeting in a work-in-an-office world, and it doesn't now, either. In addition to phone calls and email, use a chat app for simple conversations. But be flexible. If a dialogue develops, be prepared to hop on to a virtual meeting for a simpler face-to-face exchange.

When it gets big

Designating an alternate host can keep a large meeting, and its leader, on track. The second host provides information via the chat function and answers questions, or collects questions to pose to the meeting's main host. The alternate also can watch for cross-talk and mute all participants if needed to restore order to a meeting. "The alternate host essentially runs the overhead of the meeting," Oliver said. 

What's a large meeting? It might be smaller than you think. Consider using large-meeting methods such as driving feedback to the chat window with as few as 15 people or even in smaller meetings, depending on how conversation-prone the group is. "If you don't know the crowd, I would err on overmanaging the meeting the first time," Arrants said.

Audio and visuals

The collection of knowledge-base articles on the ITS learning and working remotely website has a guide for Webex best practices, a list that includes suggestions for better video and audio quality. Using a headset instead of the built-in microphone on a laptop also can improve audio, as laptop microphones often don't perform well.

Tips on timing

If you're hosting a meeting for the first time, do a test run beforehand. When setting a meeting time, schedule at least 15 minutes in the future to allow the videoconferencing provider to process the request. For more urgent virtual meetings, consider using a personal room, which is available on Webex and Zoom. Try to avoid starting meetings at the top of the hour. That's when the bulk of meetings start, which can cause connection issues. Attempt to schedule breaks between meetings, as virtual meetings eliminate the natural downtime that physically going from one room to the next provides. As a meeting wraps up, especially if you've left time for feedback, wait 10 seconds after a last call for questions before ending it, longer than you would at an in-person meeting, to allow for the extra time it takes to unmute.