Advance Planning Can Make (Rather than Break) Your Online Meetings

Have you ever left a meeting wishing you’d stayed on point or were better prepared to contribute to discussion? Have you ever emailed someone and later realized that you should have met with them instead?

Planning takes time but can make all the difference.  
And, while meetings are often characterized as time-wasters keeping us from real work, meetings can and should actually be used as precious time to engage others to move issues, projects, and organization forward.

There are so many modes of communication today—in person, on the phone, through email or text, or even through good old fashioned letters. While face-to-face communication allows the most depth of conveyance and connection, not too many of us are actually in the office together these days. The second-best option for most of us right now is live online meetings.

If you’re like me, you lead or participate in online meetings all week long. And, also like me, you may feel that not all of them make the best use of your time. Set the bar high by running effective online meetings that will inspire others. Check out the four meeting stages below to prepare before, during, and after your virtual meetings to make the best use of everyone’s time.

Stage 1:  Meeting Objective
What is the purpose of the meeting? What do you seek to accomplish? What are the expected results?  Who should attend? Why? Do participants know why they are being invited? Who is instrumental versus nice to have? What, if anything, do invitees need to do in advance? Bring? Read? Consider? Find? If you don’t know the person or people attending, research them in advance—find something you have in common to break the ice.

Determine meeting logistics– where will the meeting take place? Via live video? Via phone? What platform will you use? When should you hold it, and how long should it last? What is the agenda? By selecting mutually advantageous meeting times and sending calendar invitations along with an email overview of the meeting’s purpose and log-in information, those invited can also plan their attendance in advance.

Stage 2:  Meeting Set-up
Once you have scheduled the meeting, you need to firm up and arrange the meeting logistics. Be sure that whatever technology you are intending to use is indeed available to each participant and that they will feel comfortable using it. Nothing distracts participants from the issues at hand more than having to fumble around to access the meeting or see and hear each other. In addition, actually test out any technology platforms in advance to be sure that they work as expected and can handle the number of participants invited. Be sure that there is a call-in number for anyone unable to connect with the platform, as well.

Be sure that you sequence your presentation materials in advance, in line with the agenda you sent out with the invitations. The best way to ensure that the full agenda gets covered without derailing tangents is to parse agenda items into intended time intervals, allowing additional time for questions in between. And, the more that you have others present sections of the agenda, the more likely they will be to show up for the meeting and pay attention.

Stage 3:  Running the Meeting
At the onset, be sure to introduce everyone attending. Not everyone may know each other. In addition, some people may be on audio only (rather than video) or calling in, so it is important that their presence is conveyed. If participants know each other, allow time at the beginning of the meeting for information socialization and catch up. If they don’t know each other, you may want to include an ice breaker related to teleworking and its humorous moments.

Highlight the meeting expectations, reiterating the agenda but also regarding how the meeting will flow, given the online environment. It is helpful to block your other computer applications, such as email and social media notifications, to avoid distracting alerts.

Today’s technology can enrich our meetings in many ways—for instance, consider making use of collaborative note taking and other engagement tools, versus the tradition of one person creating meeting minutes. If possible, record the meeting for those who may have missed it and for future reference. Make use of chat and other features to enhance participation and capture of ideas.

Whether the meeting is online or in the office, it is always important to close with a recap of key conclusions, decisions, next steps, and most importantly—who owns each of the next steps.

Stage 4:  Meeting Follow-up
In addition to taking minutes, it is important to distribute meeting minutes by the next day to both attendees and other interested stakeholders. You can also post a copy of the meeting minutes, along with other key reference materials into a common portal with consistent accessibility.

Along with the meeting minutes, be sure to highlight the next meeting date (if applicable). A value-add at this point is to also consider lessons learned—both in terms of the subject of the meeting and related discussion, but also in how the meeting was run. For instance, such consideration can allow you to address any logistical issues that arose in anticipation and preparation for other meetings coming up.

Carefully contemplating your meetings in advance can lead to less stress, fewer misunderstandings, higher focus and productivity, and better experiences for everyone.