Virtual meeting problems & how to solve them

Nearly 100 percent of workers want to work from home at least some of the time. Remote work is here to stay, folks, making virtual meetings the glue keeping offsite teams getting along.

Virtual meetings aren’t new. Most of us are familiar with the pros and cons of video conferencing and how it behaves as a substitute for in-person meetings. Online meetings are incredible collaboration tools. They bridge distances and connect people through computer screens, but while faces may appear and voices sound in real-time, something is missing: the essential human element. This is what makes virtual meetings a challenge for businesses.

How do you keep team members engaged? What if people feel scared to share their ideas? When has a meeting gone too long? These are all potential problems managers face. The solution? Find ways to make it feel more human.

With a little care and planning, remote meetings can be just as productive and, dare I say, fun as in-person ones. Let’s talk about how to get there.

Cover the basics

Virtual or not, meetings work best when there’s a clear purpose and everyone is engaged. There are a few things you can do to get the most out of your employees’ meeting time, most of which don’t require too much work.

Difficult People D

Here are some virtual team meeting best practices:

  • Small group meetings are preferable to large ones, just as one-on-one conversations are preferable to group meetings.

  • Solicit input from everyone and provide room to do so. Unless it’s a monthly status update or policy refresher, employees should have the chance to share relevant thoughts with the rest of the team.

  • Meetings have a bad reputation for wasting people’s valuable work time. When every hour is punctuated with meetings that could just as easily have been emails, productivity withers, and people get overwhelmed. Make sure video meetings are worth the time people have to give up to attend them.

  • Consider using a waiting room for your virtual meetings. It gets awkward when one or two coworkers are waiting for everyone else to show up, and waiting rooms can help to prevent that dead space.

Beyond that, keep meetings moving, interesting, and civil—you know, the usual stuff.

Have an agenda

One perk of virtual events is being able to share an agenda with remote teams beforehand. Any meeting that matters has a point, and an agenda gives a heads-up about what to expect so people can come up with questions and listen more closely during the meeting.

A meeting agenda can include:

  • The main meeting objective

  • Agenda items and specific discussion topics

  • Who is presenting what

  • Time allotments for each agenda item

  • Other materials to review before a meeting

Early agenda access helps employees engage with meeting content, ideally cutting cut down on those clueless questions people ask when they’re confused. The key word being ideally. You can’t win ‘em all.

Shoot for smaller meetings

Some companies have sizeable budgets for all-hands meetings due to the mountains of effort it takes to keep large groups engaged. Online meeting platforms are no different. When lots of people occupy a single virtual room, asking questions feels like trying to stop a freight train—a massive interruption—which is why it’s better to keep meetings small.

This isn’t always possible. Employees like hearing from the C-suite from time to time, so that should happen periodically. Otherwise, meeting invitations should be sent out on a need-to-know basis so that web conferencing doesn’t become a storm of voices and distractions.

Here are some ways to keep meetings small:

  • Only invite members from a single team

  • Hold multiple meetings and let attendees choose which to attend

  • Use individualized training modules and bypass web conferences altogether

Virtual meetings can still pack a punch if handled correctly, so give yourself the best chance by keeping meetings small.

Pace yourself

One issue with the video conference can be the lack of eye contact and body language. Since people are in different locations and isolated from each other physically, it can be extremely difficult to read the room and know when you’ve made a point (or haven’t).

There’s a unique kind of stage fright to virtual meetings that manifests itself in the form of sped-up speech, ignored messages from the group, and confused audiences. Facilitators need to be careful to present information clearly.

How? By slowing down. Give yourself some time to share your next point, then riff on it for a second before moving on. Just a little bit of casual space can provide room for questions and let brainstorming happen.

If time is limited, leave information in the agenda so people can refer to it later.

Bridging the physical-digital gap

Having discussed the basics of how to make a virtual meeting effective, the next challenge is to figure out how to enhance the meeting’s human-ness.

It’s hard to define what constitutes “natural” when people are being conveyed through bits and bytes. Lags and jitter interrupt people’s sentences. Mobile devices freeze and kick people off conference calls. Voices turn alien as internet connections flutter. It’s tough.

These are the kinds of issues that webinar hosts and coordinators should look out for—disruptions to the natural flow. Let’s talk about how to prepare for them.

Words instead of body language

In a face-to-face meeting, it’s easy to know if people are paying attention. You can see them. If they’re falling asleep or checking their phone out of boredom, you know that now might be a good time to change direction and move on.

Not so for a Zoom call. Virtual meetings make this awareness next to impossible. Heck, you can even loop video of yourself on a virtual background to avoid paying attention. So, the only way to keep your finger on the pulse is to ask direct questions.

Every few minutes, ask how people are feeling. Find out whether or not they understand what’s being presented. See if they’re engaged.

Some check-in questions and icebreakers can include:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how well do you understand the material so far?

  • Does anything stick out as particularly intriguing or unclear?

  • Am I going too fast or too slow?

  • What emotions or thoughts come to mind about this information?

  • Do you have any concerns or reservations about what’s being presented?

  • Does any of this resonate with you personally or professionally?

  • Would it help if I gave more examples or real-life applications?

  • How does what I’m presenting align with our goals and challenges as an organization?

Concept-centered questions can also help, kind of like a mini quiz during the presentation. Solicit opinions and thoughts through a Q&A session. See if the team might do things differently given the chance.

Asking how attendees feel throughout the meeting is the closest you’ll get to a real, face-to-face read on the situation.

Set up beforehand

In-person meetings let presenters casually put meeting rooms together as people filter in, but virtual meetings lack any physical space to begin with. Preparation can help. Consider adding presentation questions to the meeting agenda beforehand. Give attendees an idea of what to think about and prepare some follow-up questions to help kick-start the meeting.

It can also be handy to create a simple virtual meeting guide for the more technologically challenged. It won’t help everyone, but there’s no wrong time to teach people how to use and troubleshoot virtual meeting software.

Guides can include information about:

  • Audio settings and frequently asked questions

  • Camera and background settings

  • How to mute your microphone

  • Raising a hand

  • Writing in the group chat

You can also include information about video call etiquette, something that can be super helpful for new employees and anyone struggling to understand and operate video conferencing platforms.

Get visual

One advantage of virtual meetings is screen sharing functionality. Instead of having to disconnect, reconnect, set up, troubleshoot, and all the other chaos incumbent to AV technology, just click a button. Boom! Anyone’s screen is up for the whole team to see.

There are a few different ways that screen sharing can help you make the most of a presentation, the most basic of which is the PowerPoint presentation.

I can already hear the sighs… Don’t worry, no need to do anything fancy. Just type a few specific points onto dedicated slides and write some bullets to explain each concept. Seriously, no one cares if there’s a nice graphic or appropriately formatted video links. Just give them something to follow along.

Outside the meeting

Another advantage of virtual meetings is being able to discuss without interrupting the presenter. Think about it: Teachers get mad when students whisper during class, but no one can hear a Slack message. Breakout rooms can let attendees talk among themselves without distracting others.

On top of that, virtual meeting platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams archive meeting chat rooms so that notes are available to review afterward. Agenda items, important metrics, cat photos—everything brought up during the meeting can be accessed later on. File sharing is also a breeze.

Keeping Up

“Out of sight, out of mind,” seems to be how most people think of meetings. They engage for a half hour while information is presented, then go back to work and forget about it.

Follow-up emails can help lessons stick. If you discussed important stuff and really want people to remember, send out key takeaways to meeting participants. No response needed or anything, just ask them to take a look and refresh their minds on relevant concepts.

It’s best not to send follow-up emails right after the meeting. Wait a day or two first, then write something like, “Just wanted to share what we went over during our meeting last week.”

Emails can include things like:

  • A summary of key points discussed

  • Clarifications or further information

  • Action items and deadlines, if any

  • Next steps or plans for the next meeting

  • Appreciation for participation

  • Relevant attachments

Some people like to give out homework. This is fine as long as it doesn’t encroach too much on personal time at home.

Invite to be social

Remote work can get a little… weird. After enough days sitting at home, isolated from other people, social skills may start to wane.

The fact is we live in a society that depends on interpersonal interaction. Socializing is, to some extent, unavoidable. People who lack social skills may have trouble not only getting by on a daily basis, but possibly thriving with teamwork as well.

Remote workers need to leave their workspace and just get outside once in a while. Companies can facilitate this with gift cards to dine out or see a movie in theaters—activities that require leaving the house. Is it mandatory? Of course not, but it may help people develop social skills and make work more fun and productive.

Closing thoughts

The best virtual meetings benefit from any attempt to make them more human. However, most of us are accustomed to how these things normally go. It’s not a failure when a meeting doesn’t have flair—it’s just less exciting, and that’s okay.

What’s most important is to value people’s time. Make your point, provide time for questions and discussion, then say goodbye. Some teams like having meetings where they just hang out, the idea being it’s always good to spend time with the people you work alongside. If that works for you, do it.

Finally, one-on-ones are always the most direct and effective way to share information. Schedule time to meet individually every few months, and save the fun stuff for larger meetings.