Although web and video conferencing might be second nature to many of us these days, in some organisations as they move to cloud-based collaboration platforms like Office 365 or Google G Suite, on-demand, at the desktop video and screen sharing tools might be a novelty.

Even in organisations that have had access to these types of technology for some time, the way in which they are used may well still be shaped by years of using audio conferences and video conferencing systems that are tied to specific rooms containing dedicated facilities.

So here are a few hints and tips for how to make the most of the new breed of online meeting system…

Online means that many usual rules apply…

Meetings without a clear purpose, where participants don’t know why they are there, or where there isn’t clear structure or agenda are just as bad online as they are real life.

For procedural meetings, publish agendas and documents in advance; linking to the documents from within meeting invitations can help to ensure that everyone can find everything that is relevant.

For workshops, think about using a session plan in the STOP format (https://mmitii.mattballantine.com/2017/08/11/planning-a-workshop/) rather than using an agenda.

Get familiar with the tools in easier circumstance…

I’ve a little hunch that for many people their first experiences of video conferencing systems of old was for really important meetings in which the lack of familiarity with the technology added even more pressure. Practicing to use the tools in less pressured circumstances is now much easier as the tools are far more available.

In the physical world, bigger groups are harder to manage in meetings than smaller groups. So it is in the digital world. So try to find time to get familiar with online meeting tools in circumstances where the meetings themselves are easier to manage – groups of five or less are idea; internal meetings are better to familiarise yourself than ones with external participants.

It’s also easier to get to grips with online tools if everyone participating in a meeting are in the same circumstance – for example if everyone is on their own, connecting from their own laptop, or two or three small groups are gathered around a computer in a meeting room. A mix of group of people and individuals all connecting to the same meeting is harder to manage than where everyone is in the same circumstance.

Audio Visual…

Although people are increasingly familiar with using video for calling with tools like Skype and Facetime, many are still reticent to show their faces on video on online meetings at work. Encouraging everyone to turn video on during meetings is important, because over time most will realise that the additional visual cues provided by video can help to make the experience of meeting online much richer than audio-only conference.

But getting audio right is still vitally important. Most people are far more distracted by poor audio on a meeting than any other factor.

As a general rule, unless you are in a small room with no background noise, you should try to use a headset whenever you can when connecting to an online meeting. Having a microphone closer to your mouth will improve the quality of your audio, and the headset rather than speaker will reduce the chance of annoying echo or feedback.

Whenever you can, especially if you are in an open-plan office or other area with some background noise, mute your own audio; conferencing systems try to be able to only allow one person to be heard at any time, and as a result if you have loud background noise it can be misinterpreted by the system as you speaking, and therefore ends up muting everybody else!

Chat and screen sharing

Alongside video and audio, online meeting technologies offer you the chance for text-based chat (to the host of the meeting, to specific individuals and also to the whole group) and also to share screens.

Screen sharing can include sharing just one application, your whole screen, or also accessing things on-screen whiteboards. If used with a touch screen device, whiteboards are increasingly useful as a place to build and share ideas. Screen sharing often will also give the ability for control of the screen to be passed between participants on a call.

However, don’t forget that many of the web-based applications that organisations are now using offer the ability for many people to access the same content at the same time. Working collaboratively on a document or a project plan might no longer need screen sharing technology.

Facilitation and chairing…

Facilitation of an online meeting can be more demanding than when everyone is in the same room. The need to watch any chat that is running on the system, checking who is joined to the session, and who might want to contribute at any time is usually more effort than when everyone is together, especially when people are still familiarising themselves with the tools.

For larger sessions you might want to consider having a co-host, splitting some of the responsibilities and enabling one person to focus on the progress of the session and the other some of the more technical elements of the online environment.

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