Today, face-to-face gatherings are becoming more the exception than the norm, as organizations embrace "virtual meetings" — audio or video conferences — allowing employees or clients in remote locations to connect via the web and by phone. "It's a huge plus to have these technologies and not be bound by geography," said Atlanta-based Jennifer Brown, CPA, CGMA, consulting CFO at NutriQuest, and a 2013 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy.
As organizations become more global, virtual meetings are an absolute necessity in today's workplace, said Melissa Gratias, Ph.D., founder of Productivity Psychologist LLC, a Savannah, Ga.-based training and coaching firm. "The administrative cost reduction of going virtual allows for companies to redeploy those savings in more value-added areas," she noted.
Remote-access meetings offer other benefits: the ability to invite more people; happier employees, since attending meetings remotely is usually more convenient than doing so in person; and no travel time, which breeds efficiency and helps the environment. "Everyone's calendar is jampacked busy, and to ask people to drive a couple hours for an hour meeting isn't realistic anymore," said Natasha Schamberger, CPA, president and CEO of the Kansas Society of Certified Public Accountants.
But virtual meetings also pose challenges to those conducting them: distracting noises; sidetracked attendees who multitask or tune out; time-zone differences; and technology glitches. Meeting facilitators need to be organized to overcome these challenges and keep people engaged. "Agendas have to be exceptionally well-orchestrated as there is no margin for error," said Nancy Settle-Murphy, president of Guided Insights, a facilitation, training, and communications consulting firm in Boxborough, Mass.
Here are some tips for overcoming these hurdles and keeping virtual meetings running smoothly:
Use video if possible. Meeting attendees are more engaged when they can see what's happening. With the use of computer webcams, participants can usually see the facilitator's and attendees' faces on the screen, making it harder for them to zone out or multitask. "It keeps people on their toes," Gratias noted.
Prepare and practice. Craft a detailed agenda with time allotted for various topics, and focus on what's important. State the objectives and goals, and why you are meeting, Gratias said. Distribute the agenda and other materials to attendees well in advance, and explain why they need to review them prior to meeting.
Practice your presentation, figuring out where you need to pause and when you should ask questions. "Be very conscious of how you use every single meeting minute, and be super vigilant about doing the prep work," Settle-Murphy said. "Even for an experienced person, it can be hard to wing it."
Minimize distractions. Remind attendees to use their mute button, if necessary. Distractions "can really ruin a call," Schamberger said.
Keep it interesting. Try different tactics to maximize engagement: Include shared documents, employ multiple speakers, ask attendees pointed questions by name, present a few key slides, or conduct a poll.
Embrace technology. Meeting facilitators have plenty of options available for creating virtual audio- and video-based meetings, including Cisco Webex, GoToMeeting, BlueJeans, and Zoom., to name a few. Also, consider using online collaboration tools, such as SharePoint or online mind-mapping application MindMeister, Gratias said.
Stay focused. During the meeting focus on not only your presentation, but on what others are saying as well. "As a meeting leader, I physically clear my desk," Settle-Murphy said. "I take out a pen and paper to make notes of what people are saying, and I listen very deeply." To keep tabs on the time, ask an assistant to remind you if you need to move things along, she added.
Set ground rules. Participants should agree on the ground rules, especially if the group meets regularly. For example: Everyone must attend, be on time, stick to a timeline, read the agenda, say their name before speaking, stay on task, and minimize background noises such as crying babies or barking dogs. Facilitators then need to enforce these rules. "As a leader you have to set the tone," Brown said.
Do your homework. When you attend a virtual meeting conducted by someone else, pay attention. Teach yourself by observing. Write down "what is working well and what could work better," Settle-Murphy said. "By doing this, you can create your own checklist for steps you want to include when planning your own virtual meetings — and things you definitely want to avoid."
Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.