In light of social distancing recommendations and more people working remotely, tips about the etiquette for participating in virtual meetings are becoming more widely applicable. As someone who works remotely and regularly communicates with clients across the country and across the world, teleconferences are a necessity when sharing information and organizing meetings with small groups. If you have not needed to interact through virtual meetings in your previous work experience, now may be a good time to expand your skillset to include the following virtual meeting best practices and etiquette tips.
When to Have a Virtual Meeting
There is a common joke about how many meetings could have been emails. If your proposed meeting topic is too lengthy to include in an email, you probably want to schedule a phone call or virtual meeting. And if the opposite is true and your proposed meeting agenda can be summarized and attached to an email, you may not need to have a meeting.
Virtual meetings are useful for working sessions or presentations that require input from multiple participants. They are not the best format for brief announcements or time-sensitive information that you need to communicate to a single person. While working remotely, email and phone calls are still the best tools for specific, brief information transmission; I recommend not overusing virtual meeting capabilities, lest you be guilty of perpetuating the common joke.
Take the Time to Prepare
If you are new to working remotely and collaborating with colleagues and clients through teleconference software, my first recommendation is to be patient with yourself and others. Learning a new skill or how to use a new tool takes time and preparation. Rushing to accomplish tasks instantly isn’t a practical way to conduct business long-term. Investing the time to learn the basic features of your teleconference host platform will save you frustration and prevent wasted time during meetings.
Start with the aspects of the meeting that are familiar and, in some cases, identical to a face-to-face meeting. As with any meeting, having an agenda and sticking to it is key to using everyone’s time efficiently. Create a meeting agenda, and send it out with the meeting invitation if possible. The meeting invitation should be sent far enough in advance for all participants to respond and/or rearrange their schedules. Be aware of time zones and typical work hours when requesting a virtual meeting. Establishing a beginning and ending time for the meeting is respectful of everyone’s time and schedule. The invitation should also include pertinent details about how to log in and any codes required to access the specific meeting through the host platform.
There are several options for web conferencing software that offer various features, and you may want to research which one offers the best tools and price for what you need in a virtual meeting. If your company already subscribes to a specific software, brushing up on the features is a good idea before sending out a meeting invitation. If you are the organizer, or even if you are a participant, set up a test meeting to practice using all the tools and controls you will need so that you can quickly locate them during the actual meeting.
Create a Dedicated Work Environment
Even though you can participate in a (non-video) teleconference in your pajamas, setting up boundaries and keeping your work communications professional is key to a successful virtual meeting. I recommend preparing a quiet, work-specific location where you can comfortably participate in the virtual meeting. Even if you don’t have a desk and office chair at home, you can take steps to ensure your environment isn’t distracting to you or to the other meeting attendees. For example, participating in a virtual meeting from your porch while your children and dogs run around in your backyard is not ideal. The noise and interruptions of nature, children, and pets can be wonderful, but would be distracting during a meeting.
Research how to best access the audio features for your meeting before it starts. Some software systems recommend using headphones and an external microphone, and some work fine with your computer’s internal audio system. Many offer a call-in option, and you may want to try using your cell phone to verify it works well with the software.
If you cannot eliminate environmental noise during the call (like a noisy air conditioner or an unexpected rainstorm), then you should use the mute feature on your phone or software when you are not speaking during the meeting. All noises associated with notifications on your cell phone or computer should be silenced before the meeting begins.
If you are expected to appear at the meeting through video tools, eliminating background distractions is important. Try to eliminate distractions in the frame behind you, and dress professionally but comfortably.
How to Virtually Conduct Business as Usual
Some aspects of virtual meetings are the same as a face-to-face meeting. By extending common courtesies to the other meeting attendees and treating their time with the same respect as you would during a typical office meeting, your virtual meeting will be more productive.
Stick to the scheduled time constraints of the meeting as much as possible. Show up early to the meeting, and perform introductions at the beginning. Take care of any bodily necessities before the meeting starts, and find a comfortable seat where you can stay focused for the length of the meeting. Do not eat or drink during the meeting. If you must have access to coffee or water during the meeting, do not drink them unless your audio output is muted.
The meeting should have limited participants to avoid confusion, so winnow your participants to a small group if at all possible. If the virtual meeting is a presentation rather than a collaborative working session, ask attendees to limit their speaking and keep comments or questions brief. Keeping comments brief and direct is a good idea in any meeting, but especially when dealing with a lack of visual prompts.
Designate a clear leader (typically the organizer) and when multiple attendees have presentations, the organizer should manage the transition between topics based on the meeting agenda. If some of the participants are gathered in the same location, they should avoid side-bar conversations. If participants do veer off topic, the organizer should politely but firmly guide them back to the meeting agenda.
Avoid side work like responding to emails or continuing other tasks during the meeting. Focus on the topic of the meeting, and be prepared to participate as you would in person. Avoid being rude to the organizer and presenter by giving your full attention to the virtual meeting.
It may be helpful for the organizer to designate someone to capture notes or manage a recording during the meeting. The outcome of most meetings should include action items and next steps, so be prepared to have a record of those that can be distributed after the virtual meeting.
Be specific about when the meeting will finish, and do everything possible to wrap up before or at the scheduled end time. Conclude with action items, and ensure each participant verbalizes what they need to do, or gives audible confirmation to end the meeting on the same page.
Virtual Etiquette and Quick Tips
Not everything about virtual meetings is the same as a face-to-face meeting. Think through the following technical aspects of the meeting beforehand to prepare for the unique aspects of virtual communication.
Log in at least 5–10 minutes before the meeting’s start time to buffer any technical issues that arise. Even if you have put in the time to prepare and familiarize yourself with the software, your internet access may have an unexpected glitch.
Close out any open emails, tabs on your web browser, or documents during the meeting. You don’t want any distractions to divert your attention from the meeting, and if you need to share your screen with others, you don’t want any proprietary information to accidentally be shown. Be sure of what your computer background, folders, and screens are showing before sharing a screen, especially if managing work files for multiple clients.
Audio Without Visual
If you are using a video conferencing feature, you have the benefit of visual communication cues, so handling unintended interruptions and introducing yourself before speaking will be unnecessary. If, however, you are sharing a presentation on your screen or are using the audio teleconference tools without video, there are some adjustments required to compensate for the lack of visual cues.
Introduce yourself at the beginning of the meeting and before speaking to eliminate some of the strain of not having visual communication cues. When you cannot see each other, participants will inevitably interrupt each other, but that’s okay—if you speak over someone else, apologize and offer to let them speak first. When you ask a question to the group, expect more of a pause than you may typically allow in a face-to-face meeting to give the participants time to respond and account for audio delays.
Most people will naturally adjust to starting a sentence and then pausing to verify that it is their turn to speak. This may result in more pauses or filler words like “um” or “well,” but that’s normal for a conversation without the benefit of eye contact. Speak clearly and wrap up sentences clearly rather than trailing off to help the conversation flow more naturally.
Use people’s names when addressing them directly. Remember that no one can see you nodding or shaking your head, so a short verbal confirmation or denial of “yes” or “no” is required in response to a direct question. If you are directing a question to multiple people, it may be helpful to state the order in which they should respond. Try checking in with each participant at various points to encourage engagement and verify there are no issues where someone “being quiet” actually lost connection. Give a verbal cue that the meeting is concluding by having the organizer summarize the agreed next steps and then telling everyone thank you for attending and good-bye.
Patience is Key
As we adjust to working remotely, there is a steep learning curve for some, and being prepared will not eliminate all of the challenges. Remember to be patient and kind to yourself and others as we navigate how to work together while we need to stay separate. Even people well-versed in telecommunication etiquette do not always follow all of the rules, so be kind in what you ask of coworkers, and find what yields the best results for you to respectfully and productively work with others virtually.