• The coronavirus outbreak means millions of workers around the world are now working from home.
  • Videoconferencing tech allows us to join meetings from the comfort of our homes.
  • Here are a few tips on how to get the most out of virtual meetings.

As COVID-19 continues its spread around the world, more and more companies are asking their employees to stay away from the office. Amazon has asked staff to work from home if possible, while Twitter has made it mandatory for all its employees. Millions of Chinese people are now working from home for the first time, and many Indian companies are following suit, too. The challenge for managers helping staff adjust to this new reality will be to ensure morale and productivity are affected as little as possible.

Luckily, modern technology enables us to hold face-to-face meetings without needing to be in the same country, let alone the same room. Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, this week convened a meeting of EU leaders via videoconference. Ireland’s president, Leo Varadkar, tweeted a picture of the meeting, in which he is facing a large TV screen cluttered with livestreams of his fellow leaders.

Meanwhile UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the pandemic is not a reason to delay Brexit talks between his country and the EU, as the two sides can meet and negotiate via videoconference instead.

Of course, there are still big differences between office-based and online meetings - and so for those new to this paradigm, here are some tips from around the world on how to ensure your virtual meetings are effective and productive.

Same but different

As a recent article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) acknowledges, making virtual meetings work will involve several adjustments - but once these are in place, it goes on, there’s no reason why remote meetings should be an ineffective way to get things done.

What are these differences? For starters, a strong guiding hand becomes even more important in a virtual setting.

“The only thing worse than a long presentation in person is a long presentation during a virtual meeting,” the article states. The manager leading the meeting should prioritise conversation between participants rather than speechifying, and should be careful to include everyone. Meeting remotely means going without the social and physical cues that set the rules for in-person meetings; in practice, this means participants in virtual meetings are more likely to talk over one another, or to not speak much at all. Calling on people to speak in turn is one way around this.

It’s also important to remember that while offices are usually designed to be peaceful spaces that are conducive to concentration, our homes can be very different. Asking meeting participants to give a quick ‘virtual tour’ of their environment, in which they detail any possible interruptions - from housemates, children, pets or even local traffic, for example - can provide useful context and can encourage colleagues to be sensitive to each others’ situations and constraints.

Tips from China

In China, meanwhile, the government’s website portal has recently published some advice on how to conduct “effective and efficient” virtual meetings. Careful preparation, it states, is key. It’s not enough for participants to have downloaded the right software, for example - they must also have tested that it works and familiarized themselves with its operation. Materials, including an agenda, should also be prepared and circulated beforehand, too - and these should be brief to ensure they are read as widely as possible.

It is also crucial that participants know one another, according to the china.org.cn piece. Again, without the usual social cues and niceties on which we all depend, introductions and icebreakers become more important. And if any participants are unable to use a video link and can only connect via microphone, the chair should be aware of this and make an extra effort to bring them into the discussion.

British advice

British newspaper the Guardian has also offered some tips for first-time videoconference organizers. Only hold meetings if absolutely necessary, the article advises, and keep the number of attendees to a minimum to "avoid technology-induced ennui".

Etiquette is also important, it cautions. It's easy to spot if someone's attention is elsewhere, so watch out for wandering eyes and don't be that person yourself. "And remember," the article concludes: "If you are watching Netflix instead of working, always put your microphone on mute."

Meanwhile, Apolitical - a global learning platform for policymakers and public servants - is putting together a list of tips on running effective online meetings and looking for input:

What have we learned? A summary

  • Ensure everyone understands how to use the technology.
  • Absent the usual social cues, those running meetings must be careful to include everyone - and to limit speechifying.
  • Encourage participants to give a quick tour of their surroundings.
  • Icebreakers and introductions are important for fostering inclusivity and communication.
  • Keep attendees - and meeting length - to an absolute minimum.