Even people who work alone most of the time have to meet with other people on occasion. We meet in groups to accomplish things we can’t do on our own. But what if people who need to meet work in different buildings, or even in different cities? Traveling to a meeting can be expensive. Even when people work in the same building, face-to-face meetings can be inconvenient. Perhaps it is difficult to schedule the conference room, or perhaps people need to collaborate on documents, spreadsheets, or presentations.
With cloud computing it is possible for people to meet while sitting at their own desks and using their own computers or other devices. They can both speak with each other and share their screens. It used to be that doing so required expensive equipment and in-house IT expertise. Now you can hire companies like Blue Jeans to set up a video conference. They will provide all the necessary technical know-how and equipment.
Online meetings are less expensive using the cloud than using traditional videoconferencing. Your company will still need to own microphones, speakers, high definition video cameras, and monitors. Your service provider owns and operates everything else. If the participants work in different locations, cloud-based meetings do not have to account for firewalls or other security concerns.
One disadvantage to a virtual meeting, of course, is that people can see each other on screens some of the time, but not when some kind of graphic, document, or video is being displayed. They can’t see each other in person, so whoever is planning and leading the meeting can’t know that other participants are paying attention and not surfing the Internet, texting, shopping, checking emails, or otherwise concentrating on something else.
It takes skill to facilitate a meeting even when everyone is in the same room. The leader needs to plan the agenda, encourage participants to interact with each other, make sure the timid people have an opportunity to speak up, and that none of the more verbal people dominate the meeting. When conflict arises it is the responsibility of the leader to encourage conflict of ideas, and discourage conflict of personalities. The purpose of the meeting is to reach an agreement after having heard everyone’s thoughts.
Running a virtual meeting requires all the same skills and more. Even though a service provider is taking care of the most sophisticated technology, the leader still needs to know how to operate the system. The leader must also take special care look good. It’s not so much a matter of good grooming or good taste in clothing. You can’t look around the room like you can when everyone else is present. You can’t keep your face in your notes or on your screen. You have to stay focused on looking at the camera.
Practicing with the technology
When you give any formal presentation, you practice it in advance, at least in part to make sure everything works. For a virtual meeting, you have more things to practice. You need to control what appears on the monitor. Be mindful of what the background looks like. Whatever is on the wall behind you will be much more distracting on a monitor than in a live meeting, so it’s wise to keep a plain backdrop to keep you as the focus. For the same reason you need to avoid clutter behind you. Lighting is also more important in a virtual meeting than a live meeting. In a live meeting it only matters whether the lights are too bright or too dim. With the camera you need to make sure your face is adequately lit. It helps therefore to have lamps that you can move around in your practice sessions to get the appearance you want.
Practice with the microphone, too. It’s best not to use built-in microphones, and especially not the microphones on cell phones or tablets. You need to make sure the microphone picks up your voice but not other ambient sounds like a ticking clock, room ventilation, or any noise out in the hall. You need to make sure that your voice isn’t coming across as too loud or too soft.
For more highly structured meetings, sometimes you will be in speaking mode and sometimes in listening mode. Be mindful of when to mute your microphone and when to turn it back on. If you’re conducting a larger meeting with participants at many different sites, it is best to have someone else operating the equipment so you don’t have to be distracted by the technology.
Whether you’re meeting is large or small, cloud-based videoconferencing has some important advantages over face-to-face meetings or more traditional videoconferencing. With careful planning of the content of the meeting and learning to be comfortable with the audiovisual equipment, you can have a very successful meeting that will benefit everyone.