How to manage an efficient online conference

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online conference efficiencyAs we all adjust to the new realities of working remotely while we self-isolate during the Coronavirus pandemic, we still need to maintain contact with staff, clients, suppliers and others where online conference calls and video meetings are proving much better than the phone.
But how do you avoid an online conference descending into anarchy with people talking over each other?
There are some simple rules that are not so different from those we adopt during face-to-face meetings.
One of the meeting platforms that is becoming increasingly popular during the pandemic has been Zoom, but there are plenty of others such as Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business and even WhatsApp. Security is an issue and all are constantly improving their security measures following concerns about uninvited intruders, in particular for Zoom which seems to have become the most popular platform.
It is important that the chair should host (convene) and be familiar with the technology since each platform has tools to manage the meeting. Like all other meetings, they need an agenda and discipline over time keeping so it is best that those invited know in advance what topics are to be discussed and for how long. It also helps to ensure key contributors are prepared with any presentation material they need to share.
Confirmation of availability is no different to face to face meetings such that once the attendees are confirmed a notice of the meeting in the form of a Zoom or other invite, which for most will request confirmation of attendance and automatically update everyone’s calendar. The invite also includes a URL for automating the login to the meeting but it makes sense to practice setting up meetings so you are familiar with the technology and invitation settings such as the need or not for passwords and waiting rooms which are all features set by the host as part of setting up the meeting. Once mastered this is straightforward.
The notice should include an agenda, with notes and login details.
It makes sense that the organiser as host opens the meeting shortly beforehand monitors participants’ arrival in the waiting area so they can approve attendance although for large meetings I would recommend you don’t use the waiting feature since it will distract you.
Participants can normally attend meetings using any device they wish including via landline phones so organisers should specify if video is necessary with the notice. For team meetings and internal ones of fewer that about 40 participants I suggest everyone should be able to see each other as this reinforces involvement.
Everyone speaking over each other is a problem so the chair may need to manage this as a discipline to master. To help their is a Participant feature allowing each Participant to raise an electronic hand which the chair can see in the Participant’s video feed and invite them to speak.
Again, learning to switch your microphone on and off  or in the case of the host, switching off everyone’s microphones centrally is another discipline we need to learn and is particularly useful for those at home with a noisy background or children in the house.
Taking notes is another discipline which can be done traditionally although most platforms offer a record feature and in some cases the host can allow or not Participants to make their own recording. It makes sense to cover this at the beginning of the meeting.
The chair essentially manages the online meeting or conference like they would do normally but everyone is logged in remotely.
While not being in the same room makes it harder to pick up the non-verbal signals that we take for granted in face-to-face meetings, video meetings are much better than phone calls because you do see everyone’s reactions.
In many ways, an online conference or meeting is no different from any formal workplace meeting, but it does highlight the importance of a strong chair and the need for courtesy, which, of course, should be features of all meetings.