- Abandon the speaker-phone conference room. Put everyone on the same footing. Insist that each person is in a quiet place in front of a workstation (PC) with a good headset and a "do not disturb" sign. Do not allow mobile phones in airports or cars.
- Use one of the many excellent web-conferencing tools such as GoToMeeting or Webex to name a few. Make sure each participant preloads any needed software and knows how to use the tool. Training sessions may be in order.
- Send out an agenda in advance of the meeting with times, speakers and discussion leaders named. Also send out soft copies of all the materials to be discussed in advance so that people have them in case of technology problems. If needed, preload any slides or other materials on the web conferencing server.
- Assign a Meeting Facilitator to keep everyone on agenda and to monitor the attendees for electronically "raised hands", chat interrupts, etc. The Facilitator should also limit the more assertive people from monopolizing the discussion and draw-out contributions from shy attendees. Note - it is usually better to have a Facilitator who is not the high-ranking manager who called the meeting.
- During the meeting, encourage participants to draw on the electronic "white board" as they speak - drawing like this can be better than body language for getting points across.
- An assigned Notetaker should be taking notes during the meeting. These notes should be visible on the screen to everyone as they are taken - like flip-chart notes in a physical meeting. At a minimum, any decisions or action items should be documented as they are made.
- Leave time at the end of the meeting to go through the decisions and action items. The action items should have a commitment from the person responsible and a time frame or due date.
- Shortly after the meeting, summarize the decisions, action items and other notes taken and email them immediately to all participants and other stakeholders.
Since the participants typically cannot see one another, this kind of meeting needs rules:
- Everyone should agree to actively participate, no sleeping, doing email, surfing the web, etc.
- Rather than jumping in vocally, participants should use the web conferencing tool's "hand raising" or text chat feature to interrupt with a question or point.
- If there is background noise somewhere, that person should mute his/her microphone.
- Take a break at least once per hour to allow bathroom trips, snacks, and stretching. An hour is a long time to sit with a headset on.
- Keep to the agenda. It is a good idea to have a visible "Parking Lot" text area on the screen to track off-agenda items that may be urgent or important.
So how can this type of meeting be better than a face-to-face physical meeting? There are several possible advantages. One is that it limits the side conversations and keeps the attendees focused on the main topic. Secondly, if conducted properly, the meeting is self-documenting. The attendees see the notes as they are taken and can correct the Notetaker in real time if there was a misinterpretation. The various electronic "whiteboards" used, or other shared materials, can also be captured and sent as documentation. Everyone gets the notes immediately after the meeting in a Wiki or other shared digital space.
This kind of electronic meeting also lends itself well to collaboration on documents or designs. Written documents or spreadsheets are easily shared and edited in real-time. There are also excellent software packages for collaborating on mechanical or electrical designs, allowing rotation of the design, mark-up, etc.
One problem with any kind of remote meeting is that it is difficult for workers to gain a mutual understanding of their co-workers personal styles and cultural differences, especially across language and national barrier.. Of course it would be best to meet face-to-face at least once to try to bridge these differences. But in the case that physical meetings are not possible or practical, cultural barriers can still be crossed with the right kinds of collaborative, remote meetings. We have seen "teamwork building" remote meetings, following the format above, that really work. Some suggestions are to invite each participant to submit a funny picture of him/herself and tell a biographical story. Participating in an on-line game together also gives the group the sense of style of each participant.
In summary, investing in good practices for remote collaboration and meetings can save you and your staff much money, time and energy that would be lost to travel. The results of well-run remote meetings can be as good or even sometimes better than face-to-face meetings, and vastly better than "speaker-phone" meetings.