Conducting Effective Meetings for Virtual Teams

This is a webinar that was presented by Project Insight on February 12th, 2014.

1. Introduction—PM Fundamentals Series
Project Insight is bringing a series of webinars on various topics of interest to project managers. The goal of this PM Fundamentals series is to:
• Deepen your understanding of fundamental project management concepts
• Identify tools and techniques that can be implemented in order to manage projects more effectively
• Discover practical applications for the concepts presented in the series
The series is introduced by Janelle Abaoag from Project Insight. She presents some of the webinars in the series, but today’s presentation was presented by Dr. Patty Malone, Ph.D. For more information about Project Insight, contact Janelle at For information about Dr. Patty Malone, go to her website at

2. Obstacles in Creating Effective Virtual Meetings
The biggest obstacle to creating virtual teams is failing to build team relationships. Some of the symptoms of the lack of team-building that show up in virtual meetings are the following.
• Participants are multi-tasking or zoning out
• Topics discussed are not on the agenda
• Different cultures and languages create misunderstandings
• Attendees don’t understand why they are attending
Regarding the last point, this is a fundamental problem. Does everyone need to be there? People often complain that there are so many meetings, and they are so long, that they can’t get any of their regular work done. Could the entire meeting, or portions of it, be replaced with an e-mail. Rather than having a round-robin, “tell me about the status of your work on the project” type of meeting, couldn’t this be circulated before the meeting, so that the meeting can focus instead on solving problems? Every time person A tells about their status, it DOESN’T INVOLVE ANYBODY ELSE. The others have to just sit there and listen, which is why people get bored and start checking their e-mail, sports scores, etc. However, with the focus on solving problems and getting everyone’s input towards the solution, EVERYONE is involved.

3. Effective Meetings
What are the elements of an effective face-to-face meeting in general?
• Develop ground rules or guidelines (post them on website for company). During a meeting, make sure cellphone is off, return messages afterwards, not during meeting
• Clear agenda—this keeps the meeting on topic and on time
• Outcome driven—should be stated at the outset of the meeting
• Use good interpersonal communication skills to bring the meeting back on topic or to table discussion if it off topic
• Address issues, not personalities
• Don’t bring conflict into a meeting; deal with personality issues OUTSIDE of meeting
• Watch out for non-verbals (e.g., rolling eyes, arms crossed over chest)
• Don’t get defensive—if someone says something criticizing your idea, don’t give in to the first impulse be to be defensive—listen to the other side thoroughly first
• Praise participants: recognize contributions since last meeting
• End meeting on a summary and a high note
• Review meeting afterwards: what worked well, what didn’t (create both “lessons learned” and “best practices” list)

4. Problems with Virtual Meetings …
Many of the same rules for effective meetings listed in paragraph 3 above also apply to Virtual Meetings. However, Virtual Meetings create their own problems.
Basically, any problems in communication that you might have with face-to-face (F2F) meetings are magnified in virtual meetings. Communication skills become more important, because there are increased chances for misinterpretation or misunderstanding.
Part of the problem with virtual meetings, is that there is lack of social infrastructure, the glue that holds the team together. Since virtual teams don’t get a chance to know each other, chances are increased that misunderstandings will occur during meetings.
Multi-tasking is another problem during virtual meetings. Here’s what people are doing:
• Side-conversations: 72%
• Checking e-mail: 64%
• Zoning-out: 54%
• Checking sports scores: 51%
• Leaving room (for remote members who are working from home): 41%

5. … and How to Solve Them!
How to increase engagement in meetings to prevent such multi-tasking? First of all, remember that attention span is 10 minutes AT MAXIMUM during virtual meetings. Break up any information dissemination or discussion into segments of 10 minutes. Have questions, brainstorming, polling, or other mini-activities that encourage collaboration and group participation. .
Ask for individual input from all members of a group may seem time-consuming, but it has good ROI, because it gives trust and buy-in from all members. Even if the group decides against their suggestion, at least their suggestion was heard and considered by the group.
NOTE: If you have training, a combined F2F and virtual TRAINING environment does not work out well, it’s best to split it into a completely virtual and a complete F2F environment.
Label emotions, say you are excited, puzzled, etc., so people can know what your reaction is without the benefit of seeing your face to read the emotions from your expression.
Explain pauses so people don’t think there is a technological problem: “so-and-so is pulling up the numbers, etc.”.
Acknowledge & show appreciation to those who participate.
Listening is more important than ever, and SHOWING you are listening by answering questions or repeating something for clarification is important, rather than just saying, “uh-huh” and nodding your head.
Be aware of dangers of misperceptions and miscommunication. Using slang expressions or telling jokes that depend on word play in a multicultural or multilingual setting can create misunderstandings.
Be responsible for your own engagement. If you are only virtually connected to people from main office, you take the initiative to get involved.

6. Building Virtual Relationships: A Matter of Trust
With telephones and computers as substitute for F2F, what is the driver for success in having virtual teams? One word: TRUST. It’s harder to BUILD trust with Virtual team members, and easier to BREAK.
What are behaviors associated with building trust and breaking virtual teams?
• Not following through—not completing by deadline or not completing at all
• Betraying confidence.
• Not responding to e-mails
• Not sharing enough information: a “need-to-know” policy does not build trust.
It starts with you as leader: GIVE TRUST TO GET TRUST. First, you need to give trust to your team members, by not being a micro-manager, and trust that people will get things done. Start by trusting YOURSELF, then trust your team members.
Lack of communication and interaction erodes trust. Keep people in the loop, having people get enough information as possible.
Be accessible and responsive. With virtual team members, it is important to respond quickly. Get back to virtual team members as soon as possible.
Replicate F2F communication as close as you can.
A lot of companies are using Skype or WebEx, or you can meet people one-on-one before the meeting.
NOTE: this system is called “nemawashi” in Japan and is very effective.
Eliminate blaming: give others benefit of doubt (somebody may be having a bad day)
Give credit & promote your team to others
Be honest & admit mistakes.
Follow through: do what you say, WHEN you say you are going to do it
Ask for team member’s opinions and incorporate them in decision-making process.
Even if you don’t think something is a good idea, express appreciation for the person expressing that, if you disagree, explain why.

7. Developing Leadership
Lead by example & be consistent, inconsistent communication is the biggest problem, when not everybody is involved and the leader is doing all of the communication.
Watch alienating language, people in home office saying “those people” or “the remotes”. Open information sharing, as much as possible to include everybody.
NOTE: When I was working in a Japanese company, the standard joke among American staff was that Japanese give information to the American staff on a “need-to-know” basis, meaning that if you’re an American, you don’t need to know.
Develop shared accountability system!! Who is accountable for each action item, and when is it due. This should be clarified in the meeting and memorialized, and circulated to all meeting participants.
Rotate leadership of meeting. This helps build camaraderie between leader and team members, and between team members. Have team members work together on little projects.
Hold regular one-on-one meetings with each team members. Determine preferences each person has for methods of communication. Some people prefer face-to-face, Skype, etc. create matrix for preferences.

8. Q&A
How do you get silent people to participate?
Call on them by name, ask them FIRST, ask them for information, not “YES/NO.” Have them give their opinion FIRST before the others. Likewise, if you have someone who overshares and loves the sound of their own voice, call on them LAST.

What are some ways of building virtual relationships outside of meetings?
There is a handout on Dr. Malone’s website on ideas for building virtual relationships–check it out on the website
Some of these ideas are:
Virtual coffee hours, happy hours, parties. Fun activities, such as having people take picture of the work space and guess whose it is.

How to handle sidebar conversations?
Create “best practices” list for meetings. Make this one ground rule that facilitator will stop the meeting to stop sidebar conversations if necessary. No one wants to be the one to keep the meeting longer than it has to be.

What if virtual team members do not know each other?
Invest time to develop personal relationships. Build in time in meetings at beginning or end for things that build camaraderie. Have a happy hour or social virtual meetings once and a while, like the 5th Friday (happens 4 times a year). Use this to award cash prize for best idea, or contribution of the week/month. Create a virtual birthday party .
Develop a team website, with bios, personal information. Use social media S=such as Yammer. Use time for acknowledgements of team members.
What about language barriers on virtual teams?

You may need a translator, but ask people to repeat questions, speak slowly, and not use slang expressions.
NOTE: Give incentives to those who want to learn foreign languages or other participants through Rosetta Stone, etc.

How do you combat dealing with negative person on a virtual team?
One good approach is to have team member to have leader discuss the behavior outside of the meeting.
Successful virtual teams do the following:
–Focus on building relationships and community
–Create climate of trust
–Communicate clearly and meaningfully with each other
–Internalize team/company mission
–Recognize interdependence to achieve objectives
–Create positive work environment
Just remember: Teamwork is the fuel which allows common people to achieve uncommon results!


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