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Nine Surefire Steps for Going Virtual When Face to Face Is Impossible

Nancy Settle-Murphy

You're convinced that a two-day face-to-face meeting is essential for hammering out differences, making tough decisions and repairing relationships strained from the pressure of working toward impossible deadlines. You've mapped out an ambitious but realistic agenda, sent the invitations, and meticulously arranged the logistics. But one by one participants bow out due to conflicting priorities, budget constraints and scheduling snafus, forcing you to come up with a plan B that will help you achieve all of the objectives you'd laid out for your in-person meeting. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind as you "translate" your face-to-face meeting into a series of highly-productive virtual meetings that will enable you to produce the kind of results you need.

Compartmentalize your objectives. Break down your overall goals into a series of manageable objectives. For each one, determine what kind of conversation is needed, by whom, and in what order. This will help you decide how many different meetings are needed and over what period of time. If you figure on no more than 90 minutes for each meeting, assume you'll need several remote sessions to replace a two-day onsite session.

Determine who really needs to be involved. For each objective, consider who needs to join and what role each will play. Who needs to participate in the same-time conversation, and who can provide input another way at another time? Include only those who are critical to achieve a particular objective, and let others know how you plan to involve them another way.

Map out a logical sequence and space meetings carefully. In most cases, the sequence of conversations will be critical. Think about how the output from one session feeds into another, and how much work, if any, is required between sessions. Try to space sessions at least 48 hours apart to allow time for reflection and prework. At the same time, don't let too much time go by so that participants lose momentum and forget what they discussed last time.

Build in prework as part of your planning. Think about what people need to know or do prior to the session so that all can immediately engage in a productive conversation on the call. Be realistic about the amount of time participants are likely to devote prior to the meeting. Send out vital documents at least a few days in advance and establish (and enforce!) a ground rule that all must come to the meeting fully prepared.

Establish an asynchronous check-in area. Set up an easily-accessible space where all meeting participants can make introductions in advance, identify challenges, respond to key questions and provide other kinds of input that may otherwise chew up valuable meeting time. Encourage people to add photos and answer a non-work question (e.g. describe what you can see outside of your closest window right now). This way, people can begin to cultivate relationships across boundaries faster than they otherwise might. An added benefit to you as meeting planner: You can sharpen the focus of your meeting agenda based on input from the group.

Leverage technology to speed time to results. Assuming that most same-time meetings will include an audio connection at a minimum, consider what additional technologies would help the team accomplish its goals for each session. What kinds of conversations are required? For example, if brainstorming is needed, consider tools that allow for easy and fast capture of ideas. If anonymity is important to create a level playing field, make sure your chosen tool can accommodate this.

Consider time zones. If your team spans the globe, choose a time that works okay (if not perfectly) for everyone. Depending on the location of team members and the number of meetings, consider rotating meeting times so that no one person or region is always inconvenienced. In some cases, running two identical meetings on different days and at different times may ensure the best participation. Think about how to use asynch meetings when time zones prohibit same-time participation from some.

Reflect cultural differences in your planning. For example, can you expect everyone to answer certain questions out loud on the call, especially if contentious or politically-charged? Will the techniques you might use to rein in a hostile participant in your own culture work with others? Consider the make-up of the team and do some homework about cultural dispositions if you are not sure. Pick up the phone and to reach out to a member whose culture you are not familiar with. Factor in other aspects of culture as well, such as functional or organizational affiliation.

Build on earlier sessions to keep the team moving. Regardless of who participated in each call, make sure you have a way of keeping the whole team informed with concise summaries of each call. Highlight decisions made, actions taken, issues surfaced, and input to consider for the following session. Assign someone to scribe and summarize the results of each meeting and send as soon as possible to everyone. If you use an asynch meeting area, post meeting results here as well. Highlight content that's especially relevant for the next session.

Converting an agenda designed for an intensive face-to-face working session into a series of virtual meetings can be difficult work. In fact, it may take at least double the time to devise a thoughtfully planned series of virtual meetings than it does to create a multiple-day onsite session, simply because so many variables come into play. But with experience and feedback from participants, you'll quickly learn what works best for your organization and be able to plan accordingly for the next time.

About the Author
Nancy Settle-Murphy is a facilitator of remote and face-to-face meetings, trainer, presenter and author of many articles and white papers aimed at getting the most out of remote teams, especially those that span cultures and time zones. Getting Great Results Out of Virtual Meetings is a white paper available only to subscribers of Nancy's newsletter, Communiqué. Go to Nancy's Web site for more information about her services, including Workshops and Webinars.

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