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Making Online Meetings Better

Frost & Sullivan market research finds that Web conferencing continues to gain traction in the workplace. Worldwide, the total Web conferencing market generated $1.5 billion in revenues in 2010 and is expected to reach $3 billion in 2015. Value propositions such as improved productivity, enhanced communications, and reduced travel costs are helping to drive this growth.

Despite these compelling benefits, however, Frost & Sullivan's annual end-user survey indicates that while 68% of decision makers are aware of Web conferencing, only 41% use the tool within their organizations--and most of that usage is for sales and marketing or training purposes, rather than internal collaboration. Furthermore, in many companies, the stats around "Web conferencing usage" and "frequency of use" are lower than those of other communications tools, such as instant messaging.

What explains the gap? One reason, certainly, is the fact that many employees still haven't figured out how to leverage the capabilities within a Web conferencing environment to not just hold meetings, but to improve on them as well.

The power of Web conferencing lies in the collaboration tool set that facilitates the sharing of rich information in real time, regardless of where meeting participants are located. However, online meetings can be just as inefficient and unproductive as their in-person counterparts, in part because of avoidable difficulties experienced by meeting hosts or presenters. Usually such glitches are not actually caused by issues with the Web conferencing platform itself. Instead, many issues stem from insufficient preparation and poor use of the technology's built-in collaboration features.

For starters, let's talk meeting equality. Hosts should always ensure that participants have the option of dialing into a meeting audio-only, since not all attendees will have access to the Web; the whole point of virtual meetings is to make them accessible to everyone, regardless of where they are or what device they're using. Along those lines, Web conferences should always offer users the option of VoIP or traditional dialing for the audio portion; many people will take advantage of VoIP, but for those on a cell phone or with sketchy Internet connectivity, a standard dial-in is critical. Finally, it should go without saying that hosts should always close out of non-meeting-related applications; take full advantage of audio-management tools to mute attendee lines as needed; and pre-load any necessary presentations or collateral.

One of the advantages of a Web conference is that it makes it easy to keep the meeting short, since no one is in the same room (all the easier to gab off topic or linger over snacks). But doing so still requires discipline, and meeting hosts should make sure to enforce the rules: comments and questions should be on topic; everything else goes offline. Most online meetings should take no more than 30 minutes. Focus on one or two objectives, and leave with clear and limited action items. If you have multiple issues to discuss, fine--just schedule multiple 30-minute meetings in which to do so, inviting only the most relevant participants to each one.

Integrated desktop video conferencing is available in more and more Web conferencing tools. Take advantage of it during calls that are meant to spur collaboration, but not during calls that are designed to deliver an information dump. If you need your participants fully engaged and sharing ideas and content, you need them focused and participating at all times--and the best way to ensure this is to catch them on camera, making it less likely they will multi-task while on the call. On the other hand, if you're holding a meeting simply to disseminate information, giving attendees the flexibility to take notes, chat, or even get up and walk around trumps the need to keep them fully engaged the entire time. That said, consider alternative options for sharing such information in the first place: some employees will respond best to a live event; others will prefer to access an on-demand recording, or get the data they need from a social media site or file-sharing application.

The inefficiencies endured in most online meetings can be overcome with a few simple steps. User education, training, and experience gained over time are keys to more effective online meetings. For the organization this can mean greater adoption and utilization by the user base. For users, this can mean shorter, more productive meetings and improved job performance.