Advances in technology mean organisations are able to use virtual meetings to realise organisational goals, with a saving in both time and cost. Now people can take part in meetings from their computers, phones and tablets. Technology makes possible virtual meetings with employees and clients across national borders, with work-from-home employees and with independent contractors. The outcome is ongoing communication, increased interaction and improved productivity due to less travel (time and energy savings and less pollution).
The definition of virtual meeting varies markedly. A virtual meeting allows participants to join in from multiple locations. It can be any of the following:
- Delivery of information to an audience – for example, a broadcast lecture or a webinar using the Internet to coordinate and manage verbal and audiovisual presentation of information, and questions from the audience
- An exchange of ideas and opinion, as in an Internet chat session or newsgroup, without any attempt to come to a conclusion, or in a private, Wide Area Network (WAN) within an organisation
- A formal and structured even with an agenda or a set of objectives that attempts to come to some form or agreement or decision.
In the last category, virtual meetings can be either formal (with a chairperson, an agenda and formal meeting rules) or informal (with a facilitator). In an informal meeting, group participants manage the meeting with possibly one person acting as facilitator to control the meeting. Group members participate from workstations in their own offices without the need for a conference room. Meetings conducted by electronic conferencing can take many forms: teleconferencing, audio conferencing, web conferencing, and videoconferencing and telepresence (meetings that incorporate high- quality audio and lifelike video to give the feeling of being in the same room with the other participants). A variety of meeting types such as discussions among executives and technical experts, internal team discussions, product demonstrations, and discussions among customers are organised as virtual meetings to enable engagement and discussions throughout such meetings and allows all participants to contribute and vote at the same time and to analyse the voting results. When soliciting input from all participants of a large group, virtual meeting platforms facilitate collaboration and feedback, as well as increased participation from employees at all levels.
Formal virtual meetings
As with traditional formal meetings, participants require a notice of meeting, and agenda and meeting papers forward to them within a stipulated time prior to the meeting. The chairperson presides and acts as the facilitator, and the secretary records those in attendance, apologies, acceptance of the minutes of the previous meeting and reports, as well as the decisions made throughout the meeting. Although virtual meetings obviate the need for participants to be in the same location, managing the meeting requires the chairperson to have specific virtual skills or an assistant conversant with the software.
Controlling the discussion threads
Walker, Collings and Richards- Smith (2003) comment that in both informal and formal virtual meetings the primary role of the chairperson or facilitator is controlling discussion threads. These could be related to the formal agenda items or to the many sub-issues that arise. Controlling the discussion in a virtual meeting requires a different approach from that adopted in traditional meetings. Walker and colleagues describe control in a face-to-face meeting as being achieved ‘either by participants indicating to the chair that they wish to speak (and the chair then informing them of when it is their turn) or by more informal turn-taking mechanisms, where participants observe others to see if they wish to speak’. Managing ‘floor control’ is much more difficult in a virtual meeting. Walker and colleagues recommend devising some method of giving participants the ‘floor’ — for example, by participants sending a private message to the facilitator indicating a wish to contribute, or by the facilitator nominating the next contributor.