Virtual Manager: Mastering Business in a Networked World

The best virtual meetings treat remote participants as if they're in the room. Here's how to run one

Imagine yourself walking into a meeting. A sensor near the door scans the information on your name tag and transmits it to a computer that's wired to a digital readout at the front of the room. The numbers on the readout ratchet up steadily, like those on a taxi meter, calculating the cost per minute of each participant's time. If there are 10 people present and each is paid $45,000 a year plus benefits, then that meeting costs the company roughly $300 per hour. If your company holds one such meeting for two hours every week, the price tag totals about $31,200 per year.

Most $31,200 expenditures attract some scrutiny in corporate budgets, but when it comes to meetings, time and money are routinely wasted with hardly a thought. And if ordinary meetings are tough to do well, those in which some members participate remotely are 10 times harder. The guy phoning Atlanta from Montreal, for example, doesn't get to see participants' body language. He misses that telltale muttered comment. Taking the floor is, for him, a major production. And when the Atlanta group unrolls a blueprint on the table, he might as well forget it.

To run effective virtual meetings, a manager must create the illusion that remote participants are right in the room. For that you need technology--but the technology has to be so unobtrusive that people forget it's there and can concentrate on the business at hand. The best tactic is to combine software known as "meetingware" with communication technology, such as tele- or videoconferencing.

If teleconferencing via the telephone is your choice, then sound quality is key. Conference calls on low-quality speakerphones lose not only subtle communication cues but sometimes whole words. Therefore, companies that conduct frequent teleconferences should invest in the best speakerphone system they can afford.

Stand-alone speakerphones, as opposed to ordinary phones with small microphones built in, generally come with a large, domed microphone and a speaker--a setup that costs about $350 to $900. You can also get satellite microphones to pick up comments from people in the far reaches of a room. But first pay attention to room acoustics and seating arrangements. Round tables and small rooms usually work best. I've successfully used one good speakerphone for 15 people in a small room with excellent acoustics. For really great sound, you can wire a room specifically for conference calls, with speakers in the walls and a microphone at each chair, or with one ultrahigh-end central mike. These systems can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $20,000, but you'll be giving remote participants the best virtual presence money can buy.

To solve the problem of remote participants not being able to interject comments, choose a speakerphone with "full-duplex" capability, which allows remote and local parties to talk at the same time and still hear one another. However, be aware that in areas where telephone lines have insufficient bandwidth, phone companies don't provide the necessary two channels for full-duplex communication. Even so, a high-quality full-duplex speakerphone can still create the impression of simultaneous speech.

Most PBX systems claim to offer three- or four-way teleconferencing, but although those on-site can hear remote callers clearly, remote callers often can't hear one another very well. If you have more than one remote participant calling a central site, you'll need an audio bridge, a small piece of hardware you attach to your PBX. Ask your PBX installer if you already have a bridge capability, especially if you have a newer digital system. If not, you can buy your own bridge for less than $1,000 direct from your PBX supplier or use a conference service provider.

If you choose videoconferencing, use the largest screen possible--at least 35 inches diagonally across. A large screen captures body language and, more important, helps remind others that remote participants are indeed "there." Get the highest-resolution (meaning the fastest) telecommunication line you can afford. Systems running at less than 128 KB and 30 frames per second just won't cut it. As with audio, if you're connecting more than two locations, you'll need a video-bridge service. Stand-alone video bridges, now offered by PictureTel, Sprint, and ACT, are still very expensive (about $20,000 to $30,000) and are changing rapidly--good reasons to use a service a while longer before investing in one.

Once you've got high-quality hardware in place, you can start worrying about running the meeting. The biggest challenge is making sure everyone participates. It's too easy for participants, especially those at remote sites, to lapse into passive observation. One tactic is to give each remote participant an active role, such as taking minutes. A good facilitator should also occasionally take an opinion poll with a show of hands or ask each participant for a quick reaction.

The single best tool I've found for improving meeting participation and quality is meetingware. And the package I've had the most success with is GroupSystems for Windows, from Ventana Corp. Costing $995 per user, GroupSystems works in both conventional and virtual meetings and is available in a small-business version. To run the software, you need a Novell LAN (NetWare 3.11 or higher) or a Windows NT Server 3.51 or higher, an LCD projector, and a PC for each participant.

GroupSystems combines verbal interaction with computer input. All participants sit in front of PCs or laptops plugged into the LAN; remote participants must also place a second call into an audio bridge. Before the meeting, everyone is asked to fill out a onetime registration. I ask people to describe not just their "work selves" but also hobbies or whatever else they'd like to share. Then the system shows that information and a photo of each person on participants' screens.

The facilitator may use a variety of tools to create thousands of different agendas. Some tools, such as brainstorming and categorization, focus strictly on the scope of the agenda itself. A particularly handy feature allows participants to send private messages, which I've found is an excellent way to help forge bonds between people. But where the software really shines is helping groups tackle thorny problems.

At VeriFone, for example, we used GroupSystems to decide how to increase sales in a division. Here's how it worked. The sales director started with an electronic brainstorming session, asking, once everyone was logged on, "What is depressing sales?"

Without speaking, group members typed their thoughts, which appeared anonymously across the top of everyone's PC screen and on a large screen at the front of the room. It was as though everyone--remote participants included--was writing on a big blackboard at once.

Next the facilitator chose the categorization tool and, again anonymously, participants created "buckets" of categories and "dragged" the ideas from the brainstorming session into them. With this tool, participants may copy an idea and put it into another bucket, but they can't erase what another person has done. The faster you can come up with a very specific problem definition, the faster you can see how to solve the problem. For example, in the VeriFone sales meeting, a bucket called "new products aren't selling fast enough" was filled with comments such as "lack of training" and "lack of experience using products." Suddenly it became clear that salespeople needed more hands-on educational activities so they could sell new products more effectively.

Once the major categories are identified, participants can vote on which they consider to be most important. GroupSystems offers many options for voting: for example, there's a simple yes/no format and one that ranks answers on a scale of one to five. If there's no sign of agreement, the facilitator might use the topic-commentator tool, which asks users to type in the pros and cons of each option; then participants can discuss the list verbally until a consensus is reached.

Other meeting software--such as Lotus Notes, Smart Technologies' Smart 2000, Collaborative Technologies' VisionQuest, and NetMeeting, the new entry from Microsoft--are also on the market, but Group-Systems, in my opinion, does the best job of transforming remote listeners into active participants. Still, good tools don't automatically ensure better virtual meetings. The manager must use those tools well and combine them with smart facilitation strategies.

William R. Pape is cofounder of VeriFone Inc., headquartered in Redwood City, Calif. He was VeriFone's first chief information officer and has been operating virtually since 1978.