Friday, April 14, 2006

Thoughts for Setting up Effective Virtual Meetings

Working virtually and internationally are two growing challenges for today’s businesses. Time zones, meeting times, connectivity, language barriers, accents, hidden prejudice, hurt pride, and culture are all major players in the success or failure of virtual meetings. When I first started working virtually, meeting times were very convenient. The main reason meeting times were convenient is because we met on U.S. time, my time. What is the issue with meeting on U.S. time?

The world can be divided into three great regions. The Greater America Region includes: Canada, North America, Latin America, and South America. The Greater European Region includes: Europe, Middle-East, Africa, and Russia. The Greater Asia Region includes China, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea, India and many others. The number one challenge is in the time zones. The Greater America Region might be starting their day when it is the end of the day in the Greater European Region and the middle of the night in the Greater Asia Region. How do you meet with everyone around the globe at the same time without inconveniencing someone? You can’t meet globally at the same time without inconveniencing one or two of the regions, someone will be calling into an early or late meeting.

Technology was created to make our lives more convenient, but in reality our lives have been taken over. As I began to understand the issues in meeting virtually and the assumptions we make about other regions, I began to change meeting times based upon the attendees region. If a U.S. presenter wanted to share something I would require three separate presentations or meetings. The burden of time was now the burden of the presenter. A good rule to follow is to allow the inconvenience to impact the few (presenters of information) for the benefit of the many (regional employees). If a presenter desires to train or meet virtually, have them set-up convenient meetings for the regions. Sharing the burden of meeting at all hours helps to build credibility and relationships. However, it also set a standard for abusing the time zone shuffle. The expectation is not always followed due to constraints in connectivity, transportation, access to a shared computer, and pure selfishness.

Here are a couple of ideas to aid you in setting up effective meetings virtually.

  1. Use the Outlook Calendar tool to change your time zone to the time zone you plan on meeting in. Set-up the meeting in the time zone you want to meet in and then change the time zone back to your local time zone. Outlook will convert the meeting time back to your local time. This little trick is easy and fairly accurate to ensure you are working on the same time, in their time. Remember that the Greater Asia Region is twelve plus hours ahead, so Friday meetings are not advisable.
  1. Remember to check an international holiday website to ensure your meeting is an actual work day. Often times, people forget that other countries have holidays too. For example, scheduling a meeting during the Chinese New Year or on Israeli holy days will result in your meeting not being attended.
  1. Don’t forget about prayer time. If a country has a large Muslim population, companies generally provide prayer rooms and prayer times are recognized and supported. Individuals will usually block their calendars to allow themselves less conflict with mandatory prayer.
  1. For large meetings ask everyone to go on mute. Some telephone bridge lines use (*6) to mute and un-mute the phone line. It is important to address the issue of being placed on holdwith background music. Back ground music can be very distracting to the presenter and attendees, if someone places you on hold with music playing until they return. Background noise can also distract. Personally, I have heard many things while hosting meetings virtually. Some of the more interesting virtual noises include; flatulence, dish washing, vacuums, snoring, talking to someone else, restroom noises, flushing toilets, crying babies, doorbells, and dog’s barking. This list is not exhaustive.
  1. Use a convenient web sharing service like WebEx, Macromedia Breeze, Microsoft Live Meeting or others to facilitate and capture questions. Accents and names may cause issues with understanding questions and/or feedback. Having a question typed out for you will enhance your ability to effectively answer questions.Many international attendees in China and India have changed or shortened their names and/or adopted American names in business (sometimes very humorous names).

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