Build a better meeting; don't bust the budget

By Laura Haight

Virtual workers, remote teams, out-of-town contractors. These are the new-workers. Armed with smartphones, laptops (or laplets), and an array of specialized apps, the new-worker is a powerful ally for your business.

To bring these new-workers into the team, an entire segment of online services and software has arisen to provide online collaboration including phone conferencing, online meetings, interactive breakout rooms and even seminars and conferences. High end teleconferencing suites running the gamut from multi-screens, mics and articulated cameras to telepresence systems are prohibitively expensive for most businesses.

But building better meetings for your team and clients requires equal parts of technology and common sense -- and doesn't have to bust the budget.

Audio. Nothing is more important than being able to hear each other clearly. If you are using VOIP via a connected computer, make sure the computer is centrally positioned on your conference table and invest in a omnidirectional microphone that will connect via USB. That will help, but conference phones are better, especially if they’re equipped with mics that can be extended to the ends of the table. Expensive phone systems aren’t in the budget for a lot of businesses. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do better than a cordless phone with the speaker function on. $500 to $600 in a dedicated conference phone with omni mics and much higher audio gain can make the difference between frustrating and unproductive meetings, and truly useful discussions.

Use your webcams. The remote staffer has a lot of challenges. First they can’t hear you clearly and now they can’t see you. There’s nothing worse than sitting on the phone or online in a group meeting and hearing everyone else laughing about something going on in the room that you can’t see. Nearly every mobile device has a webcam. Use them. Because most of us don’t have high end conferencing cameras or telepresence technology in our meeting rooms, I’d even go so far as to suggest each employee bring their mobile device - smartphone, tablet, laptop to the meeting and sign on separately. Turn the sound off, but that way they can be seen. There’s no cost, you already have these.

Project. Ever been in a meeting where the computer running the online meeting software is positioned at the end of the 10-foot-long conference table and everyone in the room is squinting and jockeying for position, struggling to see. Ultimately, it becomes so frustrating that you stop using it and the remote staffer doesn’t see anything anymore. Even for the most tightly budgeted small business or nonprofit, there is a very cost effective solution to this problem. Go to the store and buy a 36”-42” flat panel internet-connected TV ($300-$400). You don’t have to have any TV service, so long as it has the capability to connect to a wi-fi network. Now get a Chromecast, Roku, Amazon Fire Stick, or Apple TV. (I’m pretty sure Chromecast is the cheapest - $35.). If we’re all going to be on the same productive team, we need to be looking at the same things.

Online meeting service. Most online conferencing services offer “freemium” levels that give you a taste of their systems, but may leave you hungry for more. That gets you to opt up to a paid account. Sometimes it’s worth it. But think carefully about the services you really need. Meeting size matters - most systems start with a small number (3-5) at the free level - but more important are the tools. Screen sharing seems basic, but it’s not the same as passing control. That function is what let’s multiple people work on a single document. Can you transfer completed documents or meeting notes to the participants through the meeting itself? Can meetings be recorded and replayed easily? Is there a limit to the number you can store? And mobile capabilities are critical. Can I join (and present) from my tablet? That may be important to some of your team. Even with Go to Meeting, WebEx or Fuze, you can pack in a pretty robust set of tools for $20-$40 per month.

Test and document. Take the time to learn how your system works and document it not only for your staff but for customers and clients you may need to meet with remotely. Nothing is more frustrating than spending 10 minutes of a 30 minute meeting troubleshooting a remote attendee’s problem bringing up a document. Yikes! You will look like a class act if you provide a brief (I stress brief) guide to using your online meeting services along with the invite. And you will reclaim a ton of wasted time.

We did spend a little money. But a better meeting experience is worth the investment if it pays off in productivity, team collaboration and a putting your most professional foot forward.