Online Meeting Guide: Software And Strategy
Table Of Contents
Modern videoconferencing services are easy to use, and available to nearly anyone with a computer or smartphone. The ability to connect and meet with people online means we’re no longer limited by geographical location. Furthermore, countless websites provide us with a wide variety of tools and resources for conducting meetings, planning and executing projects, and reducing the amount of printed paper traditionally needed to get things done.
The purpose of this guide is to introduce you to many of the popularly used, free, or relatively inexpensive, online resources and tools for holding meetings online and working collaboratively on projects, reports, presentations, documents, and the like. I also provide tips and suggestions for how some resources are more useful than others, what you might consider as you make choices about which resources you need for your team or committee.
Keep in mind that while holding meetings using online videoconferencing can often save time and money, you still need to work within the limitations of videoconferencing. Additionally, holding meetings online still requires just as much meeting preparation as for traditional face-to-face meetings. In chapter 4 I provide a basic overview for preparing for and conducting meetings. I also suggest books that go into more detail about this subject.
The guide is by no means comprehensive. As you research and try out different resources, you will gain a better sense of what your specific needs are for online meetings and project building.
In writing this guide I assume you have basic to intermediate understanding how to use a computer, navigate the Internet, and register for online services. I provide a basic overview of various online resources, and as you register on most sites you will see the developers of those sites do a pretty good job of providing step-by-step instructions for using their tools and services.
But before we get started exploring online meeting sites and resources, there are advantages and disadvantages to videoconferencing meetings–compared to traditional physical face-to-face meetings–you should consider when deciding the best options for meeting with your team, committee, or group.
Advantages of online meetings:
- Virtual meetings can be held with participants from across geographical regions, reducing travel costs.
- Online meetings are cost effective, allowing for members to share documents, websites, and other media via cloud services or over the Internet, reducing the need for paper agendas, reports and other documents.
- Online meetings can be recorded and archived for later review.
- Online meetings can be conducted in comfortable settings, such as a participant’s home or office, or even in an Internet café.
- Video conferences allow for visual communication between participants, making it possible to recognize non-verbal communication.
Disadvantages of online meetings:
- Virtual meetings can be interrupted by technical errors and problems (e.g. poor internet connections, poor sound or video quality, web browser issues, and computer malfunctions.)
- Some virtual meeting participants may lack the needed computer and Internet skills to adequately participate in online meetings.
- Virtual meetings don’t always allow for face-to-face and physical contact between participants, which is useful for building interpersonal relationships.
- Virtual meetings may not always be conducive for interactive workshops, training sessions, and large groups of say ten or more people.
Though this guide will describe free and popular online meeting services including Meetings.io, Google Hangouts, and LiveMinutes, there are over a dozen more top videoconferencing sites you should check out and consider. Note, however, that some of these sites, such as Tinychat, Sifonr, and Faceflow are basically for very personal video chats, and may not be appropriate for formal online meetings. Other sites like Skype and Go To Meeting are powerful, but require premium, paid accounts for group meeting access. The sites I cover in this guide are largely free and accessible via all computer platforms. Here is a list of other sites I don’t cover in the guide, but all function in similar fashion as the ones I describe in the following sections.
The Features to Look For
The following are features you will want to consider when you choosing an online videoconferencing tool.
- Is the service cross-platform? This means can it be accessed on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux operating systems. Most services are cross-platform, but not all of them.
- What is the maximum number of participants for the service? For example, Google Hangouts is limited to 10 participants at a time.
- What is the price of the service, and how limited are the free options?
- Can URL links be shared to invite others to the meetings, or does the service require participants to have a registered account in order to participate in a videoconference?
- Does the service allow for access to online meetings via a smartphone or tablet?
- Does the service allow for built-in conference calling?
- Does the service include built-in collaboration tools for creating documents, brainstorming lists, and taking polls?
- Is the video conferencing tool a part of a larger group account that allows members to add message threads, documents, tasks, etc?
- Does the service include an instant messaging feature so participants in the video conference can share messages privately and publicly with one another?
- Can videoconference meetings be saved and archived for later viewing?
- Does the service include options for desktop screen sharing, so the participants can view each other’s computer desktop?
- Does the service allow you to schedule and send links to the conference page several days before the meeting? Does it provide a permanent link for individual online meeting spaces?
- Are there built-in file sharing features that can be used during a videoconference meeting?
- Does the service include a built-in calendar and address book, or does it at least integrate with such tools as Google Calendar or Exchange?
Which online service you use will depend on the type of meetings you hold, i.e., formal or informal; permanent or changing group members; private or public. If you’re using the service for a permanent group or committee, you and a few other members should discuss the type of online features you think you will need for holding online meetings. If you’re looking to hold public meetings and presentations, you should consider a service that is easily accessible to new users.
Holding online meetings can save a lot of time and expenses, but you also want to keep in mind the number of other online tools your team or committee members will have to access in order to meet and work on projects. The more tools group members have to access, the more difficult it is to manage messages and collaborate on documents. For this reason, Google and its Google Hangouts feature, for example, may offer some of the widest range of tools and services for registered Google members.
However, the user interface of Google services can often be challenging to use, especially for those new to Google. If you have team members who are not existing Google users, they will not only have to set up and learn how to use a Google email account, but they will also have to learn how to use the Google Drive applications, set up video conferencing, and possibly use the Google+ social networking pages and communities. Thus, if you constantly add new participants for each meeting, you will want to select a service that participants can quickly access without setting up a membership and getting acquainted with all the tools. Meetings.io is a free service that allows for this type of quick set up.
Also keep in mind that most online videoconferencing services don’t offer the tools you need to actually plan and conduct meetings. So will want to look into services like yaM.com or MyCommittee.com, which I discuss in Chapter 5.
In the following sections of this guide, I provide an overview of free popular online meeting services. Which service you choose will of course depend upon your unique needs, but hopefully this guide will be helpful in making those considerations. I recommend that you try out a few services before settling on one, so as to make sure you’re getting all the features you need for your group or clients.
One of the quickest and most elegant online meeting tools I recommend is Meetings.io. The service makes it easy to meet up with up to five people online at a time, and the site works well for presentations, product demonstrations, client conferences, and just plain old social networking.
Meetings.io doesn’t require site registration, unless you want to set up your own custom profile page with a permanent URL. You can share the assigned URL with others, and after they link to it they simply need to set up their video and audio connections. This online conference tool is a great way to connect with clients or existing groups without them feeling overwhelmed by too many online features and services.
You can also create a custom Meetings.io page with a name and sub-title, in which the URL includes any name you give it (e.g., https://meetings.io/bakari). A personal page is like inviting clients into your virtual office or demo room. You can also send direct links to your social network sites from within your Meetings.io page.
You can schedule instant, un-scheduled meetings, or you can set up a date, time, and duration for future meetings. In addition, from within the service you can send a request to others to join a meeting you are hosting, and recipients just need to link to and set up their webcam and microphone to join it.
- Share a permanent URL to scheduled meetings.
- The ability to name meetings.
- The ability to require permission to enter a meeting.
- Live desktop screen sharing.
- Live chatbox.
- Built-in personal notepad for each participant.
- File sharing between participants.
- The ability for participants to turn off their microphone or webcam.
- Built-in meeting timer that begins when each participant signs into the meeting.
- The ability for participants to set their videocam screen to landscape or portrait mode.
- The ability to switch to a different connected camera or microphone source.
- The ability to adjust the speaker volume and microphone gain.
- The ability to set the meeting space to full screen mode.
Features Not Included:
- No built-in document creation tools, except for the notepad feature.
- No tools for setting agendas or keeping meetings.
- No ability to collaborate on documents.
- No mobile app access, though developers say support is coming soon for the iPhone.
- No private chat feature.
Google launched Google+ in 2011 to be a social network in the tradition of Facebook and Twitter. When you register for an email account with Google you automatically get setup for a Google+ page, which is an online space where you can connect with other Google+ users, join topical communities, and hold what are called Google Hangouts and Events – both free videoconferencing platforms useful for holding private and public meetings.
I have written in detail about how to use Google Hangouts for holding meetings – the software has evolved since, but the core features remain.
Users of Google Hangouts can hold videoconferences with up to 10 people. If you host a Hangout, you send an invite to members of your Google+ circles and/or direct emails for your scheduled Hangout. People who are not Google+ members can also join Hangout video conferences if they are sent an invitation in the form of a URL link. A Hangouts host or another participant can also add participants by phone call, but this feature is limited to one phone participant at a time. (See additional instructions below setting up Hangouts meetings.)
Google+ and all its features are available in its iOS (iPhone and iPad) and Android smartphone apps, which users can use to participate in Google Hangouts as long as their device includes a videocam and microphone.
Before a Hangouts meetings is held, be sure to remind participants that it’s best to use a headphone with a mic to avoid ambient noise or audio feedback during the video conference.
Participants simply need to set up their webcam and microphone to participate. However, if they haven’t already done so, participants will need to install the on their computer a Google voice and video plugin. If you have team members who are new to Google, you should provide them this link for instructions on how to get started with Hangouts.
Google+ and Google Hangouts are both a part of a sort of ecosystem which includes the following features useful for private and public online meetings:
- Google+ works like Facebook in that it allows users to build a following and share online content.
- Google users can easily schedule events and meetings on their Google calendar and share dates with other group members or clients.
- Google Hangouts is an instant video sharing service that allows for up to 10 people including the host to join.
- Google contains a Google Drive service, which consists of document creation tools that can be used within the videoconferencing Hangouts area.
- Hangout participants can use built-in shared notes and a whiteboard during the online meetings.
- Participants can watch a YouTube video at the same time in the Hangouts area, and use the chat box on the right side of the Hangouts page for discussion.
- Hangouts include a chatbox for group participants.
- The Hangouts meeting space also includes built-in screen sharing.
Starting A Hangout
You start a hangout by going to your Google+ plus page and clicking on the yellow Hangouts button on the left side of the page. If it’s not there, you should find it tucked inside the “More” menu item on the left side of the page. Next, click on the red “START A HANGOUT” button at the top of the page.
If you have the appropriate Google plugin already installed on your computer, you can proceed by giving your Hangout a name, and adding invitees by individual names, one or more of your Circles, and by email addresses. The people you invite to a Hangout will receive Google+ notification if they are a member of one of your Circles, or by email.
Note, if you’re going to have regular Hangouts meetings with the same group of people, you should create a Google+ Circle for your group members so you can easily send out invitations.
Typically, invitations are sent for Google Hangouts at about the time they are being held, but there’s a way to preschedule invites to a Google Hangouts. Here’s how:
- Click on the Events button on the left side of the Google+ page.
- Click on Create Event.
- Add the relevant information for your event and participants (in your Circles or emails) you want to invite.
- Click on the Event options button and choose the appropriate options under Basic.
- Click on the Advanced button and select Google+ Hangout.
- Click the Invite button and all your listed participants will receive a Google+ notification in which they can RSVP for the Hangout.
If you want your Hangout to be viewed by the public, and automatically saved to your YouTube Channel, you can enable Hangouts On Air, another feature of Google+.
Hangouts On Air works similarly to regular Google Hangouts, and can include up to 10 participants, but On Air events can also be publicly viewed by anyone who has a link to the event.
Features Not Included:
- Prescheduling Hangouts is not as straightforward as it should be.
- There’s no built-in private messaging feature for Hangouts participants; however Google+ members can use the private Chat feature out of the Hangouts area.
- There’s no built-in templates for creating agendas or keeping minutes.
- Hangouts meetings cannot be archived offline without saving them to YouTube first.
While Google Hangouts may be a useful service for hanging out with your Circle contacts, a more formal and less obtrusive service like LiveMinutes may be better for formal online meetings. And whereas Google Hangouts puts participants at the center of its platform, LiveMinutes puts team collaboration tools at the center. LiveMinutes is more like a virtual office than a social network. It has a clean user interface, and it is easy to set up a videoconference with a few simple clicks.
- Participants can connect with a LiveMinutes meeting via a web browser, phone or Skype. Up to 9 people can participate in a meeting at a time.
- Each meeting is assigned a unique Room Link, which can be shared.
- Visitors can visit a meeting without registering an account; however, they will not be able to view meeting reports online or receive invitations to do so.
- Participants can also connect with a meeting via phone call and pin.
- The ability to share, annotate and collaborate on imported documents in the meeting space. Documents can come from any source on your computer, and they can be saved to the LiveMinutes workspace.
- Instant chat between participants.
- Integrates with Evernote and Dropbox, making it easier to import and export documents.
- Live sketch tool for collaboration between all participants.
- All LiveMinutes meetings are saved and archived for later viewing.
- After a meeting is closed, a professional report, including all the documents collaborated on, can be shared and downloaded as a PDF.
Features Not Included:
- No desktop screen sharing.
- No dedicated templates for developing agendas, taking minutes, or creating a tasks list.
- No private chat feature for participants.
- As of this writing, no mobile app access support.
Wiggio (Working In Groups)
Wiggio is another online videoconferencing application that provides an office-like platform, and several handy tools (e.g., calendar, to-do list, poll taker, document sharing) for planning and managing projects. Wiggio is a great collaboration service for clubs, schools and classrooms, and businesses and organizations. Its videoconferencing features allow for meetings of up to 10 participants at a time.
- Easy setup of a group account with a dedicated group email account.
- Multiple groups can be created.
- Documents can be uploaded to groups and shared.
- Each group gets their own calendar for scheduling events, meetings, and due dates.
- Group participants can hold virtual online meetings and conference calls.
- Virtual meetings can be prescheduled, and potential meeting dates requests can be emailed to group members decide upon.
- Participants can join meetings via custom URL and password, phone call and pin, or by entering a meeting ID.
- Links to online meetings can be shared to Twitter and Facebook from within the meeting area.
- Participants can be notified about a meeting via text and email message from with the group account.
- Screen sharing is allowed.
- Instant chatting between online participants.
- Whiteboard collaboration between members.
- iPhone app support which includes most of the features found in the online platform, except the videoconferencing feature.
As you can see, Wiggio is one of the most feature-rich of the services outlined here. The site includes short tutorials about each of its features, which can be viewed within the meeting area. The online application may not be as easy to use as Meetings.io, but it is very useful for groups, committees, and teams who work together on a regular basis. The wide variety of features Wiggio offers means participants can plan and collaborate easier on projects, without having to use several other online tools.
Features Not Included:
- No dedicated templates for developing agendas and minutes.
- No integration with Evernote, Dropbox, or Springpad.
- Can’t use the iPhone Wiggio app to participate in video chats.
Cloud Services and Document Sharing
Most meetings – both online and off – revolve around getting things done. When meeting to plan events, work on projects, evaluate budgets and brainstorm ideas, we are collaborating as a team or a committee to accomplish agreed upon goals and tasks. When it comes to collaboration and team work, the Internet provides some awesome tools for working and collaborating more efficiently, while at the same time reducing the amount of paper, emails, and phone calls we need to use to get things done.
When I start a new project, I typically create a new Evernote, Springpad, and/or Dropbox folder. For me, these cloud storage services are mainly for syncing documents, notes, and bookmarked webpages between my computer and mobile devices. I rarely use the local Documents folder on my computer anymore. It doesn’t make sense to do so when I work between multiple devices.
But I also use these storage services because they are a convenient way to share documents with people I work with. I share the content of my online folders with a few simple clicks. If the other team members I work with are Internet savvy, we can share folders and reduce the amount of emails for sharing and communicating documents and notes.
With cloud-based services like Evernote, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Springpad, you can share links to notes, files or folders in your account via email, a social network, or any website.
Choosing a Cloud Service
The best way to choose and use a cloud service for your team or group is to survey what cloud services they already use; that is, unless your company or organization already uses an enterprise platform like Dropbox, Evernote, or Google Drive. Each of these cloud services has its advantages and disadvantages, but I would say that Google and its cloud platform Google Drive has, at this point, the widest range of free tools and services – though the user interface of Google Drive, in my view, may not be as intuitive and attractive as Evernote and Springpad.
If each member of your team already has a Google account, Google Drive makes it easy to share Google calendar events and collaborate on documents. Most of Google’s office suite of services also integrate with Google Hangouts. Google is widely accessible, and most of its services are free, as long as you don’t mind occasional ads.
If your team members are using different cloud services, you might want to decide as a group to use a single service for group projects and meetings so that collaboration between members is more efficient. Also be prepared to switch to a different service after you figure out what your team collaboration needs really are. If your main needs are file sharing between group members, then Dropbox should suffice. But if you want to collaborate on writing documents, Google Drive, Evernote, or Springpad may be better choices because each of these cloud services has a built-in document creation application which I discuss more in the following section.
Dropbox and Google Drive
I recommend Dropbox and/or Google Drive as sort of universal file storage platforms that offer the best and easy-to-use services for storing, managing, and sharing files on any computer – not to mention on most popular smartphone devices and tablets. Note, however, the biggest missing feature for Dropbox: it doesn’t contain a built-in text editor application like the other cloud storage services. Google Drive, on the other hand, works just like Dropbox – but it also contains a suite of office applications for creating documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and more.
Though I use both Dropbox and Google Drive, I primarily use Dropbox for all of my document and other media files, mainly because it integrates so well with other popular mobile applications on my iPhone and iPad. As it gains more users, Google Drive will eventually expand and integrate with other mobile apps and devices.
Dropbox does a magnificent job of serving as your cloud-based Documents folder. You can download and install the Mac, PC, and mobile app versions of Dropbox to your computer(s) and supporting mobile devices, and then all of the documents and media files you add to your Dropbox account get automatically synced between your computers and devices. You can also go online and access your Dropbox from within any web browser.
So say you create a Word document on your computer and save it to a folder in your Dropbox account, with Dropbox you will be able to access and modify that document on your other supporting computers and mobile devices, and vice versa.
For team projects, Dropbox is very useful for sharing files and folders. For instance, you can right- or Control-click any file or folder you have saved to your local or online Dropbox account and get a unique URL that can be shared publicly via email or anywhere online. The link will enable others to view and download the file online, whether they are Dropbox member or not.
You can also privately share entire folders with other members of your team, who must also register a Dropbox account to access the folder. To share a folder in your Dropbox, right- or Control-click on the folder you want to share – either on your local machine or online Dropbox account – and select Share this Folder. From there you will be taken to the share window where you can input or import email addresses for the people you want to share the folder with. Notice also you can select to allow those designated contacts to in turn invite others to share the folder.
Users you share folders with will be able to view and edit files within that folder.
Note: Dropbox offers up 2GB of free storage, but you can get more by inviting your participants to register for an account, or you can pay $99 per year for up to a 100GB of storage.
Google Drive works the same way as Drobox. It starts you off with 5GB of free storage, in which you can save any type of files to your account. Like Dropbox, you can download and install the Google Drive application that syncs and mirrors all of your Google Doc documents in your online account. You can also access Google content on your mobile devices that support the Google Drive mobile app.
As I pointed out before, the advantage of Google Drive is that it has built-in applications for creating text documents, spreadsheets, presentations, online polls, and forms. These applications are not downloaded to your computer, but are accessed through your Google account. You never have to install or upgrade the software on the computer. You can export documents created in Google Docs and open them in application like Word and Excel.
You can also share Google Drive documents with other Google and non-Google users, but the process is not quite as easy as with Dropbox, Evernote, or Springpad. You have to go online to your drive.google.com account, check the box next to the file or folder you would like to share. Next, click the Share button above the listed documents.
The settings options for Sharing will pop up, and it will include a unique URL for the document you want to share. You can choose to share that link publicly or privately with the people on your Collaborators list, who will most likely also have a Google email address.
Unfortunately, you can’t share documents directly from the Google Drive application, folders or files stored on your local drive as you can with Dropbox, Evernote, and Springpad.
Note, however, that the biggest advantage for using Google Drive and its document creation applications is that you and other members of your team can collaborate on documents literally at the same time – you can actually watch edits made by others in real time, and they can see yours. With Dropbox, your team members will have to download files and open them on their computer or mobile device in order to edit or add content to it.
Basic Evernote Sharing
Evernote and Springpad – both popular note-taking services – also offer powerful document and folder sharing features, which I describe in detail in this MUO article, How To Share Notebooks In Evernote & Springpad . Here I will give a basic overview these services.
With Evernote, you can click on the share button of any saved note in your account, and select link that note on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn networks. This can be done via email, or by copying the URL to your computer’s clipboard and pasting it wherever you like. Links to shared notes will download as a web page, which in turn viewers can save to their Evernote account, and also share with others.
You can also share your individual Evernote notebooks with your team members, but you will need a premium account ($45.00 per year) to do so.
Basic Springpad Sharing
Springpad is popular for creating notebooks to save links to whatever you find on the internet, e.g., recipes, product pages, movie descriptions, books, how-to articles, etc. As I explain in a MUO article, Springpad is visually oriented and appealing to use .
However, you can also use Springpad as a bonafide notebook and collaboration tool where you can create basic text documents, task lists, and add files – including photos and movies from your computer. As with Evernote, you can share links to the notes and other saved content in your Springpad notebooks. Downloaded links can be viewed and shared by anyone you send the links to.
You can also share entire notebooks with other Springpad members, and invite them to contribute notes and other content to your shared notebook. Unlike with Evernote, notebook sharing in Springpad is free. However, note that you can’t set read-only settings for your shared Springpad notebooks. When you share them they’re automatically set up for collaboration.
You can invite contributors to a notebook by clicking on the Settings gear button found on the front of a notebook’s preview icon, or the button to the left of an open notebook. In Settings, you click on Contributors and send invitations to collaborators, who must also be Springpad users. Your notebook won’t show up in their account until they have approved your invitation.
Springpad includes several other free features not available in Evernote or Google Drive. These include alert settings for documents, to-do lists and the like; public sharing of content, and a special research tool for locating book titles, movies, music, recipes, products, TV shows, and videos.
While at first glance Springpad may not look like a cloud solution for businesses or organizations, you may want to view Springpad as a service your group members can use for both private and meeting/project purposes.
Online To-Do Lists
Getting things done requires that we use tools to remind of us of the things we committed ourselves to do. But daily distractions and other responsibilities can cause us to forget or overlook minor or challenging tasks. This is where to-do lists can come in handy. Similar to online videoconferencing services, digital to-do lists can be several times more useful than to-do lists written on paper – because you can collaborate.
The notebook and cloud services I describe in the previous section of this guide include built-in to-do lists that can be shared and used for collaboration purposes. Springpad even includes a free “Remind me” feature that can be appended to any note or to-do list in your notebooks, as well as a dedicated Alarm note that you can set to get notifications in your email. These features also work with the Springpad mobile apps.
If you’re looking for a dedicated, cross-platform to-do list outside of the notebook services I describe in the previous section, you might want to give Wunderlist 2 a try. Wunderlist can be accessed in any online web browser, and is available for download on Mac, Windows, Android, iPad and the iPhone.
- The ability to create different workspaces for different projects.
- The ability to invite your Facebook and Twitter contacts, co-workers, and team members to collaborate and share to-do lists.
- You can create recurring tasks.
- Alarms can be added to tasks which are sent through email and in-app notifications.
- Tasks can be favored.
- Workspaces and lists can be saved and re-used for recurring projects and events.
- Lists and tasks can be tagged with keywords such as “meeting,” “research,” “email,” “contact,”, “report,” “document,” etc.
- Workspaces include a Detail View that list reminders, along with recurring tasks and subtasks.
- The design of Workspaces can be customized.
- Wunderlist accounts are secured using 128 bit SSL encryption over HTTPS.
- Workspaces include a Sticky Notes feature.
- Web browser extensions can be used to quickly add tasks to your Wunderlist account.
Features Not Included:
- You can’t import documents and other media into Wunderlist tasks and workspaces.
- There is no instant messages feature for online discussions.
- Images can’t be added to tasks and notes.
- There’s no integration with other services like Evernote, Dropbox, or Google Drive.
Keep in mind that Wunderlist is a separate service in addition to the other online services you and your team may be using. If, for example, you’re using Google Hangouts or LiveMinutes for online meetings, it might not be a good idea to add a separate service like Wunderlist. It would probably be better to access as many tools possible in one platform. With that being said, if you really like Wunderlist I think it could definitely be used as a primary project planning tool.
Kanban2Go is another task management web application that is a great tool to work with during online videoconferencing meetings, because of its highly visual orientation and ease of use.
- Multiple task management boards can be created for different projects.
- Tasks can be moved/dragged from a board’s “To Do” list, to “In Progress” and “Done”.
- Team members can be invited to collaborate on board of tasks.
- Alarms can be attached to each task.
- Tasks can be tagged and filtered by tags.
- An update status can be added to tasks.
- Tasks can be exported to iCal or Google calendar.
- Tasks can be shared via Evernote and links to boards can be shared to Twitter.
- Boards can be linked to for public viewing or kept private.
- Boards are searchable.
Features Not Included:
- You can’t import documents and other media into Kanban2Go boards.
- There is no instant messaging feature for online discussions.
- Images can’t be added to tasks and notes.
- There is no integration with other services such as Facebook, Dropbox, or Google Drive.
In my experience, the biggest challenge to holding online meetings is not so much using the online software and tools, but rather it is planning and holding meetings and making them as productive as possible. Whenever I attend a meeting, on or offline, where there’s no agenda or appointed facilitator, I pretty much know not much will get done. A poorly planned meeting can be a huge time waster, especially when participants are not aware of their own roles and responsibilities in making a meeting productive. Most people love to talk and socialize during meetings, but they often complain that meetings are a waste of time. However, if meeting participants understand and use strategies for holding effective meetings, meetings can be highly useful for getting things done, especially when working collaboratively.
There are several excellent books on planning and holding effective meetings that I recommend:
- How to Make Meetings Work, by Micheal Doyle and David Straus
- Boring Meetings Suck: Get More Out of Meetings, or Get Out of More Meetings, by Jon Petz
- Meeting Excellence: 33 Tools to Lead Meetings That Get Results, by Glenn Parker and Robert Hoffman
I realize that books about holding effective meetings are not at the top of your reading list, but if you regularly participate in meetings, or are responsible for planning them, reading and using the methods explained in at least one of the above books will be very useful. However, remember that though you as a meeting planner may understand what it takes to hold effective meetings, you are not holding meetings with just yourself. Members of your team, committee, and organization should also be aware of and implement productive meeting practices. Meetings are typically reflective of the overall strength and effectiveness of a business, organization or group.
The following is an outline for planning and holding effective meetings. If you find that your meetings are not productive as they should be, you should actually, at some point, hold a meeting with your group for the purposes of discussing how to make meeting more productive.
You no doubt know that all effective meetings typically include a skilled facilitator, someone who knows how to move the agenda along and keep people focused. But effective meetings also require preparation. You – or someone on your team – needs to take responsibility for planning meetings, which includes setting up a time and location for each meeting, developing agendas, and sending out documents and other resources that will be covered in meetings.
I find that effective meetings are best held on a regularly scheduled day and time. Weekly or biweekly meetings are very useful for developing group participation and cohesion, and if the meetings are planned and held consistently, they should become easier to manage and become more productive.
You should most definitely create a standard agenda for your meetings, which should includes the following items and sections:
- Meeting date
- Meeting start time
- Meeting end time
- Meeting location
- Meeting purpose
- List of participants
- List of meeting reference documents (if applicable)
- For each item, list the following:
- Title or topic
- Short description of the topic
- Person responsible for the item (lead)
- Time duration for the item
- List of reference documents related to the item (if applicable)
Agenda items should be actionable, e.g., Review marketing plan; Brainstorm ideas for revised marketing plan; Approve quarterly budget.
One of the reasons I like using MyCommittee is that it includes a template for setting agendas, and all I need to do is check and uncheck items in the template for each new meeting, and add new items as needed. In MyCommittee, your agenda can be turned into a minute form before the meeting begins. The minute taker records notes, tasks, and assignments during the meeting, and prepares the minutes as a report for review by group participants.
The agenda for a meeting should be sent out at least 24 hours before the meetings is scheduled to be held. With MyCommittee, registered members of the site can log into and view the agenda before the meeting. They can add notes and links to agenda items before the meeting is held.
Agendas should also highlight who is responsible for each agenda item. Tasks and other responsibilities should be divided between group participants so that all of the work doesn’t fall on one or two individuals.
Two useful apps for creating agendas are Meeting Expections and yaM, both of which I discuss in more detail in Chapter 5. With these apps, agendas can be shared via email and as PDFs. See the section on online and mobile tools for other recommendations.
Regardless of which app you use to create an agenda, you should be prepared to post it online so that meeting participants can view it during the videoconference meeting. While group members should be responsible for having a copy of the minutes open and accessible during the meeting, it doesn’t always work out that way. Plus, if your meetings often include guests or new members, you want to have the agenda posted so it can be viewed by everyone. Each of the cloud services I’ve outlined in this guide features a way to share documents quickly using an assigned URL link.
Every meeting should have a facilitator. If a facilitator is not chosen, and there’s no agenda, meetings tend to fall into lots of socializing, and not enough gets done. While it would be great if every member took turns being a facilitator, I’ve found that it is better for one or two members with facilitation skills to do the job, especially if your group is new. Even better, hiring a professional facilitator for special meetings is a good investment. A professional facilitator is, of course, not a member of the group and thus can be more neutral when dealing with conflicts that arise in meetings.
A good facilitator encourages all members to participate, and tries to keep participants focused one agenda item at time. With larger meetings of five or more participants, it’s best for the facilitator to remain a neutral participant, and not share his or opinion about ideas or decisions being made. This way the facilitator can focus on facilitating, and not getting sucked in by arguments and conflicts. A good facilitator also protects individuals and their ideas from attack. Michael Wilikinson’s The Secrets of Facilitation: The S.M.A.R.T. Guide to Getting Results With Groups, and Sam Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (Jossey-Bass Business & Management) are useful books about developing the skills for effective meeting facilitation.
Each meeting should include a minutes-taker, or recorder – someone assigned to take notes of the decisions and tasks made during the meeting, as well as making notes of the names of group members who are responsible for various tasks or assignments. If a meeting is larger than five participants, ideally the meeting recorder would also be a neutral participant, so that he or she can focus on being a recorder. Typically the minutes report should match the items in the agenda. With MyCommittee and yaM, the agenda form is turned into a minutes form at the start of the meeting.
As I described in the section about meeting tools, making use of a minutes form is highly recommended for effective meetings. I suggest MyCommittee or yaM, because if your group meets on a regular basis, minutes reports are automatically archived within your MyCommittee or yaM account. When a minutes reported is completed, you can send a notice to participants to let them know that it is ready for review, or in the case of yaM, minutes report inserted directly in the email that is sent directly to participants.
Agreedo is another useful online source for recording minutes, and if you don’t mind taking minutes using the iPad, a couple of good iOS apps (see the next section) are also useful for creating and sharing professional minute reports.
Another recommendation for minute taking is to include an agenda item set for the end of the meetings to review the tasks and assignments decided upon during each meeting. The recorder simply reads back and clarifies tasks, assignments, and due dates agreed upon. The final minute report should ideally be completed and distributed within 48 hours of the meeting while it’s fresh in everyone’s minds.
Ideally, a skilled facilitator should be able to keep track of the allotted time for each agenda item, for when your group meets on a regular basis, it’s best to start and end meetings on time. A well thought out agenda should include the amount of time needed for each agenda item, but typically the facilitator will need to revise and re-adjust the time as the meeting moves forward. For meetings with more than 10 participants, assigning someone to be a time keeper could be helpful for the facilitator.
If your group is scattered geographically, and/or if your group members use different computer operating systems (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux), you need meeting tools that all your group members can use. If you’re a Mac and iPad user it may be a problem if you use tools and applications that PC and Android users in your group can’t access during meetings.
On the other hand, some online meeting tools and applications are not always as feature rich or as easy to use as desktop applications. The same goes for tablet applications. There are several awesome iPad apps for agenda setting, minutes taking, and project planning, but using these tools during a meeting can sometimes be cumbersome because of the size of the iPad. If all your group participants use the same mobile device, then it’s a lot easier to agree upon meeting tools that will be used by all members.
In this chapter, I recommend online tools for meeting preparation, setting agendas, and taking minutes. Which tools you use will be based the needs of your group and what type of devices and other services you use. I also include links to MUO article reviews that provide more details.
Note: the online tools like Evernote and Springpad that I discuss in the Project Planning section can also be used for planning and holding meetings. The tools described in the following sections are specifically designed for online meetings and related activities. Though not reviewed here, you may also need other online tools during your meetings; these include a stop watch, an online whiteboard, and an online calendar in which scheduled meetings and events can be shared.
AgreeDo is an online agenda and minutes taking application that can be shared and collaborated on both publicly and privately. Each meeting you create in AgreeDo includes logistical information, beginning and ending time of the meeting, list of attendees, and four types of agenda items to choose from: Info, Decision, Task, Topic. You can also attach files that need to be downloaded for the meeting.
For each agenda item the minute taker can add the name of the person assigned or responsible for that item, and the due date for the task or action.
After the agenda is created you can send an invitation to attendees to review and give input to a scheduled agenda. When the meeting starts, the meeting recorder can use the agenda to add notes and actions for each agenda item.
All meetings are archived in your Agreedo account, and they can be printed or exported in Microsoft Excel CSV (UTF-8) format. However, I recommend that you get group members to simply view minutes online as needed.
MyCommittee is one of the oldest online meeting applications which enables users to create agendas and turn them into minutes. MyCommittee consists of a standard meeting template/form that includes logistical information; the names of groups members, guests and meeting attendees; old and new agenda items; and the ability to send invitations to review and modify agenda items to assigned members who log into their account.
Each time you create a new agenda in MyCommittee you can select to click and add agenda items from a previous meeting, rather than having to type them over again. Each agenda item includes a text box for writing a description of the item. You can also add standard agenda items that appear for each new meeting you create.
When you start your meeting, you turn the agenda into a minutes form, and the meeting recorder simply adds notes, actions and decisions during the meeting.
MyCommittee includes a feature for exporting agendas and minutes to PDF form, but as of this writing that feature is buggy, so I suggest that group members simply sign into the group account and review the agendas and the minutes online.
The design of MyCommittee has become somewhat dated, and it doesn’t integrate with any of the popular social networking sites, but it contains all the traditional elements for creating agendas and minutes reports online.
yaM (Yet Another Meeting)
A more recently developed online agenda and minutes application tool that you should definitely take a look at is yaM, which stands for “Yet Another Meeting”. yaM is similar to MyCommittee, but its design is much more up-to-date, and it includes some awesome tools that help meeting participants brainstorm ideas, do product and cost analysis, and integrate with online cloud accounts including Dropbox, Google Calendar, and Evernote. As a web application, yaM is similar to Agreedo, but it is much more advanced without seeming more complicated.
yaM enables you to create your first meeting agenda as soon as you register an account. The platform includes features for creating agenda items, and attaching the time duration and the persons responsible for each agenda item. Your agenda can be circulated to other members either through email or print. If your group members have a registered yaM account, they can access and give input to the agenda created in yaM.
In turn, you use your yaM agenda for taking minutes. Minutes in yaM consist of four types of content: notes, action items, attached files, and input based on a collection of decision-making tools. yaM even allows more than one registered user in a meeting to type input to the minutes in real-time, at the same time.
Where yaM also shines is its collection of built-in collaboration tools that allow members to make a pro/con analysis, product analysis, brainstorm ideas, or vote on important decisions. There’s also a tool for what is called a SWAT analysis, which entails discussing and recording the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of a particular project, idea, or decision.
As with the agenda, the minutes can be circulated via email, printed reports, or simply accessed by registering online. yaM makes it easy to archive agendas and minutes, and to selectively copy and paste agenda items from previous meetings to create a new agenda.
If your group or committee is serious about using meetings to collaborate and get things done, you owe it to yourself to check out yaM. It allows you to create up to 10 free meetings per month, with up to five participants per meeting. A premium account allows for unlimited meetings and participants, customizable interface, and SSL encryption for $9.99 per month.
Doodle For Scheduling Meetings
Scheduling meetings can get very cumbersome, especially when meeting with a group whose members are spread apart geographically. This is where Doodle.com comes in. Doodle enables you to post online an event or meeting in which invitees can pick which date and time slots they are able to attend. All individual responses will be shown, and you choose which date and time works best for everyone. Polls can be made both public or confidential for only you, the administrator to see.
For additional online tools, check out Angela Alcorn’s 10+ Great Online Tools for Group Co-Ordination & Meetings .
The iPad and other similar tablet devices have become increasingly popular for accessing the web, writing, reading and storing documents and ebooks, and using countless mobile apps that help us get things done.
The iPad is still the best selling and most widely used tablet device. It includes an on-screen keyboard, but you can also use an external keyboard for faster typing. Nearly all the services I’ve described so far in this guide can be accessed on the iPad, either via mobile web browser or directly in apps built for services like Google+ (which also includes Google Hangouts), Google Documents, Evernote, Springpad, and yaM. The iPad is very portable, lightweight, and fairly easy to navigate.
However, though the iPad can be used as a laptop replacement , I don’t highly recommend it as a device for heavy-duty meetings. An actual laptop is much better.
A few drawbacks to the iPad is that you can’t have more than one application open on the screen at a time. There’s no built-in clipboard manager for storing multiple snippets of texts. And even if you’re using an external keyboard to type on the device, in most cases it’s not going to be as fast and efficient as typing on a laptop.
Despite these drawbacks, there are many creative and extremely handy iPad apps useful for planning and conducting meetings. In fact most of the following apps I describe would make great Mac and PC applications because of their novel approach to helping users produce agendas and minutes reports.
Another plus for using the iPad is most of the apps in the iTunes App Store are relatively affordable, ranging on average from $0.99 cents to under $5.00. After you pay for and download an app, all updates are free. So if you have an iPad or plan to get one, I definitely recommend checking out the following apps to see if they might be useful tools for your meeting purposes.
Meetings – Notebooks for Work
Meetings ($3.99) is an elegant, uncluttered minutes app for the iPad. It’s designed to record the title, date, time, and attendees of meetings, and it also includes space for taking notes, and listing action items, that can be grouped by project or by due date. Though the app could be used to also create agendas, it’s not the best tool for this purpose.
The strength of Meetings is that it creates a professional report of your minutes that you can share via printed copies, email to attendees or exporting as a PDF to Dropbox or a Box cloud storage account. You can manage all of your reports into notebooks where they are listed by the date of the meetings.
Minute Taker is another elegant app that enables you to add a meeting title, date, and time, as well as pull the names of attendees from your Contacts list. As the meeting progresses, you simply add notes, tasks, and assignments. When you want to assign a task to a member, you can simply tap on the list of attendees and add his or her name from the list, which reduces the need of typing names over and over again. Each task can also be assigned a due date and tag.
When the minutes report is ready, Minute Taker creates a professionally designed PDF that includes minutes of the meeting. The multi-column layout of the minute reports is so well done that participants will definitely review them.
Minute Taker works best for small groups, with very defined tasks and responsibilities for each meeting. It is definitely an iPad app that should be built for Mac and PC computers.
Agenda Maker ($0.99) for the iPad and iPhone is one of the few apps in the iTunes App devoted to creating agendas for meetings, workshops, conferences, and events. It’s useful if you need to develop an agenda for lengthy complex agendas where you may need to move items around and fit them in the right sequence.
As you brainstorm and sort agenda items in Agenda Maker, it readjusts and calculates the time for you. You can share the agenda via email, an HTML page, or as an attached PDF.
For the price, Agenda Maker is a powerful, time saving tool that is far more useful than brainstorming and sorting agenda items in a Word processor or on a whiteboard. It would be even better if this app were a desktop or online application.
Meeting Expectations is another agenda creation app that can, in a pinch, also be used as a minute taker. This app allows you to include the obligatory title, date, time, and location for meetings, as well as add attendees from your Contacts list.
I like how Meetings Expectations includes a Purpose field, which should not be overlooked. Every meeting should have a clearly defined purpose, and stating that purpose in the agenda helps remind attendees why the meeting is being held.
As you create your agenda, Meeting Expectations also readjusts and calculates the time, so you don’t have to do so manually. It also includes agenda item presets for taking breaks.
When your agenda is completed, it can be emailed to attendees.
Go Forth and Meet
The tools and services for holding online meetings will continue to grow and expand, and they will address many of the needs and challenges users face when working on projects and figuring out ways to better communicate with one another online. As of this writing, for instance, Google has added a new notebook tool called Keep to their Google Drive services; and Springpad will be releasing a 4.0 version of its notebook services that promises to make it even easier to create and manage documents, bookmarks, and other resources. Likewise, Evernote is currently revising its cloud notebook service, and has released an enterprise service that enables businesses and organizations to backup and search all of their documents online so they are easily available to employees and members.
In this regard, MakeUseOf.com will continue to publish articles and reviews on the best free and affordable online services and applications available for planning and holding online meetings, and planning projects.
Other MUO Articles on Online Meeting and Project Collaboration
- The 6 Best Free Online Meeting Tools to Collaborate With Your Team
- Set Up A Multi-Party Online Meeting The Easy Way With Any Meeting
- 10+ Great Online Tools For Group Co-Ordination & Meetings
- Tips On Planning & Holding Effective Meetings With Google Hangouts
- 5 Reasons Google Hangouts Are Cooler Than Skype For Video Chats
- Why You Don’t Need Desktop Chat Clients Anymore
- Screenhero Enables You to Share Your Computer Screen With Anyone [Mac]
- Join.me: The Simplest Way To Have A Web Conference Call Between Computers & Mobile Devices
- Getting Things Done With Task Management Application Wunderkit [iPhone & Web]
- Get Stuff Done With These 4 To-Do List Tools [Linux]
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