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virtual meetings

Ths president of Cisco Canada, Nitin Kawale, speaks with Cisco employees both in Ottawa and Toronto through a TelePresence machine in Cisco's Toronto office.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Good manners can smooth the way to a sweet business deal on the Web just as well as they do in the boardroom. With Skype and other video-conferencing systems growing in popularity, here are tips from the experts for making your next online meeting a more civilized affair.

1. Be punctual

Schedule a start and an end to your virtual meeting the same way you would a physical one, says Jon Wagner, co-founder of VirtualeTeams, a Brechin, Ont.-based consulting firm. Mr. Wagner signs on 10 minutes early to ensure the technology is functioning. When working globally, he suggests rotating time zones as well as agreeing on a standard time zone for publishing meeting times, such as EST (Eastern Standard Time) or GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). "If you have a virtual team in different time zones, don't always make it your favourite time," Mr. Wagner says.

2. Cross-cultural courtesy

Participants working in a second or third language should be given more time to think and speak, Mr. Wagner says. "When I'm working cross-culturally, I love to get things on the table and then have a 20-second quiet period to look at the information," he says. "Then I ask to hear from our overseas people first."

Avoid forming fault lines, cautions Andrew Gaudes, an associate professor of business at the University of New Brunswick. This can happen when people from the same city or facility collaborate more freely and easily than someone who is much farther away. "Sometimes there are inside jokes, or may be differences of opinion or cultural issues created along those fault lines," Dr. Gaudes says. "You want to make sure that the language and norms being applied are universal and inclusive so that someone doesn't feel disenfranchised or excluded."

3. Make yourself comfortable

Most video and Web-based conferencing systems come with extra video options, but a lot of people choose not to use them, says Dan Pontefract, director of training for learning and collaboration for Telus Corp. in Vancouver. Some people don't like seeing themselves on the webcam, for instance. "Especially when people are working from home, many are reticent to flip on the webcam," Mr. Pontefract says. "But body language and facial expression go a long way in creating a greater sense of connection with the intended recipients. I always flip on the webcam because I believe it's meant for the individual on the other end."

He suggests creating an office setting by finding a comfortable, secluded corner in your home so that you're not worried about the dog coming into the room or the doorbell ringing.

4. Technical glitches

When working globally, make sure the phone lines are clear. Mr. Wagner suggests doing a sound check at the start to make sure everyone can hear. "You don't want to be bulldozing through a meeting and have people fumbling with the technology," Mr. Wagner says. "Make sure there's an easy person to contact if there's a technical glitch. It's frustrating if someone is part of the meeting and they can't hear or see something and they have no recourse when the meeting is in action."

Ryan McDonald, president of UnCommon Innovation, a Calgary-based consulting firm, likes to test the system well before scheduled meetings. In case a glitch cannot be avoided, he tries to have a backup ready, such as a traditional phone system. "I've been on conversations where you could only pick out one word out of five," Mr. McDonald says. "You need to let them know that you're having trouble hearing them. ... "You can't keep saying, 'I can't hear you,' because that gets annoying. But if the quality of the communication is going downhill, then it's probably best to reroute or even reschedule."

5. Know how it works

When you're first starting to use Web-based video conferencing, it's helpful to have a checklist and to do a couple of test runs the day before with your buddies at home or at work before any important event. "If you do some mock sessions, you'll be much more comfortable," Mr. Pontefract advises. "Then you'll be ready for prime time."

6. Make love to the camera

"In a video conference, remember that people can see you, so you need to act like you were face-to-face with them," Mr. McDonald says. "It's important to look at the main camera so people know you're engaged with them and not doing something else off on the side."

Dr. Gaudes suggests leaning a bit forward toward the camera and looking slightly above and beyond the lens for a more comfortable and natural eye contact. "If you stare at the lens, you'll look bug-eyed and kind of weird," Dr. Gaudes says. "It's a good trick to have a red dot or something on the wall right behind where the camera is that allows you to look at something other than the lens. Just make sure that the item is farther back than the lens."

7. Get people talking

Use the first five minutes to make informal chitchat that will draw people out and make them feel comfortable and relaxed, Mr. Pontefract advises. He points out that in a physical meeting, people usually take about five minutes to catch up or shake hands or engage in water cooler chat. In virtual meetings, he often sees the facilitator barrelling down into one-way communication without any friendly banter to begin.

"Not including others is a recipe for a non-engaging meeting," Mr. Pontefract says. "You should also have touch points during the meeting where the facilitator draws out people's opinions. You have to facilitate a virtual meeting differently than a face-to-face one. You need to call out people individually by name, asking for their input so they feel part of it."

8. Interrupt with finesse

You can send messages to other participants or to whomever is leading to say, "Hey, don't forget to mention this," Mr. McDonald says. "It's a way to signal or put your hand up that you have a question without verbally interrupting." Using text to cue that you have something to say is better than trying to speak over other people.

"If you're the leader and someone is dominating, a text asking that person to yield the floor is the most tactful way to handle it," says Trent Johnsen, co-founder and CEO of Hookflash, a Calgary-based communications company. "But it also depends on the team's culture and whether you have an existing relationship with the people in the call. If somebody was rambling on, I might interrupt and say, 'I'd really like to hear Phil's opinion.'"

9. Don't let them catch you texting

"People in a virtual meeting often multi-task just because they're not face-to-face, so there's often a lack of dedicated focus that gets in the way of a productive meeting," Mr. Pontefract says. "In regular meetings, there's a lot of head bobbing down to the device in your hand with people pretending that you can't see them, but it's getting even more prevalent in a virtual world."

It's what Mr. Pontefract calls "the tyranny of the urgent' because when you're virtual, your other phone can ring, your e-mail pops up, and you get sucked into the vortex of "I must attend to that urgent request." In a virtual setting, you really have to encourage discipline in how you behave.

10. Make a little white noise

One courtesy that's often overlooked is the white-noise pause. "When a facilitator yaps the whole time, they don't give people a chance to chime in," Mr. Pontefract explains. "In a virtual world, there's this panic when there's no noise. But the facilitator needs to allow for white space noise – which is no noise at all – to allow people the chance to think."