As someone who’s worked virtually (and independently) for many years, one of the biggest benefits that comes with this way of working is the autonomy that I have in how I structure my working day. Providing I am consistent in meeting my client obligations and deadlines, it’s entirely up to me how and when I work. I have no corporate expectations such as fixed office hours or daily team meetings, which means that providing I am organised and self-motivated, I can be far more productive within my virtual environment.
However, I learnt very quickly the need to be careful and efficient in how I manage my time, and particularly when it comes to meetings. Living and working two hours outside of London where the majority of my clients are based, an isolated meeting could wipe out an entire working day once I’d factored in the two-hour train journey there and back (travelling just after 10 to avoid astronomic travel costs), 30 minutes of tube travel time either way, and then a two-hour meeting. Often little would be achieved within that meeting that couldn’t have been discussed virtually, and while it was nice to see my clients face-to-face, I would find myself a day behind schedule with my work. It quickly brought to life the full cost of a meeting for someone who is self employed, and I was keen to do things differently.
Over the years I’ve developed strategies for scheduling my meetings more effectively, and have discovered people’s willingness to meet virtually. Here are my four lessons to share…
Set parameters for when an in-person meeting is needed
It can be easy for an office-based client to forget that you work virtually, and lack understanding in what’s involved for you to attend a face-to-face meeting. They may suggest a meeting at the drop of a hat, simply because it’s part of their office culture, and somewhat easier for them to attend than you.
It pays for you to consider early on the criteria that will necessitate an in-person meeting. In the early days of going self-employed I would travel to a monthly update meeting with a client, simply because that’s what they were used to receiving as part of their retainer. However, it was a drain on both of our time, and certainly didn’t require a day out of my working schedule. Once I explained to clients that this was time I could be using more productively for them, they were more than happy to receive a progress report via email at the end of every month instead, accompanied by virtual meetings when required.
Based on the nature of your work, and your expertise, decide on the sorts of meetings and discussions that you need to be physically present at. A useful tactic is to discuss the meeting agenda first, so that you have visibility on any pertinent issues which would require your in-person attendance. If top-level strategy decisions, budget discussions, or important new introductions are required, these could be the sorts of meetings that you decide to travel to.
Cluster meetings into one or two days
Meetings can help to bring a bit of structure to virtual working, if you are able to retain some control over when and where they take place. If you need to travel to your face-to-face meetings, as many virtual workers do, you could break your usual schedule once a month for a day or two of back-to-back meetings. Clustering your meetings can not only be sensible logistically, but it also means that the remainder of your month can be uninterrupted, creative and productive time.
There is also a financial benefit to be had from planning meetings back-to-back, as it can significantly help to reduce travel costs. If you expense these to your clients, they will appreciate your consideration in spreading the cost across a few, and it will also mean less impact on your billable working time.
It is, however, important to be flexible when the situation arises. If a client needs you to urgently jump on a train to discuss a time-sensitive matter, it’s important to show willingness to do so. Otherwise this could be perceived as a negative against your virtual working set-up.
Choose a favoured meeting location
Although your clients may be used to you travelling to their place of work for meetings, a clever tactic can be to switch this slightly by finding a location which is convenient for all of your clients to get to quickly. So, for example, the majority of my clients have always been central London-based, so I found a very affordable, nice and quiet member’s club to join which was centrally located, easy to get to via tube, and which served fabulous coffees making the change of scene enticing to my clients! It only added on an extra 15 minutes to their meeting time, but for me, it saved a day of traipsing across London to various meeting locations, and helped me to recoup an awful lot of wasted travel time. It also meant that I could have a quick re-charge break between meetings, so that I felt energised for the next.
Invest in reliable meeting software, and use video!
Virtual meetings can be incredibly effective, and often more productive than in-person meetings. Attendees tend to be more punctual, the agenda is often followed more rigidly, meeting etiquette tends to be adhered to more tightly, software collaboration tools can be used easily and effectively, and through video there is still the opportunity to ‘see’ people and build on relationships.
As a virtual employee, it makes sense to trial a reliable virtual meeting tool, such as GoToMeeting, which you know won’t let you down. Make sure it has intuitive scheduling functionality, across different time zones and locations etc, so that meetings are easy for you to set-up and for attendees to join. While clients may have their own meeting provider, I have found that it helps to select a tool that works best for your needs, so that you can take the initiative of scheduling meetings yourself. For example, I frequently need to be able to record interviews for reports or articles that I’m writing, and so it’s important that my preferred virtual meeting tool has good recording functionality. Also be sure to invest in a headset, so that you can use VoIP and have good quality audio.
Also encourage attendees to use video, and lead by example. While they may be apprehensive to do so initially, over time it will become habit and video can really help with personal bonding and team work.