Experts love to say that meetings kill productivity. Unnecessary and poorly planned meetings certainly do, but some meetings are necessary. Meetings can seal new business deals. They can launch teams on productive new ventures. They can correct course on a project gone wrong. And they can facilitate camaraderie among collaborators who are unable to be together in the same space. When you absolutely must have a meeting, you'll need some tips for holding more productive meetings, as well as the right software to do so.
Outlook probably comes to mind as the typical office software used to schedule meetings, but I find many of Outlook's features clunky and difficult to use as intended.
If all your meeting participants are skilled Outlook users, you can probably find a time to meet that works for everyone, reserve a conference room, and get that meeting on the calendar using nothing but Outlook. I need something simpler, and I'm something of an organisational tools aficionado, so I can only imagine how others might feel about Outlook as a scheduling tool.
Doodle.com is that simple solution. It's one of my favourite websites for planning meetings and get-togethers. Doodle.com is a free website and service that makes scheduling as simple as creating a poll.
You invite people to the poll (by sending around a URL, or inviting them directly from Doodle), and they mark the times they're available based on choices the poll creator provides. It's an efficiency dream come true.
For more about Doodle, see my interview with Doodle's founder Michael Naef, which includes a video showing how Doodle works.
Virtual meeting hosting
Webex and GoToMeeting are two of the most well-known virtual meeting services that, in my experience, tend to be used by people whose companies already have an account with that provider. Paid accounts of either are packed full of features, such as the ability to record meetings, chat with other participants, share everything happening on someone's computer screen, connect multiple webcams, and much more. GoToMeeting requires an application install to use.
Webex does offer a free account (GoToMeeting does not), but it comes with some tight limitations. For example, only one person can host meetings, and the maximum number of people in the meeting is three. Everyone in the meeting needs to use VoIP because phone dial-in is not supported, and the host can share her desktop, whiteboard, and documents, but not applications or anything running remotely. So if you're using either of those services, you'll probably want the paid account.
Join.me is another popular choice for hosting virtual meetings. Like Webex, it has a free option, but with loose constraints on the limitations. A free Join.me account accepts up to 10 participants in a virtual meeting, and it supports screen sharing and the ability to share control (i.e. to hand over some of the hosting duties to another participant).
MeetingBurner (free; Pro accounts from $39.95 which is £25 per month) is another option that runs in the browser with no installation required. With a free account, you can hold meetings of up to ten people, but VoIP isn't supported. Skype is, however, and works right within the service.
Skype isn't a bad tool for hosting certain kinds of meetings, but it's not always as reliable as some of the other services we've highlighted here. As with the other tools, a free Skype account comes with several limitations (no screen sharing is the big one for meetings, and video conferencing with only one other person), but it can be a convenient option when you need to quickly have an audio call with people who are spread out all over the world... and who already have Skype accounts.
Most of the webinar tools named above facilitate online virtual collaboration, but when everyone is in the same room and can talk face-to-face, I like to use tools that are less management-intensive.
Google Drive (free) is handy in the office because multiple people can update documents in real time. You can see when someone else is editing or viewing the same document you have open. Google Drive isn't ideal on mobile devices, unfortunately. I still find it much easier to use on a laptop during meetings, as opposed to using the Google Drive iPad app, for example.
Asana has taken the collaboration world by storm with its excellent online collaborative task management (and project management) tool. It's a great service to use throughout your work cycles, and shows its value during meetings when it comes to creating new tasks, such as follow-up actions assigned to people at the end of a meeting.
Evernote (which has a free version) is the 800-pound gorilla of note-taking, and I use it furiously during meetings. I love that it has built-in audio recording functionality that lets me capture the entire conversation in case I need to refer to it later. It's also superb on a mobile device due to its camera feature. Snap a picture of a whiteboard, upload it to Evernote, and all the text in the picture is analysed by OCR and becomes fully searchable. A premium version is available for $45 (£28) per year.
Minutes.io (free), which is designed for the explicit purpose of taking meeting minutes, works in a browser but operates both online and offline. When you're asked to take official notes for a meeting unexpectedly, minutes.io launches quickly and works well, giving you a template for the task at hand.