From the January 2008 issue of Entrepreneur

When you think of virtual meetings, you probably imagine computer screens or conference phones connecting offices across the country or around the world. Indeed, companies often see them solely as an alternative to flying everyone to a central spot.

But Ajay Vinze, an information systems professor at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, has found that virtual meetings can be a huge benefit to companies--even when all the employees are located in the same building.

The key to effective meetings, Vinze says, is the ability to make them anonymous--an idea that runs against the conventional wisdom that it's better to meet face to face than via computer linkup. With in-the-flesh powwows, it's easy for one individual to dominate while others never utter a word. Also, debate may be stifled because of the politics or dynamics of the meeting: If the boss is leading a discussion, subordinates may not dissent for fear of retribution. And as often as one hears, "There are no dumb ideas," people don't always feel comfortable making outside-the-box suggestions. Finally, the typical round-table meeting is inherently slow because only one person talks at a time while someone else writes down ideas on a pad of paper or whiteboard.

In contrast, companies that use virtual meeting software from providers such as Facilitate.com and GroupSystems can cloak the identities of people in the same office--or even in the same room (assuming there are several people meeting at once)--and cut out prejudicial thoughts while working much faster. Vinze says that anonymity is particularly suited to politically charged settings as well as fast brainstorming or entrepreneurial thinking sessions. It's not as good for tasks that have a right or wrong answer or for groups of people with Type-A personalities, who may be frustrated by the technology. Douglas Griffen, director of strategy and facilitation at the Advanced Strategy Center, says that in the meetings he facilitates, groups using virtual meeting software get two to three times as much done. That might be reason enough to go virtual.