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Save time and money with online meeting tools

If you’re like me, you probably hate attending business meetings. Luckily, a number of useful Internet-based tools can help workgroups schedule and run them more effectively. All of the tools here work within most popular Web browsers, and most of them are available for free or for fairly low monthly fees. The challenge is in understanding which tool suits a particular situation, because not every meeting is held under the same circumstances. Let’s look at some of the differences.

Synch Your Calendars

Certainly the most common situations are those where you want to synchronize a common calendar, such as between someone’s PDA and his Microsoft Outlook desktop, or between a boss’s calendar and an assistant’s. Many services can make sharing calendars between work team members (or even between family members or friends) easier. Both Google Calendar (shown below) and Yahoo Calendar offer free calendar sync, and numerous other products–including Apple’s iCal for its computers and iPhones, along with NuevaSync–work with both services. BusySync and Spanning Sync also can synchronize Apple’s iCal calendars with Google Calendar.

Online Meeting Tools

Let Clients Setup Their Own Appointments

What if you want your clients or any other people not employed by your company to book your time directly? In the long-ago past, appointment secretaries would be in charge of the boss’s calendar and would set up meeting times with pencil and paper. Now you can point clients and outside colleagues to self-service appointment Web sites, such as BookFresh,  Tungle.me or TimeDriver. These sites can display your staffers’ free and busy times, as well as what remaining time “inventory” is available for appointments. They also send out e-mail notifications, and they don’t require any special software beyond a Web browser to confirm the appointment. You can easily adjust the schedule when you are going out of town or are otherwise unavailable, too. These services are available for a reasonable cost: TimeDriver has a free 90-day trial and is $30 a year thereafter; BookFresh offers three different plans, including a free one that allows two monthly bookings. Tungle (shown below) is free for the moment.

Online Meeting Tools

Set Up a Common Meeting Time

How about a situation where you want to arrange a common meeting time for people coming from different companies? A meeting organizer could send out an e-mail notification with a series of possible open times, and ask each participant to check off which of those times work for them. But if you have ever tried to organize this kind of meeting, you know how quickly you can get buried under all the back-and-forth e-mail responses.

The free services SetMeeting.com (from Meeting Agent) and Doodle.com are useful in this respect. SetMeeting.com’s biggest weakness is that once you initiate the process it doesn’t allow you to change the meeting location without canceling and starting from scratch. Doodle, which is less sophisticated and has fewer features, is really more of a polling device to help you find a common time; but you may find it attractive if that’s all you wish to do.

As you can see, there are a variety of simple websites that can be used to enhance your meetings. Now if only there was an app that could make the actual meetings shorter.