Tips for “Virtual” Meetings

May 11, 2016

Filed under: Board Development,Consulting,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 5:22 pm

This blog was originally drafted in 2016.  A lot has changed on the virtual meeting front since them, although many fundamentals remain the same.  I periodically update it to reflect new information.  The most recent update was September 2021. 

In my consulting work, I’m involved in a lot of “virtual” meetings, often as the facilitator.  By virtual, I mean not in-person, so using the phone and/or internet.

I also participated in many virtual meetings over the years running a statewide conservation organization and being on the board of a national network of similar organizations.

I’ve learned some lessons over the years of some things to do and to avoid when planning for virtual meetings.

Before identifying those lessons, it’s important to underscore the two most important challenges posed by virtual meetings.

    1. It’s super easy for participants to be multi-tasking during the meeting.  That could be something else they’re working on or it could be scanning their social media.  How do you get their full attention.
    2. You lose out on many of the social cues that come in an in-person meeting, such as body language.

So if you have a virtual meeting to plan, how do you address these challenges?

First, plan ahead for video technology and don’t take it for granted.  There are many options: Zoom, GoogleMeet, Skype, Microsoft Teams, etc.  

If you’re trying a new option for the first time, do a dry run with guinea pigs.  Also, it’s important to identify someone other than the meeting facilitator who is prepared to deal with any technical glitches.  

Second, have an increased energy level as facilitator.  It’s human nature to pay more attention when someone is energetic in their tone of voice.  Pump people up with your attitude.

Third,  take extra steps to make sure everyone is engaged.   There are lots of ways to do to do this.  Ideas include:

  • In setting the agenda, try to give as many people as possible an explicit task during the meeting so they’ll see the value of being fully involved.  Aside from leading on particular topics, other tasks include serving as scribe or timekeeper.
  • Make sure the agenda and supporting materials are distributed ahead of time, in a format easy for them to access online (since many participants will not have a printer handy).  I have found that agendas in googledocs that link directly to all the referenced materials works particularly well. 
  • At the meeting opening, set the explicit expectation that people won’t be multi-tasking during the meeting.
  • Use round robins to hear briefly from everyone on key topics.
  • If it seems like there’s not enough engagement, ask someone who hasn’t spoken in awhile what they think.
  • Explicitly ask people if they agree and ask them to say so out loud.
  • If your chosen platform allows for it, consider using breakout rooms, polls, or other tools that can increase engagement. 

Fourth, think about how notes will be taken and shared during the meeting.  If you would have normally used a flipchart in front of the room in an in-person setting, consider using a shared whiteboard/googledoc or the equivalent.  This can create a disconnect between those who have multiple screens (one for the video and one for the whiteboard), so factor that in as you facilitate.  (If you’re an organization who expects workers to work remotely, invest in their having a second screen; they are really quite inexpensive).  

Fifth, as each agenda item wraps up, be explicit about what was decided and who has agreed to any follow-up task.   And then as the meeting closes, go through every person and ask them what follow-up tasks have fallen to them.

Sixth, structure the meeting time to include more short breaks as opposed to fewer long breaks.  In general, don’t go more than 60 minutes without a 5-10 minute break.  

Lastly, get the meeting notes out ASAP.

Of course, all of the above presumes the meeting is otherwise well-organized.  If a meeting would be poorly designed in-person, no amount of attention to its virtual elements will overcome that.

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