Whether you find yourself running more remote teams or are looking to responsibly react to containing pandemics, being good at virtual meetings isn’t just a valuable skill – it’s an essential one. Since I’m often asked to run strategic sessions, I’m sharing the tips I have learned over the years on how to make virtual gatherings as powerful and effective as in-person ones.
Decide if you need the meeting. Whether in-person or virtual, having people get together in real-time is going to take preparation and good planning. There are good reasons to get together all at one time. You’ll get a variety of brains all focused and in collaboration, which is very powerful. Make sure you are ready to make the most of that. You should have a clear purpose for the virtual meeting.
Priya Parker has a book and a talk that offer brilliant ways to consider the purpose of a gathering – watch it here to learn how “good controversy” could be the key ingredient to a productive gathering. Ultimately, if your meeting will be less than purposeful, reconsider having it at all.
Decide what kind of meeting you are having. Are you generating ideas, vetting which ideas are best or making decisions? These are three different types of meetings and they shouldn’t be smooshed into one. They call for different approaches and mindsets. Here is some good food for thought when deciding what to focus the meeting on.
Plan the time effectively with an agenda and pre-work. Have an agenda ready to go 24 hours in advance, with the entire session timed out. The longer the session, the more you need to plan. Consider how you’ll keep the energy up by changing exercises, using small groups (yes, you can do this virtually by setting up virtual breakout rooms), and planning for tech you might want to use like report-out or survey apps. Consider using tech platforms like Circles to foster collaboration and engagement.
Set clear expectations about what participants need to read, know, or bring to the meeting and let them know how much time you anticipate they’ll need to spend on this so they can schedule it. You don’t want to spend valuable time during the meeting sharing updates. Get all of that out in advance.
For more introverted people who like time to think, give more detail on the agenda about what you are seeking insights on, or which ideas you are vetting. If you are focused on generating ideas, offer what your challenge questions are (e.g., how might we have a higher profile and be the go-to organization for media covering family economic security?)
Consider dividing up the time rather than holding half-day and full-day sessions. In the virtual world, it can be harder to keep attention and energy up. Instead of a full-day meeting, consider dividing the meeting into four two-hour sessions. To keep up the momentum, share follow-up notes between sessions to keep everyone on the same page.
Appoint a facilitator who will make sure the purpose of the meeting is met, participation is high and the experience is good. Make it clear that they are not participating – they are facilitating. They are there to make sure team norms are upheld, you are on track, and no one is coasting in the meeting.
Double check tech in advance. Nothing is worse than finding out two people on your team have scheduled overlapping meetings – especially in the minutes before your session is supposed to start. Make a habit of signing in 15 minutes early to troubleshoot, get slides loaded and test any technology you will use during the meeting.
Remind people at the start of meeting that the norm is to be present. Remind everyone that you’ll be calling on people throughout the session, possibly at random – discouraging participants from letting their sights wander to email or social media. Set norms about being present. Email is off. Video is on. No multi-tasking. If someone violates this, have the facilitator gently remind the group of the norms so that everyone’s time is well-used. Make this about respect.
Set ground rules based on the kind of meeting it is. If you are in a creative session, note that you are in the building phase and that this is a “yes…and” meeting, not a “that will never work” one. If it is a decision-making meeting, describe how you will consider the decision and ultimately how the decision will be made, e.g., someone is point or it is a democratic vote.
Warm up. This is what ice breakers are for. There are a million you can choose from, but it is always a good idea to get people interacting and speaking up at the start of the conversation. It sets the tone for participation. Here are a few:
- Ask: How do you think you’ll be a valuable contributor today? This gives everyone a chance to reflect on their value at the meeting.
- Ask: What is the best idea you ever came up with? This gives everyone a chance to start the meeting with a proud memory.
- Ask: Name an embarrassing headline you couldn’t help but click on recently.
- Unique game: Each person has to say something they believe is unique to them and no one else in the room shares. If someone else on the line does share that quality, the person tries again.
- “I appreciate” circle: Create a virtual circle so people know who is on their virtual right and left. Then ask them to plan to say what they appreciate about the person on their right.
Set the table. Start with your purpose: what are you there to do? Set any criteria or guardrails you believe are important to structure the meeting. Also consider if it is important to remove obstacles and assumptions that are hampering creativity and problem solving; this is where you can circle back to the “yes…and” approach, encouraging people to think without limits.
Follow best practices for collaboration. In general, adults can pay attention to one topic for about 20 minutes and then you need to change what you are doing. Use survey tools to get people to answer questions and review insights generated. Encourage use of the chat box and interact with people’s questions and comments there. Go around the virtual room so that everyone speaks. Call on people randomly to keep attention.
Consider using liberating structures to shake things up. Look over your meeting design and make sure it works for both extroverts and introverts, adapts to power dynamics that may be at play, and that you have a process for how to handle conflicts if they arise. Make sure people are not talking over each other and making it hard to hear.
End the meeting with a reflection. Meetings often run right up against time, with people signing off early. They miss the next steps and you miss a chance to do a final check-in. Plan for this by ending the formal part of the meeting 10 minutes early.
Ask people to go around and say what they are taking away from the meeting to see what the high point was. Or ask what they wanted to say but didn’t get a chance to contribute, for future consideration. Before you close, remind them what was accomplished during the meeting (e.g., we generated many ideas) and map out what will happen next.
In the coming days, weeks and months, taking meetings out of a physical space and into a virtual one will be essential. But that doesn’t mean you have to lose the magic that happens when people come together and collaborate. Using these tips and taking an innovative and multifaceted approach will set you up to have productive and successful gatherings, no matter where you are.