Getting thrown into virtual meetings during the pandemic is like being thrown into the deep end of the pool when you barely know how to tread water. You know enough to keep breathing, but you’re not sure how to swim safely to the ladder. The challenges of virtual meetings are numerous and well experienced.
- People talk at the same time
- It’s hard to get anyone to talk at all
- People don’t know how to mute or unmute
- There is background noise that is disruptive
- Some utilize their video, some do not
- Others feel they didn’t get a chance to speak during the topic
- There are distractions from e-mail, text, and instant messages during the meeting
With additional technology issues, I can imagine why people get anxious about running a virtual meeting. It can be arduous.
However, the best meeting facilitators can easily adapt to a virtual world as long as they adopt some simple disciplines.
As with any meeting, even if not virtual, it would follow that one of the first questions we should ask ourselves before even considering calling a meeting is this:
“What kind of meeting and team am I dealing with?”
As you can imagine, a meeting to debate the pros and cons of a new software system would be very different from a meeting for a project update or a brainstorming session. The type of meeting and audience also drives some of the decisions you’ll make in the preparation process. Moreover, I always suggest you keep the end in mind.
“What is it that I want at the end of this meeting and what do I want my attendees to walk away with?”
Let that guide your preparation as well.
Virtual Meetings: Disciplines
Utilize a Good Facilitator
If you are calling a meeting, and you don’t necessarily have the best facilitation skills, then ask for help. As leaders, we don’t all need to have all the answers or be the best at everything. What makes a good facilitator?
“The facilitator’s job is to support everyone to do their best thinking. To do this, the facilitator encourages full participation, promotes mutual understanding, and cultivates shared responsibility.”
—Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner, et al
When I’ve surveyed teams about good facilitator qualities, they’ve quickly listed the following abilities.
- Follows an agenda
- Keeps the meeting moving
- Doesn’t allow someone to dominate the conversation
- Keeps us focused and on task
- Ensures the purpose of the meeting is met
- Starts on time and ends on time
So, in order to support everyone to do their best thinking, the facilitator needs to shift attention away from themselves. Instead, they look outward to help everyone else in the virtual room. Some leaders are able to fill this role easily and successfully. However, if facilitation is not your skillset, then seek out someone to help and allow yourself the freedom to focus solely on the desired outcomes instead.
Virtual Meetings: Participants Checklist
The first rule for participants is to be fully present. This means no multitasking, minimal distractions (pets are understood), and being prepared. No one likes a meeting where everyone is silent and there is no participation or interaction. So, fill your role! Here is a checklist to complete before logging into your virtual meeting.
- Clean up your desktop in case you’ll be sharing.
- Close other applications.
- Turn off notifications (emails, texts, phone, messages).
- Simplify your background, neutral colors and simple walls are best.
- Use headphones for best sound quality.
- Jot down URL/phone #s in case of disconnection.
- Place camera at eye level or hairline.
- Make direct eye contact with the camera.
- Face a window or light for good video illumination.
- Check-in with Chat so the facilitator can have an easy way to determine attendees
- Ensure you are muted until you want to speak
- Familiarize yourself with the mute and chat features before the meeting (Note: for Zoom the space bar is a toggle for muting)
- Follow directions from facilitator for speaking and interacting in Chat
- Participate fully!
Virtual Meetings: Facilitator or Owner Checklist
Whether you are the facilitator or the meeting owner, you’ll want to ensure the following items are completed. If you have called a meeting and asked a facilitator to help, then review these items far ahead of time together. This ensures you both understand your roles and responsibilities. As with anything, planning is critical in achieving the most productive and efficient outcomes.
Virtual Meetings: Planning
- Send meeting connection information >1 day ahead
- Send agenda and give direction if you have expectations of participants
- Login early and start discussions as people join to acknowledge and welcome them
- Obtain a copy of anything that will be shared in case of technical issues
- Utilize polls and have them prepared prior to the meeting if possible
Virtual Meetings: Initiating
Now that participants have joined and you’ve welcomed them, it’s time to set the tone and expectations of the meeting. Clear and strong communicated expectations will deliver clear and strong outcomes.
- Start with a short and sweet connecting exercise (ideas can be found easily from an online search)
- Ensure Chat, Mute and Share Screen are enabled
- Ask everyone to mute to remove background noise
- Give directions on the use of Chat during the meeting
- Use a poll early to establish engagement and throughout the meeting as needed
- Assign roles to enhance engagement
- Time Keeper to ensure you have breaks, follow the agenda and end on time
- Note Taker to capture meeting minutes, decisions, and action items
- Parking Lot Attendant (to capture important items that are off-topic, to be addressed at a future time)
- Conversation Assistant (they monitor Chat, Raised Hands and Video)
- IT support or virtual platform specialist in case of technical issues
- Give directions for speaking (e.g. identify yourself when speaking for phone participants)
- Review or set ground rules with the group
Virtual Meetings: Engagement
The facilitator’s job is to ensure that everyone has the chance to speak, yet everyone is not speaking at the same time. The easiest way I have determined to achieve this is to have the facilitator take control of who’s speaking. This can be accomplished by requiring all to mute, and to either raise their hand (virtually on the platform, or literally in their video) or comment in Chat when they’d like to contribute. The Conversation Assistant assists this process by monitoring the Chat, Raised Hand feature, and the Videos in order to ascertain when someone desires to speak. At that point, they can be recognized, unmute themselves, and provide their input.
This works extremely well and all know not to speak until they are recognized by the facilitator. The Conversation Assistant should call out their observations in real-time so as to gather all of the input for the current topic being discussed. This process allows for the extroverts to voice their input, yet allows the introverts to utilize Chat instead if they wish. Other ways to further engage your team during a virtual meeting are included below.
- Use a Poll early and throughout the meeting
- Call on participants randomly, especially if they haven’t contributed yet
- Insert a fun poll midstream, e.g. are you wearing pajamas right now?
- Share poll results immediately
- Incorporate games or competition, e.g. most comments or chats, the best idea of the day
- Address Chat comments and Raised Hands in real-time
- Ensure that you’ve included everyone
- Capture Who, When, What for any action items and summarize results
- End on time
If you can institutionalize these disciplines, you’ll have participants who are ready, willing, and excited to attend your meetings because they are so value-added.
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