Virtual meetings have become the norm in today’s workplace now that one in three Australian workers regularly works from home.
Whether you’re dealing with a geographically distributed team or stakeholders based in another city, the way you facilitate your virtual meeting can have a direct impact on the outcomes that you’re looking to achieve.
It can also influence the interpersonal relationships and levels of trust between meeting attendees – either strengthening or damaging these relationships.
Facilitating an online meeting is not always easy – beyond the logistics of managing a conference call and shared screens, it requires an entirely different mindset from the facilitator.
Having been part of countless virtual meetings before – both on the delivering and receiving end – I thought it’d be worthwhile to share some tips on how to make them a positive experience for all attendees.
Before the meeting is scheduled, consider the most appropriate format for the session by firstly making sure to:
Group activities can be a great way to engage participants, but it’s easy for remote workers to feel disengaged as they’re not physically situated with a group. Be mindful of helping these people feel included, or, even better – create activities that everyone undertakes as individuals, regardless of location.
When local attendees arrive at a meeting room, there’s often an opportunity for informal conversation before the meeting officially starts. This is beneficial as it helps participants find common ground and supports smooth communication for the discussion that follows.
When running a virtual meeting, try dedicating the first 5-10 minutes to informal chat and reflect this in your agenda. Conversation starters like “what movie did you last watch?” are effective ways to get people talking. (This activity is certainly highly engaging for our team when there are new episodes of Game of Thrones!)
Identify the visual and audio aids that will best support you with running a session with both local and remote participants.
For example, post-it notes can be great with a local group but are quite challenging to use in real time with remote participants. Consider an online collaborative tool such as Ideaboardz, Trello or Slack, or open up a virtual interactive whiteboard to allow everyone to contribute at the same time.
(Good to know: IdeaBoardz allows you to set up a canvas for groups to collaborate and brainstorm via a unique link. Teams can contribute with virtual post-it notes and anonymous voting throughout the session – especially useful when you’re wanting to run retrospectives.)
We’ve touched on the importance of creating connections within a geographically separated group. For facilitators, this will affect your ability to draw people into conversations and steer them towards the meeting objectives.
Being empathetic requires more considered actions when all participants are not in the same room; it’s important to try to see things from remote participants’ perspectives and reality.
Perhaps have the facilitator at a remote site – this ensures every attendee has the same experience and will remind the facilitator to be mindful of engaging everybody.
Getting ready for a virtual meeting requires some additional preparation effort. We’ve all had experiences where the facilitator attempts to set up the meeting facilities at the scheduled start time only to encounter technical difficulties.
This often leaves remote participants listening to hold music, unsure of what is going on – and of course, eats into the time allocated for the meeting.
In addition to ensuring that the laptop connects to the screen and you’re dialled into the right number, you should also be mindful of the following:
- Check that the communication lines are open prior to the meeting start time. Giving participants the option to ‘arrive’ early minimises distractions and delays and allows attendees to enter feeling relaxed and well prepared.
- Is the shared screen zoomed to the appropriate size? Remember that recipients of a shared screen often see a smaller, lower-resolution copy.
- If you’re playing a video, ensure that you’ve set your screen up so that people at the other end can see it.
- If the meeting needs all participants to interact with a virtual board, does everyone (including local participants) have access to that board? Does each person need to have a laptop? Can they share laptops at their location?
- If attendees will need specific stationery, it’s worth either asking someone to coordinate it centrally, or letting remote participants know what’s required (and remind them the day before the meeting).
Let’s be honest – as a facilitator it can be easy to overlook remote participants. As they’re not physically present they can often be forgotten.
To prevent remote participants from feeling left out, facilitators might develop a habit of asking for questions or feedback in the following sequence:
- Remote individuals – those who are dialled in by themselves
- Remote group – those who are dialled in as part of a remote group
- Local group – those who are physically in front of the facilitator
It’s also important to consider these basic concepts:
Where possible, try to set up the meeting so there’s a video link between the local room and all remote participants. It’s a lot harder to forget those dialled in when their faces are on the screen!
In one of my previous teams I printed out a photo of our remote team member, made it into a light-hearted meme, and had it permanently placed next to our working board.
The photo served as a constant reminder for the local team, who soon stopped pointing and referring to visual references as “this” and “that” during daily stand-ups, instead reading out what they were pointing to for our remote worker.
Being able to follow and effectively contribute to a meeting can make or break a participant’s engagement.
Have someone at the facilitator’s location act as a spokesperson for those who are dialled in. This person’s responsibility should be to ensure that remote participants are keeping up with the pace of the meeting, and can clearly see and hear what’s happening.
Regularly check with remote participants that they’re on track and ask them to relay their understanding back to the group to keep them engaged.
As a last note, it’s worth keeping in mind that there is usually no single solution for virtual meeting success. How to best set up and facilitate a virtual meeting will depend on a myriad of factors including: the situation, the agenda, who is attending, the available technology, and so on.
It’s also worth noting that many of the aforementioned factors will influence other decisions. For example, planning to facilitate the meeting one way will require specific types of technology. Or, you may need to plan the meeting around access to limited resources.
I hope you found this blog food for thought and perhaps picked up some new ideas to use when facilitating your next virtual meeting. If you have any other tips that you’d like to share, please tell us about them in the comments below!