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Good Meetings: Going Virtual

In January 2020, we’d heard of coronavirus.

In February, we’d heard it was spreading - still, it seemed, on the other side of the world.

In March, everything started to shut down. On March 30, the governor of my state (Virginia) announced a shelter-in-place order - no one should be leaving their house except for essentials.

In January, I wrote a series about how to run great meetings. We covered purpose, timing, acting like a good host, and conflict.

Now it’s time to revisit that with best practices for virtual meetings.

Online Meeting, Same Priorities

Most of what I’ve previously written about still applies:

  • When you first decide to hold a meeting, get crystal clear on the point of the meeting - what is the purpose? The goal? Are they the same or different? Tell people! Do not keep this to yourself.

  • Does this really have to be a meeting, or should it be an email? Internet memes aside, most of us would prefer to avoid a videoconference for work unless really necessary.

  • Consider the timing carefully. Does it really need to be a full hour or even a full 30 minutes? Sometimes a little urgency can help people be more productive, but sometimes the meeting topic is something that should really be a long-term project, not an hour-long meeting.

  • Act like a host: welcome people, help them feel comfortable in this shared space.

    • Tip for doing that online: I’m not usually a fan of “waiting rooms” unless there is some reason you do not want people conversing freely before you enter (for example, when I do an online mediation). But the other day, in a training on how to facilitate online, I experienced how welcoming a static starting slide can be! “Welcome! You’re in the right place. While we’re waiting, I invite you to eliminate a distraction…” The slide then had a bit more text & doodles.

      • I loved this for two reasons:

        • First, as it stated clearly - I am in the right place and we’ll start soon. Excellent. I felt good already.

        • Second, I was being invited to eliminate just one distraction - there was even a list of potential choices - close a door, hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign, close other apps, etc.

        • I’m being treated like an adult while still being informed that concentration is important. Beautiful.

  • Finally, because meetings always do include some open conversation no matter the format, adopt a mindset of curiosity. Ask open-ended questions. Genuinely seek to hear other people’s thoughts - if you don’t really want more than a “yay/nay” response, you won’t get more.


What else is important about an online meeting?

Perhaps far more so than with in-person meetings, we need to think through activities and ways to engage people other than the talking head(s).

Nearly every remote meeting I’ve been part of - ever, not just since COVID-19 forced us to stay home - has been one or two people talking, and occasionally taking questions. Now with Zoom, we get to see everyone’s faces, and, more often than not, most of those folks talk. Talking is good. We like talking. But what are other ways to communicate using a shared online space in combination with video?

  • Open up a shared online document (G-suite, MS Teams, Boxnote, etc.) Stick a table in there, and invite everyone to answer a question in one cell. Then everyone can speak to elaborate on their answer, in the order in which their responses are listed. (Make sure the first column is people’s names.)

    • Now you can be sure everyone is included, and start to see visually where people may have commonality or difference.

    • This also gives those who need it the extra quiet space to begin to develop their ideas before speaking up in the group. 
  • Maybe you need to have people weigh options that exist along a continuum. Should we hold more meetings now, or fewer? Try Google’s Slides for this one, or any online shared visual creation space. Insert a line across the middle of a blank slide, and use text boxes to label the two extreme ends. Then have everyone insert a text box that has their name on it, and have them place their text box where they would place their opinion along the line.

    • Now everyone starts to get a feel for the distribution of ideas in response to this one question, and you can call on folks or ask people to volunteer why they placed themselves where they did.

  • Explore new features of whatever technology you’re using - or go ultra-low-tech.

    • Zoom has break-out rooms and a whiteboard. You can ask people to either talk one-on-one to hash out ideas and then come back to the bigger group, or, you can share the whiteboard and invite everyone to type their ideas into that visual space - and then add checkmarks to indicate what they agree with (can’t be done in chat).

    • Goto Webinar has polling built-in; set up polls when you set up the webinar and you can get a feel for what everyone is thinking or what their experiences are - not just those who choose to come off mute and speak up.

    • Do a little research and try out a visual app like Mural or Miro to get even more engagement from everyone. (Protip: It's best to make this decision and play with the app yourself in advance so you can guide people into the space.)

    • Relying on free Skype, Messenger, or Facetime for a group call? Tell people you want to give everyone a moment to think in silence, and ask them to write down their answer to any question - and they have to hold up their piece of paper to the camera after. (This works great in Zoom too!)

Most of these can be done on the fly, but, especially for people who are new to trying to engage people online, it helps a lot to have thought through what modalities you think would work best in advance.

And yes, of course, there are people who can help with that. We do. Lizard Brain Solutions does (I learn from the best: Brian Tarallo of Lizard Brain Solutions). There’s a whole international network of facilitators out there - we see what you’re doing (badly) online, and we want to help. Check out this list of facilitators throughout the Mid-Atlantic area.

Make your next online meeting a success.


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