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Key Strategies for Facilitating Effective Virtual Meetings

By Rebekah Carroll, Jonathan Payne

April 3, 2020

Introduction – Our Time of Volatility & Virtual Meetings

With the current state of our geopolitical situation in mind, many organizations we partner with are transitioning to remote workforce strategies where possible to protect their employees and customers.

The rise of these strategies creates a variety of puzzles to solve. A primary question we are hearing is: “how can I facilitate effective virtual meetings?” No one likes unproductive, unclear, or unnecessary meetings. In fact, 90% of people report daydreaming in meetings, and 73% admit to performing non-meeting tasks.[1] This is only exacerbated by newly implemented virtual toolsets and employees untethered from shared meeting spaces.

We are here to share key insights gained from both our certified facilitation training and on-the-job experience. Our goal is to share strategies for leading effective virtual meetings to drive productivity, ensure accountability and collaboration, and maintain value creation across your remote workforce.

1. Plan for Success:

Define the Purpose and Plan

The first step to effectively leading any meeting, much less complex virtual sessions, is clearly defining the meeting purpose by answering the question: “why are we meeting and what must we accomplish for the meeting to be successful?” Every element of an effective meeting will flow from the purpose. Once you know where you are going, you will be prepared to outline the meeting objectives and build a plan to achieve those objectives. As an example, consider a meeting where the purpose is to make a key decision. Once your purpose is understood, you can create the exercise(s) necessary to facilitate the decision-making process.

In addition, when planning your meeting, consider what information you will need to collect and synthesize prior to the meeting.  Effectively developed pre-work can accelerate discussions in-meeting, allowing you to maximize the productivity of participants.

You may find that thinking through the meeting purpose and desired outcomes leads you to the conclusion that a meeting is not needed at all. For example, perhaps your objectives would be better met through prework or online collaboration. Knowing when to meet versus when not to meet can save a lot of time for everyone involved.

 

Consider Your Digital Tools

Virtual meetings require appropriate technology solutions to even exist – much less be effective.  Using the plan you defined to achieve your meeting’s purpose, work with your team to select and leverage the right tools, such as digital conference solutions (Skype, Zoom) to host the meeting and virtual collaboration tools (Miro, Google Docs) to drive engagement.  If you are already leveraging cloud-based project management or other initiative-tracking software, now is a good time to determine how it might fit into your virtual meeting as well.

As a rule of thumb, we recommend always having something visible on screen: share your screen and/or incorporate video conferencing whenever possible to increase participation and accountability.  This provides a focal point for conversation and drives engagement.

 

Tailor Your Exercises to Drive Engagement

When developing meeting exercises and engagement strategies, try adapting exercises you already do in-person, such as brainstorming, process mapping, and virtual whiteboarding (e.g., with Miro). Leverage polls to gather feedback on key issues both during and after the meeting. If your online platform allows (e.g. Zoom), form breakout groups with specific topics and puzzles to solve. Whatever the activity, be sure to communicate the purpose of each exercise, as participants will quickly grow dissatisfied if they do not understand the “why” behind each effort.

As an example of how to gather feedback from your participants, one simple exercise used to establish order and drive engagement is the round-robin: ask participants to respond in a pre-determined order (e.g.,  in alphabetic order by first name) and maintain that order throughout. This provides individuals the comfort of knowing when they are expected to contribute, while also reminding them they actually have to contribute.

 

Consider Your Unique Circumstances

The unique context and purpose of each meeting will drive much of your planning. After all, the type of meeting determines the tools, prework, and engagement strategies necessary to meet your objectives. 

2. Set Clear Direction for Participants

Communicate Pre-Meeting

You have already defined your meeting’s purpose and agenda. Now is the time to communicate it clearly to your meeting participants. Pre-meeting, we recommend circulating the purpose and high-level agenda to your participants. Include pre-reads or pre-work requests as well.

 

Kick-off the Meeting

Kick off your meeting by first orienting your participants to the virtual tools being leveraged. We kick off our initial virtual meetings with a tour of our toolsets’ features and functionality. Don’t assume users know the technology the way you do as the facilitator. A quick orientation will save time in the long run.
After orienting your participants to the tools, align on the meeting purpose and agenda and introduce meeting ground rules. Poll your team for additions or subtractions to the ground rules before eliciting consensus.  These rules take the guesswork out of meetings and promote productivity.

For example, everyone knows it is rude to hold a meeting in your cubicle. Meeting participants also know it is rude to be on the phone during a face-to-face meeting. It is important to translate these everyday working norms into online or remote behaviors. Revisit these as you learn what works and what does not work for your team, encouraging all to be open, respectful, and professional, just as they would in an office setting.

 

Assign Participant Roles

In conjunction with aligning on the defined purpose, agenda, and ground rules, you must also clearly define your participants’ roles in the meeting. This is important for a variety of reasons. Specific to virtual meetings, defining participant roles is a great way to help them stay engaged. Team member disengagement is a key obstacle to effective virtual meetings. Many meeting participants will quickly shift from active engagement to passive observation early on in poorly facilitated virtual sessions.[2] Avoid the observer trap by creating a sense of both shared responsibility for meeting outcomes and individual participation by explicitly defining each team member’s role.

3. Maintain Momentum with an Effective Wrap Up

Whether in-person or virtual, too many of us allow our meetings to end without an effective close. Be sure to maintain the momentum of a productive meeting by reviewing key decisions, defining next steps – including assigning owners and due dates to action items – and addressing open issues before revisiting your meeting’s purpose to ensure it has been accomplished. In a virtual environment, consider leveraging polling tools to confirm your participants are aligned. After your meeting concludes, take the opportunity to request feedback.

4. Humanize Virtual Meetings

Effective meetings involve more than inputs, agendas, and exercises. The people side of collaboration, ideation, problem solving, and connection is also critical to achieving a valuable outcome for any meeting. It is easy to believe that not holding meetings in-person means losing out on the benefits of human interaction. We disagree. With a little forethought and creativity, virtual meetings can embrace and cultivate the human side of what makes your team unique, leading your team and organization to even better outcomes.

 

Understand Your Participants

First, you must understand your participants’ motivations, concerns, and desired outcomes before engaging with them in a virtual meeting. Knowing where your people stand can only help to accelerate the conversation and enable tighter alignment.

 

Make Time for Small Talk

It can be helpful to provide space for small talk and connection at the beginning of meetings. For example, intentionally start the meeting five minutes after the hour, creating opportunity for conversation (and giving you time to anchor on the agenda as facilitator).

 

Design Connection into Your Meeting’s Agenda

Designing exercises to foster connection, such as a quick icebreaker to introduce new colleagues or a pre-brainstorming round of team trivia, can do a lot to build camaraderie and lead the way to greater creativity. Just remember to ensure the activity matches the tone of the meeting and supports the overall purpose.

 

Approach with Empathy

Let’s be honest, virtual meetings can often lend themselves to inadvertent mix ups, interruptions, and background noise. Particularly in these uncertain times, your meeting participants may find themselves juggling their participant role alongside new roles (homeschool parent, short-order cook, and virtual professional). Remember that empathy is key when it comes to the role of a facilitator. Approaching people and challenges with empathy not only reduces participant anxiety, but also provides you with the trust and flexibility you need to effectively lead in a virtual environment.

Conclusion:

Effective virtual meetings are not easy. They require intentional planning and strong facilitation to be successful.

Even so, perhaps the idea of investing time up front to plan for success feels like a luxury you cannot afford. Consider this, however: the up-front cost of planning an engaging, purposeful, and productive meeting can save your team countless hours that would have otherwise been wasted in unproductive, unclear, or unnecessary meetings. Recall that 90% of people report daydreaming in meetings.[3] A little planning upfront will go a long way.

If you read this article and still don’t quite know where to start, consider connecting with us. We are passionate about re-writing the narrative that meetings are the place we go to daydream and passively observe. We regularly equip leaders to lead effective meetings and manage virtual teams. We are always interested in partnering with you to maximize productivity in this new all-virtual world.


[1] Steven Rogelberg, “Why Your Meetings Stink – and What to Do About It,” Harvard Business Review, January / February 2019.
[2] Justin Hale and Joseph Grenny, “How to Get People to Actually Participate in Virtual Meetings,” Harvard Business Review, March 2020.
[3] Steven Rogelberg, “Why Your Meetings Stink – and What to Do About It,” Harvard Business Review, January / February 2019.