Six Tips for Improving Virtual Meetings
Increasingly, virtual meetings are being utilized to enhance productivity, engagement, connection and communication.
However, more meetings do not always lead to improved outcomes or higher engagement.
We have all witnessed some messy meetings in the last few months - lots of ceilings, 10-minute delays for "technical difficulties", sleeping/barking dogs in the background, etc.
Virtual meetings, like in-person meetings, are strategic momentum creating opportunities. Wise leaders choose to invest their time in preparing for a virtual meeting as carefully (or more carefully) as they would for an in-person meeting.
This article highlights strategies for doing just that.
Several years ago, I served as the Executive Director (ED) in charge of leadership development and strategic planning at a telecommunications company with a virtual workforce spread across the United States. Among other things, I facilitated strategic planning for a team of high-powered technology executives and was responsible for facilitating motivational and purposeful virtual meetings for employees on a daily basis. I also was able to observe some excellent virtual facilitators.
It was a steep learning curve for someone with a doctorate in interpersonal communication trained to respond to nonverbal cues. But during my time at the organization, I was lucky to study, research and practice virtual communication. My job depended on it.
I explored its pitfalls and efficiencies. I also worked with teams on dealing with virtual conflict and experienced the complicated role of strategic silence in the virtual workplace.
Most importantly, I created new strategies for connecting people and creating momentum within virtual teams who could not benefit from the energy that face-to-face interaction brings.
As an organizational development and communications expert, I now work with many different industries in both virtual and in-person settings - in the past, not all my clients had access to advanced technology and videoconferencing platforms. But in recent months the use of FaceTime, Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting and so many other platforms is commonplace.
I am a huge advocate of maximizing people’s time through the utilization of both in-person meetings and virtual meetings.
Personally, I can't wait to collaborate with my clients in person again!
Until then, the suggestions in this article are designed to reinforce basic facilitation principles and empower those of you who may not have considered ways to maximize use of technology.
You are not expected to be an expert from the start – if you are new to technology, let your group know that you are utilizing technology because you value their time and contribution; let them know you are open to their suggestions about how to improve the efficiency of meetings.
Improving Virtual Meetings
Start with Why. Virtual doesn’t give a pass from preparing an agenda. Before calling a meeting, a leader must be able to state the purpose and expected outcome; communicating it before the meeting and stating it at the beginning rings focus and unites the collective around a common purpose. The agenda items should provide a bridge between purpose and outcomes. Some purposes may be to inform, exchange, persuade, introduce, decide, etc. One often forgotten purpose is to utilize the meeting to create momentum and/or motivate your team - every leader should think about actions/strategies to integrate into a meeting to accomplish this important purpose.
Utilize Technology. If your organization has not invested in a teleconferencing platform, you can still utilize technology. Free teleconferencing tools like Zoom, Free Conference Call and many others provide reliable connections for virtual calls. Add the capabilities of Google Drive to add a whiteboard component to your meeting - use it to reiterate the agenda, share document links, record key points and solidify next steps. You don’t want to lose meeting time because of a technological glitch - but glitches are likely at first - especially if members of your group are unaccustomed to working with technology so allow time for this.
Send Information in Advance. Set an expectation for advance preparation. Distribute materials in advance - and in one email. Include the agenda, supporting documents, sign-in credentials, and any other links (i.e., your collaborative Google Document). A best practice is sending materials one week in advance and that's a good target to shoot for when possible. We want to make it easy for participants to prepare for the meeting and sign-in with ease. Having it in one email will help tremendously and avoid cumbersome and time-consuming sidebars during the meeting.
Create a Whiteboard. I mentioned this above - it bears repeating. Visuals increase engagement and reinforce outcomes. Bring your group to the same place and time with a live agenda on a shared platform – then use it to scribe in real time like you might on a whiteboard. Bullet key points, write down next steps, timeframes and accountabilities. Increase engagement by asking participants to join you (i.e. move their cursors) to a certain section/slide of the document or have them write their ideas in an online brainstorming session. It's a great way to increase engagement during a meeting!
Insert Creativity. Meetings don’t have to be boring. Add colored fonts. Add interest with a cartoon or quote. Add other creative elements like visuals and stories. For regular meetings, vary the format of the agenda every month or quarter to keep things interesting. We integrated daily huddles at the telecommunications firm where I served as ED – I have found these agendas to provide creative inspiration and focus for other types of meetings in a wide range of settings. Do a quick search on “daily huddle agendas” for some creative new ideas for your agenda.
Build Relationships. Include an icebreaker - utilize chat or your live document and have each person scribe an answer to the question while waiting for the meeting to begin. When time permits, have your team answer the question in round robin fashion. Keep engagement high during the meeting with open-ended questions. Increase participation and avoid virtual lag time by calling on participants by name.
Bringing It Home
Whether you are a nonprofit, corporate entity, volunteer board member or paid employee - virtual meetings are the new normal. They are a valuable time-saving, health-protecting and cost-saving medium and maybe someday soon, we will have the opportunity to tap the best of all worlds - face-to-face meetings utilized in conjunction with virtual meetings.
As one who had to master virtual communication in a sink or swim environment, I can attest to the fact that practice makes does make it easier - maybe even - someday - perfect.
Invest the time to make your next virtual meeting a momentum creating opportunity.
© Kathy Sturgis, Ph.D. Kathy is founder of Refreshment Zone and is an organizational and personal development specialist with a doctorate in communication. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on motivational programs.