Dos and Don’ts of Virtual Meetings
Dos and Don’ts of Virtual Meetings
7 Pitfalls and Best Practices for Gathering Remotely
You know and have likely experienced the unique challenges associated with not being able to meet in person. But there are incredible opportunities as well.
I’m fortunate to get to work with some of the smartest leaders and educators on the planet to help them make virtual engagement easy. My experience has helped me better understand what works—and what doesn’t. My personal blunders and watching my clients’ successes have informed this chapter and list.
For your next virtual meeting, here are seven tips you should keep in mind.
1. Design Your Meeting for Contribution, Not Consumption
So often our virtual meetings take a nosedive before they even begin because we design them for people to just sit there and passively take in information. That’s really hard to do for an extended period of time while you’re staring at a screen with this pixelated, laggy talking head.
Imagine each person started a stopwatch when they spoke or contributed in some way. What would each person’s total be? If the average is less than two minutes, it’s possible your gathering is designed for consumption.
One of the easiest ways to design your meeting for contribution not consumption is to start off with a question. Create an opportunity for people to connect to the purpose of the meeting and to each other at the beginning of the meeting, or at least within the first five to 10 minutes.
Short on time? Utilize the chat, but consider inviting a few people to come off mute to expand on their comment.
2. Set Expectations, But Don’t Force People to Do Something
Sending out a message that says it’s mandatory for employees to have their video on during the meeting isn’t helpful. What I do think is helpful is sending out a video, email or other written communications beforehand that set expectations for what the meeting is going to be like. If it’s a recurring meeting, you can do this once to set those cultural expectations.
Personally, I like to record and send out a video beforehand that says, “Hey, everybody, come ready to have your video and microphone on. This is going to be interactive. It’s not just going to be me just talking at you. And there’s going to be multiple times where we’ll take video breaks when we’re listening. So if you want to bring an apple to eat then, feel free to do that. If you come prepared to unmute and share your video, you’ll have a much more fun, engaged experience that you’ll actually get more out of.”
Frame the expectation from the perspective of how others will benefit rather than, “Hey, can you turn the video on for me, so that you’re engaged?” Instead, tell your team members what’s in it for them. What benefit or value do they receive from coming ready to engage?
3. Meet for Purpose, Not for Time
The approach Priya Parker suggests in her book, The Art of Gathering, runs counter to the way we usually design our meetings.
More often than not, we schedule meetings to begin and end at a certain time rather than planning out what we want to accomplish. Instead of doing that, I would invite you to get crystal clear about your intention for that meeting ahead of time, and meet for that purpose rather than just for a set amount of time.
If you’re outcome-focused, let everyone know exactly what you want to happen when you meet. And if you finish the meeting 20 minutes early, you’ve just given yourself the gift of time. In a culture where we all have way too much to do and too little time, you may have just created 20 minutes for a whole group of people to go get something else done. In a 12-person meeting, that adds up to four hours of human attention, and possibly hundreds of dollars of a company’s budget.
Meet for purpose and not for time. In order to do that, you have to actually take a minute and get clear on why you’re meeting. Do this in advance, as opposed to halfway through the meeting having everybody wondering why this meeting wasn’t just an email.
4. Start Unofficially, and Don’t Reward People for Being Late
This one comes from experiential trainer and consultant Mark Collard, who knows a thing or two about making workshops fun.
Typically we set a meeting start time—say, 11 a.m.—and we wait and hang out until everyone shows up. An unofficial start on the other hand begins a few minutes ahead of schedule and continues a few minutes after the meeting’s official start time. It’s designed to immediately and purposefully engage people, and there are lots of ways to do this.
For example, I like to hold up a question to the camera for my unofficial start to a virtual meeting like, “What would you do differently if nobody would judge you?” I invite people to respond to that question in the chat or just by unmuting and sharing. Ideally, this exercise sparks purposeful engagement. If you want to try this for your next virtual meeting, choose a question that relates to the purpose of the meeting.
An unofficial start offers understanding for people being late. With virtual meetings, you’ve got the commute from the kitchen to the living room through the pile of kids, the Wi-Fi is lagging and you need to restart your computer to update to version 13.2.758—whatever that is. Some built-in flexibility makes accommodations for those challenges.
The unofficial start also recognizes that time is precious. It’s a nonrenewable resource. So if you’ve got people together on the call, you can start immediately and create the kind of organic connection that happens in person, but usually doesn’t occur virtually.
Sometimes we sacrifice efficiency for connection. But with an unofficial start, we can be efficient with our time and connect right at the outset of the meeting.
5. Do Use Breakouts—But Don’t Split Into Groups “Just Because”
Just having a button on Zoom and other platforms that allows you to split into smaller groups virtually isn’t reason enough to do breakouts. These only really work when you do them with intention.
Having people split up and talk with each other is a great way to make use of your time together. If you split into three breakouts, you’re basically having three meetings at once. Brains are working more collaboratively.
After the breakout, I recommend bringing everyone back together afterward to debrief. That will allow you to turn those cliques into a single community. That could be as easy as having everybody answer the question, “What is something really valuable that you heard in those conversations that you’d love to share with the group?” A simple query like this may be all that’s needed to harvest information from these intimate, disparate conversations. It’s a great way to share what everyone’s learned very quickly, and to invite and design for contribution, rather than consumption.
Do use breakouts. But don’t do them just because you can. Make sure the intention of the breakout is crystal clear.
Sidebar: Check in With Your Group
Before we go on to my next tip, I want to take time to practice something that I always invite folks to do during meetings: check in with your group. If you’re well into your meeting, ask the group how it’s going for them.
Ask everyone, “On a scale of ‘This meeting is going really well—it’s exactly what I hoped it would be’—to, ‘Oh my gosh, this is terrible, we should all leave right now,’ where are you at?” Use the “thumb-o-meter”: thumbs up, down or sideways. If you don’t have video, ask the group to rate the meeting on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the best meeting ever and 1 is the worst.
As the leader or facilitator, if you get a bunch of 4s, 5s or 6s, pause. Don’t just push ahead and waste everyone’s time, including your own. Check in with your group. Ask in the chat or verbally what can be done to raise that rating so the meeting can be really valuable. Then make adjustments and course-correct so you can have the conversations that the group needs.
6. Do Use Analog Visuals to Connect. Don’t Screen-Share the Whole Time
Use analog visuals, like I do in my YouTube videos and virtual meetings. They’re not only cool, they also help people connect with you. But please don’t screen-share the whole time.
When you screen-share on any virtual platform, it maximizes content and minimizes connection and engagement. So even if you do have a deck to share, screen-share for a bit, but design breaks where you’re going to stop sharing your screen, and invite some contribution. For example, while taking a break from screen-sharing, hold up a quote to the group, and invite their reactions and response.
Our brain is designed to encode visuals and experiential data into long-term memory. An analog visual adds a dynamic element, and actually makes us more human, as opposed to only having this little box of pixels to look at in Zoom. When we bring things into the frame from outside the box and share them with the group, it’s like we’re introducing people to parts of ourselves and our humanity.
In this way, visuals are a really useful tool not only educationally, but from an engagement and connection standpoint as well.
7. Close Intentionally, But Don’t Rush the End
So often we meet for time, and a few minutes before the top of the hour, we realize we’re not going to finish everything we set out to do. Then we hastily check our calendars to find another time to meet.
To avoid this, decide before the meeting what experience you want to do last, prior to closing the meeting. I invite leaders to end with the group’s words and contribution, rather than their own words and inspirational message.
Ask everyone in the group to think about one word that describes what they’re thinking about at the end of the meeting. Unmute the call, and let everybody share this. Or in the chat, have everyone type in all caps one thing they’ve taken away from the meeting that they absolutely don’t want to forget.
You don’t have to spend a long time wrapping up. But you should plan an interactive exercise for the end of your virtual meeting, so you can finish it on a high note.