By Eva Jo Meyers
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic shaking up our world right now, business owners, employees, and stakeholders still need to have meetings, maybe now more than ever. Here are 10 tips on how to conduct effective meetings virtually when you are unable to have them in person:
1. Do some extra preparation
Just connecting over Skype or FaceTime and expecting meetings to run the same way they would if everyone was together in a room is a recipe for a lot of wasted time. This is a perfect opportunity to tap into the principles of the flipped classroom. Rather than spending time online going over information, send out any documents or information you want to cover a day or two in advance, then use the time together online to answer questions, make decisions, or discuss the material.
2. Post a “Do Now” to get participants warmed up before the meeting starts
As people join the call, ask them to complete a quick task, like adding any updates to a shared agenda document, typing their name and a brief bio in the chat window, or preparing a response to a focus question, like “What is one thing you hope to get out of this session?”
3. Set the ground rules
Establishing rules is especially important online because we cannot read each other’s body language or pick up on the fidgeting that might otherwise indicate something is going off the rails. Decide what your speaking order will be and stick to it. It’s very easy to start talking over each other online, so you might want to designate a word, like “over,” that people can say when they have finished their thought. You should also set a hard timeline for each agenda item and decide what critical decisions or goals need to be made.
Sometimes it’s easier for online meetings to fizzle out rather than end with a real result, so make sure to stick to your plan and rules.
4. Start with a check-in question
Set aside at least two minutes per person (set a timer) for participants to share something about themselves and their situation. For example, “What is something that has gone really well for you this week?” or “What is a traditional family remedy/prevention for illness that you’ve been thinking about recently?” You could also use the time to see how people are feeling, both physically and emotionally, during this turbulent time.
5. Give everyone a role
It’s way too easy to check out when you’re sitting in front of a screen. Try to include everyone by assigning different jobs: a notetaker (especially if you are working off of a shared document or screen), a timekeeper, a facilitator (to call on people based on assigned speaking order), and other tasks that need handling. If you are planning to have a lot of meetings or classes online, switch roles around so everyone has a chance to do each job.
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6. Slow down and make space
Meeting on a computer screen and experiencing any technology glitches or environmental distractions at home can make online engagements feel hectic and disjointed. One way to help participants focus is to ask everyone to turn off notifications (so email blips don’t keep popping up), put their phones away, and take a breath. Keep the pace of the meeting on the slower side, allowing more time than you might do during an in-person session to allow for discussions, questions, and transitions.
7. Split up the group
Online tools like Zoom allow you to create “breakout rooms,” but you can also do this by pausing the meeting and having people pair up to talk over the phone or via a message service for 10 minutes, and then having everyone return to the large group meeting for a brief share out. This will give everyone more “airtime” and provides more opportunity for participation.
8. Pause at intervals to give participants time to reflect
Things tend to “flash by” during virtual sessions, so pausing at transition points to give people a chance to collect their thoughts and write things down can be very helpful. You can either offer a prompt, such as “What information from the last discussion was most useful to you?” or “What questions do you still have?” You can also simply leave it open with “Take a minute to write down your thoughts.”
9. Close your meeting with another brief share out
This could be when each person shares their to-dos from the session, or it could take the form of a checkout question: “What is one ‘aha’ you had during this session?” or “How are you going to use what you learned/heard here today in your work?”
10. Follow up
During an in-person event, people often linger afterward to ask questions or bring up an issue they didn’t want to share with the whole group. Since that opportunity isn’t readily available with online meetings, create an intentional opportunity for further connection by sending a follow-up email with any supporting documents, notes, or action items. This is also a good opportunity to get participant feedback on the session through a brief survey (e.g., What worked for you about this session? What do you still want to know? What will you use from the session? What suggestions do you have for future meetings?).
Virtual meetings can be very effective
Virtual engagements are a must during this outbreak. Although it takes a little bit of extra effort (especially at first, if you are not accustomed to this format for meeting), rest assured that with a little practice these sessions can be just as powerful as in-person meetings if you put a few simple structural rules and practices in place.
If you are willing to embrace all that technology has to offer to help you remain connected, you will be able to both stay safe and healthy and get your work done with your colleagues. And, who knows? You may decide that this format works even better than you expected and continue your virtual gatherings even after the danger has passed.
About the Author
Post by: Eva Jo Meyers
Eva Jo Meyers is the author of Raise the Room: A Practical Guide to Participant-Centered Facilitation. She has held positions as a bilingual classroom teacher, as an administrator for after-school programs for the San Francisco Unified School District, and as a Fulbright Scholar in Thailand, studying the influences of culture on pedagogy. She and her family recently spent a year in Chongqing, China, where she was teaching English and American Culture at Yangtze Normal University. A seasoned consultant and professional facilitator, she provides a wide range of professional development support for school districts, city agencies, and nonprofits across the country.
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