Working from home

How to facilitate effective virtual meetings

With the pandemic ongoing around the world, your people are probably more certain by now about the technology they need to be productive at home. However, as you know, leadership is not just about tasks and processes. It’s also about relationships.

Your people need to feel cared for and supported, especially at a time like this. They need to feel connected to their team-mates. But how do you engage a large community who might be geographically dispersed?

Among other things, this article covers some of the principles you need to keep in mind when running virtual team meetings, as well as the tools, tips and techniques to use, and which mindset will be most helpful.

Advantages of virtual meetings

  • Nobody has to travel
  • Everyone has an equal voice (depending on the tech you use)
  • You can record video or audio for non-attendees to watch, or for attendees to review as a reminder
  • Record-keeping is seamless as there is no need to type up minutes afterwards (assuming you use the tech within the agenda, such as for brainstorming and decision-making)

Principles & tips

Above anything, preparation is key. Virtual meetings need even more preparation than face-to-face meetings, because you have to think about which process to follow, get the technology organised, and put a back-up plan in place just in case.

If the tech forms a large part of your meeting, be aware that people will have different levels of confidence and experience with it. It might help to offer a few practice sessions so they can familiarise themselves beforehand.

Do your one-to-one diagnosis beforehand, to gain useful information about team dynamics that will help you shape the session and build psychological safety. Also, this will inform the objectives and agenda – asking for this input and designing the agenda around it will build engagement for the meeting.

Create break-out groups in advance, and set up the virtual whiteboard with the questions/instructions so that team members can quickly get on with the discussion when they dial-in to the break-out group.

Be aware that sitting in front of a screen for a long time is draining, so you also have to work out how to keep people more active, and build in a break at least every 90 minutes. Be clear that the break is for team members to walk around, ideally outside, and get a drink – not to quickly catch-up on email!

In a group of more than about seven people, it’s really hard to keep on top of everything that needs to be covered. It can help to appoint one person to facilitate and another to manage the tech in the background.

I’m usually brought in as the facilitator. I contract with the team leader in advance (just as I would for a face-to-face event), to confirm which role I should play and which they will play. For example, do they want to be an active co-host or a participant (less the overt “boss”)? Will they agree that it’s acceptable for me to challenge them if I think it’s necessary?

Create norms for how to communicate during your online meeting. This includes use of back channels such as the chat box. For example, set a ground rule about whether it’s OK in your meeting for people to have private chat conversations with each other or not. As with face-to-face meetings, set the ground rules for other devices – such as putting mobile phones away and on silent, and turning off notifications for email and social media.

You might think that putting everyone on mute is a wise move (especially for a large group). But in a smaller group I would actually suggest you keep the microphone live to encourage more natural discussion.

Use grid view where you can. When you can see everyone on screen, it’s easier to observe their body language and react accordingly. For small groups, this also means you can use the physical ‘raise hand’ option to find out whether people agree on a topic or not.

It’s worth building in a check-in and check-out – choose activities that are relevant to that particular team and where they are in their journey. If you’ve not used this before, it’s a way of mentally and emotionally bringing everyone into the room – I ask a question that’s relevant to the objectives of the meeting and each person then speaks. You’ll want to adapt this depending on the size of the group.

If it’s a large group, you might be waiting for a couple of minutes until everyone has joined. To keep them engaged before you start, you could, for example, ask them to pick an object from their desk, such as a photo or personal memento, and show it to the camera while explaining what it is. This helps people connect with each other and their environment on a social level.

Make sure you invest time in building trust, because people can’t feel trust in the same way on video as they do face-to-face.  With this in mind, also spend time on discussion if one person disagrees and most of the team agrees – don’t just go with the majority unless that’s been agreed as a ground rule for an agenda item.

If something isn’t working well, ask yourself is it energy/engagement; process; team dynamics; or information. Then, call it out – curiously and without judgement – to invite others to speak.  This quickly addresses an issue and is less likely to result in team members getting frustrated or mentally checking out of the discussion.

Whether I’m running a face-to-face or virtual event, I always define my role at the start and make sure each discussion leads to a clear outcome. For example, I can be there in service of the group to:

  • Help them meet their outcome
  • Pay attention to the atmosphere in the (real or virtual) room
  • Facilitate a clear process (which is even more important online)
  • Role model the appropriate mindset and help create psychological safety

Be wary of having long discussions in the virtual space, because they can drag down energy. It’s a better idea to pose a question and get people into breakout groups where they can report back with a summary for everyone else.

Useful tools

You probably know about the various tools available for video calling, such as Zoom, Skype, WebinarJam, and Hangouts from the Google Suite.

One useful tool is Google’s Jamboard, which is like a whiteboard or flipchart where everyone can work at the same time. Posting to the Jamboard is anonymous, which helps people who would otherwise be quiet and reluctant to contribute.

This tool makes it easy to cluster and summarise things, creates an immediate record with no need to type anything up later, and can be stored on the team’s shared drive. A benefit of this is that people can work on the same Jamboard in their own time and in their own time zone, wherever they are in the world.

Mural is another electronic whiteboard that also has a voting option.

Pollev and Mentimeter are good for capturing votes, while Trello is useful for project management.

It can be wise to display a countdown timer on the screen in the main room, so people know when to come back from breaks and breakouts. For example, iPadStopwatch.

Chat is the backbone of many tools. You can ask people to post questions and add comments, so it’s useful for gathering feedback. Note that it’s helpful to appoint someone to manage chat while you facilitate the actual meeting.

Slack is another popular tool for storing document-sharing and having online chats.

You can invest in or create graphical templates that help people engage in a creative way, such as for the objectives and agenda, or decision making. Ask me if you’d like to explore this.

Don’t use too many tools, because the more you do, the more it slows bandwidth and discussion becomes about the tech rather than using the tech to enable quality discussions.

Encourage discussion

Here are some sentences that might help you when you are leading a discussion in the virtual space:

  • “If you agree, you don’t have to say anything. If you disagree, please let us know.”
  • “I’m going to give you a minute in silence to think about that, and then invite you to share your thoughts”.  This then makes the silence comfortable, rather than awkward – and ensures people don’t speak into the space before others are ready.
  • “From our discussion, it sounds like… Have I got that correct, or am I missing something?”
  • To close out a workshop, a check-out question for each person to answer could be: “I see, I feel, I think”.
  • If one person has a different view to the majority: “Tell us, what do you see that we don’t?”
  • “It’s more likely in a virtual meeting that two or more people will speak at the same time… let’s happily accept this will happen and move on.”
  • “As we look at this (e.g. clustering of stickies) what thoughts do you have?”
  • “Is anyone lost?”
  • “If I invite you to comment and you’re not ready to, it’s fine to pass – I won’t force anyone to speak that isn’t ready to.”
  • “Feel free to let me know if this isn’t working for you – others may be feeling the same.  We can then figure out what and how to change it.”

Manage your mindset

Be patient with the tech, and with each other’s comfort level at this way of meeting.

When you ask a question, you need to be OK with longer pauses – this is what I experience often in virtual meeting rooms.

Equally, accept there will be times when more than one person speaks at once. Don’t feel awkward about it. It’s fine and natural. Just deal with it calmly, because you don’t want to stop people speaking.

One way around this is to set up a ‘relay’ system where you invite one person to speak, and they bring in the next, who brings in the next and so on.

Keep your mind open to opportunities, just as you would if it was a face-to-face meeting in the same physical space. You are there in the service of the team, so don’t be a slave to the process and agenda. Be prepared to be flexible.

Case study

It’s important to invest in the wellbeing of your team, and that means keeping people connected even when we can’t be together.

As you may know, I facilitate leadership and team meetings, often with a focus on strategy and team development. I don’t just focus on tasks and process (although I can also do that, of course); I very much also focus on the relationship side.

For example, I was recently invited to run a 90-minute session for a department of 75 people who are located around the world, in countries with different stages of lockdown.

Before the day, I had a one-to-one with each member of the leadership team to find out how their people are doing, and what the organisation needs holistically and collectively.

Overwhelmingly, their people were needing support and reassurance from their leadership team, particularly those who were juggling productivity with young children at home. Speaking to the leader in advance helped them think through the opening talk that would be needed to land their key messages.

We also posed questions in advance so people could contribute their ideas about:

  • How to manage childcare with work
  • How to separate work and home life when working from home
  • How to look after physical and mental health during lockdown
  • What they have learned about themselves during this crisis

On the day, I delivered a 15-minute presentation giving guidance about how to look after yourself at this time, with advice, tips and reassurance. Key points included:

  • Fear is natural, but there are things you can do to handle it. Don’t let this situation control you; you control it.
  • You shouldn’t be expected to achieve something onerous or amazing during this time. Be kind to yourself.
  • Decide what you would like to learn or experience while you have the chance. Think about your personal development or career or a new hobby, or the opportunity to catch up with reading or old friends. That way, when we all come out of this, you’ll feel you have accomplished something you might not otherwise have had time for.

We then used Jamboard as a place where people could post their advice and pictures, and encouraged them to speak about their truth and reality. They contributed a range of amazing suggestions.

The result was a real team spirit and sense of community. People felt supported by the leadership team and each other. They came away with tangible and practical advice on how to look after themselves. They felt proud of working for this organisation.

Please contact me if you’d like to discuss this in more detail.

Top TV tips

You’re on screen, so take a lesson from TV presenting (these tips are inspired by Esther Stanhope, former live BBC producer):

  • Love the lens. Make sure you look at the webcam not the screen. Imagine you are talking to a person you love / someone who makes you feel good about yourself.
  • Smile, smile, smile. It’s all about your eyes and teeth.
  • Eradicate background noise. Use a headset and mute (especially for large meetings)
  • Consider what’s in shot. Tidy your background. Think about lighting. Set the camera so your face is 1/3 down and fills the frame.
  • Hair, makeup, wardrobe. While no-one expects you to wear a full business suit, don’t wear a scruffy tracksuit either.

One of the team members from the session described above said that wearing ‘home’ or ‘work’ outfits benefit her work:life balance as it helps her and her family know when she is ‘on’ or ‘off’ duty.

  • Invest in tech. If you want to look and sound professional, you need good quality internet, speaker, microphone and lighting.

To ensure my video calls are clear for participants, I’ve invested in a whole range of new equipment, including a Pantronix earpiece – these are good quality (and the one I have doesn’t squash my hair!).  If you don’t want an earpiece you could invest in a Jabra speaker – they’re small speakers that sit on your desk.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Many people are relatively new to video-calling tech. Don’t underestimate how much practice you’ll need to become accomplished with it. The more you use it, the better you’ll get.

Further reading

If you found this article useful, you might also like my related articles:

Next month

Understanding and managing anxiety.