When there’s a need to discuss important and complex issues, most people try to meet face to face. Especially with a global team, it’s a really important part of maintaining relationships and commitment to the team and your objectives.
Face-to-face meetings typically get better results, especially when you need to work on something complicated, build commitment to an outcome or to each other, or co-create something such as a vision or mission statement. This is because we’re social creatures – we’re human beings, not human doings! It’s much easier to pick up on each other’s cues and get into the flow when we’re face to face.
However, it’s not always practical for everyone to get together in the same place at the same time. Thanks to technological advances, it is now possible to use video for team meetings, with group conference calls as the next best thing. On those occasions, you might turn to virtual facilitation instead.
The case for virtual facilitation
The need for virtual facilitation is often driven by budget. It’s cheaper than flying team members around the world so they can meet face to face. It also helps with their work:life balance. And it helps sustain the environment, as it reduces your organisation’s CO2 footprint.
When running a virtual meeting, it’s important to allocate time to each of these three elements:
- Planning and preparation
- Facilitating the virtual meeting
- Follow up
I’ve compiled practical tips about each element below.
Planning and preparation
First, think about the objectives and outcome you want from the meeting and build your agenda from this starting point.
Decide on the working style, behaviours and ground rules you’ll need to establish in order to achieve your goals.
Work out the different roles that participants will play:
- Facilitator/s: You may choose to have one person facilitate the overall meeting, while others facilitate different sessions within the meeting. This helps create different energies and encourages everyone to participate even if they’re not leading a session. Those who have to facilitate a session themselves will appreciate just how difficult it is (the empathy this generates is a useful side benefit)
- Note-taker: Someone needs to be responsible for taking notes and jotting down decisions and outcomes. Keeping a running log of key communication points to share saves time at the end of the meeting
- Technology: Someone else needs to manage the technology if you are facilitating, for example, helping people to log in, keeping an eye on timing, and watching out for questions so you don’t miss them
Issue clear communication in advance that covers everything that people need to know, such as:
- Objectives, outcomes and agenda
- Dial-in/logon details
Decide how you will share any documents you might refer to during the meeting. Will you send them ahead of time? Or distribute them during the meeting itself? Ensure you make the documents visually appealing – the ‘Death by PowerPoint’ experience is bad enough for a face-to-face audience, but in a virtual environment, poor visuals don’t stand a chance of retaining attention!
Consider what tool to use. A lot of my clients prefer Google Hangouts or Skype. Other options include Zoom, GoToWebinar and WebinarJam. They are not all free, and it’s worth investing in whichever technology works best for you.
Some tools take a while to download or update before users can join the meeting. It’s therefore wise to tell people to login 10 or 15 minutes before the official start time so they are ready when you are.
Facilitating the virtual meeting
The first few minutes are likely to be spent waiting for people to connect. It’s a great opportunity to use this time to engage people, rather than using it to catch up with email. So use that time for social chit-chat, run a light icebreaker, hold a poll, or check in with individuals to ask how they are via voice or chat message.
Just like a face-to-face meeting, start the meeting by checking in to see how people are doing and their expectations for the meeting. Depending on numbers, you can do this with individuals or site by site. Time invested in this is really valuable, as it brings people into the meeting both mentally and emotionally.
Once everyone has joined the call, reconfirm the objectives, outcome and agenda. Be explicit about your ground rules. For example, a classic scenario is when people are ‘invisible’ (their webcam is not on), they will often carry on emailing instead of paying attention. If you ‘call this out’ at the start, they are less likely to be distracted.
Make your virtual meeting as informal and relaxed as possible. Let people know you are creating a safe environment and that you want to hear from everyone. See more on this in my article on psychological safety and team effectiveness.
Give a clear process and follow your agenda timings. When people have a structure to follow, it helps them know where they are. You need to be even more structured and process-minded when participants are not all in the same room.
As with face-to-face meetings, you can have breakout groups. If sites sit together, you can hang up the call, give them each 10-15 minutes to work together, then all come back into the virtual meeting with their input. Or mix people up across sites and have a few virtual break-out groups working in parallel before hanging up and coming back together as one team. Working on something in small groups like this helps create renewed buzz and energy.
If a topic overruns its allotted time, keep calm. Don’t ignore it and lose the agenda, and don’t cut an important discussion short. Ask participants if they want to adjust the agenda timings, as the team may feel it’s worth spending more time on that topic. You could say: “This topic seems to be generating a lot of discussion. Do you want to adjust the agenda today? Or book more time to discuss this later?”
Likewise, if a topic veers off course, or goes round in circles, your role as facilitator is to politely draw attention to that. “We seem to have gone off track. Let me try to summarise and take stock of where we are.” / “We seem to be repeating ourselves now. What decision are we making?”
Ensure participation is balanced (as in all meetings). You will always have some characters who talk more, and others who are quieter. You may need to actively invite the quieter ones to contribute their views. I also find that having this as a ground rule encourages people to manage their own contribution and support others (to speak up more/less).
To maintain the interest of all participants, encourage contributors to be succinct. You can call it out in a lighthearted way at the beginning: “If you want to make a point, please be succinct!”
If things don’t go according to plan, that’s OK – this is common. When you get any group talking, you can’t know in advance what will come up and where people might get stuck. It’s particularly common when trying to create something new. If you stay relaxed and show this is a normal part of the process, others will follow your lead.
Use graphic facilitation if possible – that is, where you draw or write key decisions by hand rather than typing them. This is more visually appealing, and makes it feel more like a ‘live’ meeting than formal minutes would.
Communicate decisions and next steps tangibly at the end of each session, (and have the note-taker write them down visibly to everyone – a bit like you would with a flipchart) and then introduce the next topic with objectives and outcomes.
After the meeting, follow up by communicating the decisions and outcomes, both privately to participants and publicly to stakeholders. This is absolutely essential to encourage the team to commit and take the agreed actions.
If you are able, follow up with each participant one-on-one to find out how the meeting went for them, and any further thoughts they may have. This helps maintain the connection and commitment. However, do not let the follow up conversations become an excuse for anyone to avoid contributing during the meeting itself.
Regularly review with people to find out what they feel about the effectiveness of your virtual meetings, so you can keep learning about their experience of the process, and adjust as you go.
- Face-to-face meetings will always be valuable, especially when first connecting and building relationships
- Virtual meetings can form part of your repertoire, but shouldn’t replace face to face
- Virtual meetings take more energy, so try and limit them to a maximum of 90 minutes
- To make virtual meetings a practical possibility, you need reliable technology; good processes; and a safe, engaging atmosphere
- Remember the three steps: plan; facilitate; follow up
If you’d like to discuss more or book me as a virtual facilitator, just give me a call on +44 (0)7899 911759.
If you found this information useful, you might like to read these related articles:
- High-performing leadership teams
- How and why to collaborate effectively
- Dealing with ambiguity
- How mastermind groups can help with personal growth
- Introducing action-centred leadership
- Tapping into social intelligence at work
- How to improve your influencing skills
- Leading global teams
How to design an agile organisation.