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Five Tips for Virtual Meetings
Today is my 50-something day cooped up in my Brooklyn apartment. The blur of days has been punctuated with the familiar sounds of: “sorry, you are on mute” and “you froze for a second, can you repeat what you were saying?” Like many, I have had to innovate new ways to translate my once in-person meetings to online formats.
This has been an area of focus for us at RMI since much of our work is to facilitate meetings around the world, supporting our partners in innovating faster to create a clean, prosperous, and secure low-carbon energy future. We have a lot of experience doing this in person. But as many of you already know, it’s different online.
We’re experimenting our way forward, trying to find ways to create authentic virtual connection, conversation, and collaboration. We’ve even created a chat channel internally to pose questions and lean on each other’s experiences. So far, I am convinced that virtual meetings can be effective, efficient, and dare I say…. fun! I invite you to share in our learning and to experiment in your own online meetings. Whether you are trying to transform the electricity system or hosting a virtual birthday party, we can all be better facilitators in achieving the critical work that needs to happen.
Here are five tips that I’ve found guide me as I’ve switched to planning online meetings.
One: Let go of the idea that a virtual event will be the same as an in-person one.
In all facilitation you must adapt your agenda and facilitation style to your venue and available tools. When facilitating a virtual meeting, your trusted in-person techniques might not work. Don’t despair, rather explore the new medium you are working in. Going virtual allows us to better incorporate technology to meet the group’s needs. Some of my favorite tools include:
- Virtual white boards: encourage people to switch mediums and draw instead of writing something out.
- Shared spreadsheet: Spreadsheets don’t have to be only for analysis. I’ve had success treating an excel spreadsheet like an endless source of post-it notes.
- Chat: Sometimes you don’t have time for everyone to verbalize their thoughts and questions. The chat function can be a great way to save time, capture ideas, and engage your participants.
Two: Plan and prepare!
A good facilitator is always prepared for an event whether it is virtual or in person. For virtual facilitation, there are additional considerations:
- Scrutinize length: Virtual meetings move at a different pace than in-person events. Conversations or presentations often feel slower. But there are other things that happen faster, like breaking out into small discussion groups or voting. To prepare effectively, scrutinize your timing assumptions.
- Test the technology: When hosting a meeting that will require new technology, consider hosting an optional separate session where you test online tools with your participants. This can be right before the meeting.
- Consider back up: If you feel overwhelmed by keeping track of too many things at once consider adding other facilitators to support you. The meeting may run more smoothly with another person to monitor chats, send files, act as tech support, and help monitor participant energy levels, while the facilitator is focused on carrying out the agenda.
Three: Create an environment that allows for frictionless participation.
We often convene people to incorporate their perspective. Make sure you don’t lose sight of that. Design and facilitate meetings that allow people to effectively participate:
- Reduce hierarchy: Consider starting your meetings with a check-in question to help participants focus and create a precedent that everyone should participate. In virtual meetings, varying access to technology can unintentionally create hierarchy. Before your meeting, gage your participants’ technical limitations. Do they have access to fast internet? Do they have a camera? Then make a plan to ensure each invitee is able to participate. If possible, encourage everyone to be on video so that they are all equally present on the screen. If someone has to dial in or turn off their video, make sure you describe any visuals and intentionally pause often for anyone to speak up if something is unclear. Comfort with technology can also create hierarchy so prioritize the testing of technology with participants when planning your session!
- Mix up modes of participation: Not everyone is comfortable sharing in group discussions. Create opportunities for people with different communication styles to participate. You can switch to written formats via chat or a shared document. Scheduling in reflection time or allowing people to do some homework can allow people to process their thoughts. If you have a large group, consider breaking the group into smaller groups (4 to 5 at a maximum if you want people to really open up).
- Ensure that the meeting is collaborative: If you are short on time, polls and other forms of voting can quickly gather the group’s input. Hand gestures can be a way to encourage people to keep their camera on and to quickly get a sense of the group’s preferences. Conversations tend to flow better when people don’t have to click a button to participate. Experiment with having participants permanently off mute.
Four: Reduce distractions.
With everyone on their computers, it can be a challenge to have participants focus fully on the meeting you are facilitating. To ensure focused participants, consider the following:
- Make the meeting valuable to all participating: Consider what your participants would like to get from the meeting and plan to incorporate those elements. For high-stakes engagements, consider a need assessment interview with each participant beforehand to identify their expectations and concerns. Also ensure that each participant has a way to interact in your agenda.
- Establish norms about how to participate: It is important for participants to know beforehand what type of meeting they will engage in. Is it a free-flowing dialogue where anyone can speak? Or, is this mostly a presentation of information and we ask for comments and questions through the chat window? Contract around when and how people can contribute throughout the meeting.
- Tactical suggestions: Even after employing the above, some people can still get distracted. Consider recommending your participants making the meeting in full screen on their computer and turn off notifications from other applications to prevent other distractions. For those that need to be doing something with their hands, encourage them do play with something physical while they are not talking (playdoh, knitting, coloring, etc.). This might help people refrain from checking their emails during the meeting. It is also important to recognize that screen time might be extra tiring for some. Consider having shorter meetings, more homework, and more frequent breaks.
Five: Inspire joy.
Virtual meetings don’t have to be boring! Being at home can create unique opportunities to foster connections in new ways. A couple techniques you can consider for making your meetings more enjoyable:
- Mark events: Both in-person and virtually, finding ways to ritualize aspects of your meeting can help participants focus and feel more satisfied. Look for opportunities to open and close a session or celebrate an accomplishment in your virtual format.
- Allow time for non-work: The biggest disappointment for many when switching to a virtual format is the absence of organic socialization. Find ways to encourage socialization for those that want it. This can include explicitly scheduling some time to catch up and ask non work-related questions. When time is short, create time for people who need more social interaction to have it outside your scheduled meeting (start meetings 15 minutes before or after, for example).
- Create Intimacy and real connections: It is important to recognize that when we connect with people remotely, we are often being invited into their homes. This is a unique opportunity to strengthen relationships and encourage intimacy. Leverage that. Welcome people’s kids, pets, and tchotchkes into the equation! Make those part of the meeting (and limit them as needed). Ask people to bring their kids in to answer a check-in question. Allow pets to be part of the meeting. Ask people to share something about their space. Invite authenticity into meetings and provide space for people to share aspects of their private lives. This can make virtual interactions in some ways deeper than it would be in the office.
For many of us, switching to virtual facilitation can feel daunting or less than ideal. Yet what we’re discovering is that online meetings are not only effective, they can also present some unique advantages. We are engaged in this opportunity to experiment together on a grand scale and learn from each other. We may even find that we will want to continue working this way long after in-person meetings are safe again, doing so as another contribution to creating a thriving and vibrant low-carbon world.