How to lead an engaging, high-impact virtual meeting
Updated: Mar 16, 2020
Many work teams collaborate remotely every day, and that number is only increasing (particularly now with coronavirus and travel restrictions!)
One key challenge of dispersed teams is figuring out how to run effective virtual meetings.
I have worked remotely myself for several years, and with remote team members for longer, and I have attended many virtual meetings and webinars over the years - some good, and some painfully bad. I have also facilitated hundreds of virtual meetings myself, from coaching sessions to focus groups, project team meetings and strategic planning calls. I am constantly working to figure out ways to boost the engagement level of participants and overall impact of my virtual meetings, and I have learned a TON along the way.
Here are 5 tips for leading an engaging, high impact, virtual meeting:
1. Video is non-negotiable
It seems obvious, but be sure to choose a remote collaboration platform that allows for video conferencing (sorry, phone calls just don't cut it these days!) Then, as the meeting facilitator, create a norm for all of your participants' videos to be ON during your meeting. I've seen a huge jump in meeting participation when everyone uses their videos. Plus it is good for team health, as it allows for remote team members to strengthen their connections by seeing each others' faces when they don't work in the same office or even timezone!
If your company does not already have one, it's important to choose a remote collaboration platform that works for you. I love Zoom because there is a free version that still gives you access to most features, it's intuitive to use, and participants do not need to download Zoom software in order to join a meeting. There are many other options to choose from, including other free platforms like Google Hangouts Meet and Skype, and others that require a membership like WebEx or JoinMe.
Whatever platform you choose, be sure to test it out before your meeting to make sure you are confident using the various features so you can be focused on your content during the meeting.
2. Keep your Content Short & Incorporate Pre Work
For virtual meetings, it is important to limit the length of time participants are asked to digest new information during the call. This is because it is extremely difficult to hold people's attention in a virtual meeting when they have so many distractions - their phones, dog, roommate, or email inbox are right there, tempting them to multi-task and lose focus.
A good rule is to limit any presentations of new material during a virtual meeting to 10 minutes maximum.
One way to help keep your content short is to introduce new content in advance of your meeting using Pre Work. Similar to the concept of "flipped classroom", a pedagogy popularized in the K12 learning space, having your team prep before the meeting increases engagement and productivity during the meeting.
Send out slides with key concepts, a copy of the meeting agenda and relevant pre-reading several days in advance so your team will arrive at the meeting primed and ready to dive into the work. This is a great practice for any team meeting, in person or virtual. But focusing on engagement becomes exponentially more important in a virtual meeting, since distractions and multi-tasking can quickly become toxic to effective remote collaboration.
3. Maximize the "Chat" feature during the meeting
Most virtual collaboration platforms include a "chat" feature for meeting participants to communicate in a public chat window. This seemingly simple feature is a GREAT asset for the meeting facilitator, particularly in meetings with more than 10 attendees when participants are often muted and verbal participation from everyone is not possible. I like to incorporate at least 3 different prompts to use chat during every meeting. Here are some examples of prompts:
At the start of the meeting, have everyone chat in their response to a simple check in question. As the meeting facilitator, be sure to read at least some of them out loud to give voice to your participants.
After a presentation or review of new content, stop & ask a question to check for understanding. These questions relate directly to the content just presented and ideally have a short, one-word answer (e.g. "Which of the three techniques I just reviewed are you most likely to use in the next week?)
At the end, or at a mid-point break, stop and ask for feedback. This can be feedback on the meeting itself (e.g. "On a scale of 1-4, how well do you think we did at accomplishing our meeting objectives today?") or on a different topic (e.g. "On a scale of 1-4, how are you feeling about implementing this new initiative?")
Maximizing chat increases team participation in the virtual space, encourages peer connection, and helps you as the facilitator to check for understanding. Incorporating the chat throughout will keep people on their toes and, rather than checking out or multi-tasking, they will be anticipating their next opportunity to take part in the meeting.
4. For longer meetings, use virtual breakout rooms
When facilitating a lengthy remote meeting with objectives that require discussion, creativity and deeper interaction between team members, virtual breakouts are a godsend.
For example, you can break a meeting with 30 participants into 5 small groups of 6 people for a portion of the meeting for deeper collaboration and increased engagement. You can then bring the large group back together to the main meeting "room" to share out and close the meeting. Zoom has a breakout rooms feature and I have found it's really straightforward to use (though I recommend assigning a 2nd facilitator to help out with setting the breakout rooms up during the call!)
How do you decide if using virtual breakout rooms are a good idea for your meeting? Here are a few scenarios when it might make sense:
You want to boost participation and engagement during a recurring longer meeting with a large group of attendees. As a general rule, if your virtual meeting is over an hour long and larger than 10 people, consider incorporating breakout rooms to boost participation and engagement.
Your team needs to problem-solve a time-sensitive and complex issue with a customer. Using breakouts can allow for you to set up the larger issue with the whole group, then allow a couple of smaller, cross-functional teams to do a 20 minute work sprint and dive deep into solutions.
Your company is going through a strategic planning process and it's important to get honest feedback your dispersed team members about a new strategic initiative. Setting up virtual breakout rooms by job level as part of a longer virtual strategy session can create a safe space for peers on dispersed teams to brainstorm and generate honest feedback about a new initiative or change.
You'd be surprised how much creative collaboration is possible in a virtual space when you tap into the technology of virtual breakouts!
5. To boost accountability, try using a virtual collaboration "white board" space
During a virtual meeting or webinar, it is all too common for attendees to silently watch (and multi-task) as the presenter reviews content in slides for an hour, then promptly forget 95% of what was said 2 minutes after the meeting ends. The result is a waste of time for everyone involved.
One way to boost shared accountability both during and after the meeting is to incorporate a shared "white board" space that is edited live during the call and that all participants can view and edit.
This "white board" is not a replacement for your beautiful slide deck. It's a complement to it. It is the accountability place where a note taker (not the facilitator!) takes notes during the call and captures key points and action steps. This practice is particularly helpful when a meeting's objective is to discuss a complex topic, or to surface challenges or questions from the group. Live note-taking ensures that meeting participants feel heard and that their input is captured accurately. The "white board" also provides a simple way to catch up for anyone who missed the meeting, and, if needed, it can be continuously added to for repeating meetings such as work groups or task forces.
The key is to choose a type of "white board" that can be 1) edited live and 2) shared with multiple people. I love the simplicity of using Google Docs for this purpose. Just create a new document, share it with all virtual participants' email addresses, and everyone can edit and view it immediately. Plus Google docs are free to use! For complex brainstorming or strategy sessions, there are other, more high-tech options that also allow for real-time edits from all participants (e.g. Mural) which are also worth considering if you have the budget!
So, if you need to up accountability at your virtual meetings, in addition to your pretty slides, consider using a virtual "white board" system where all remote meeting attendees can "be together" live, capture important information and action steps, and refer back to in the future!
I hope these tips are helpful - please share & let me know if you try any of them out!
About Kim Webster:
I am a facilitator & coach helping to increase leadership capacity and impact of emerging leaders and teams in purpose-driven companies and organizations. If you need support improving your team's virtual collaboration & remote meetings, or want help facilitating a high impact virtual session, please contact me at www.ownitconsulting.com or on LinkedIn.
NOTE: I am currently offering FREE 30 minute consultations on remote working - from leading virtual meetings, to remote team management, to maximizing virtual collaboration technologies. Click here to request a consultation!