How To Facilitate Effective Virtual Meetings

In light of the Coronavirus, many nonprofits are engaging in scenario planning.  Organizations have also been encouraging their employees to work from home or enlisted travel bans.  The list of conferences cancelled is growing, with some now being delivered a virtual gatherings.  It’s time to up your virtual facilitation and convening skills.

I’ve been working remotely since the early 1990s, during the early years of the Web.  My first remote job was to work with a virtual team to manage an online network for artists, called Artswire. Since those days, I have continued to hone my virtual facilitation skills to design and deliver effective virtual meetings and trainings.   As nonprofits are impacted by the CoronaVirus and need more virtual meeting skills, I’d like to share what I have learned.

This word cloud is from a virtual workshop I facilitated asking participants what the barriers to effective virtual meetings are: technology, engagement, connectivity, and participation. Virtual meetings that are not well designed and facilitated can also mean a loss of productivity. Aside from technical issues, the biggest problem is engagement. As Hasan Osman points out in his Pyramid of Communication  as you move to virtual modes of collaboration and communication, group cohesion and intimacy decreases.This makes it hard for people to fully engage with each other.

Here are some best practices for Virtual Meetings to get past that pain:

1-Co-Create Your Team’s Rules of Engagement or Virtual Meeting Norms

Rules of meeting engagement or “meeting norms” are stated standards that refer to processes, preparation and communication practices which can apply to any meeting. Virtual meetings may have some specific norms, for example:

  • We will use the technology that most accessible to everyone on our team.
  • Test your technology before the meeting and resolve any technical issues
  • Use phone line with audio clarity and stability
  • Do not multi-task (do other work) during the meeting
  • Follow an organized line up to ensure each person has a chance to respond.
  • Find a quiet space to participate
  • Use the mute button at your site to prevent the transmission of background noise.
  • Speak up to get attention if you have something to say.
  • Turn on your video whenever possible and be camera ready

Meeting norms should be shared with your agenda at the top of your meeting, used to reinforce different behaviors, help you improve your virtual meeting process, and should be a short list of no more than 6. Meeting norms should be co-created and discussed with your team because for them to work everyone has to own them.

A thirty minute facilitated process can be used to discuss and create a draft for your meeting norms.  See slide 30 for a simple recipe for doing this exercise as part of a virtual meeting. Alternately, you can use a process called Gifts and Hooks where participants share what gifts they can bring to create an engaging meeting and what they need to be engaged. Here’s an example using a virtual sticky note app.For more ideas on creating meeting norms, see this post.

2-Virtual Meeting Design Is More Than Agenda Planning

While agenda planning, what topics will be discussed for how long and by whom, virtual meeting design requires more designing. You need to think through purpose, roles, meeting norms, materials, facilitator agenda (specially if you are using online tools to do activities like brainstorming, etc), technical, scheduling, and communication.

If you want to get better engagement, identify different people to assume different roles on a rotating basis. Roles may include:

  • Facilitator: Designs and Facilitates Meeting
  • Note Taker:  Takes action notes/takeaways and emails them to everyone right after meeting
  • Technical Support: Helps with technical troubleshooting
  • Bridge Moderator: Someone who can assist remote participants in a face-to-face meeting or those unable to use a video conference platform or facilitates in the chat.
  • Time Keeper: Keeps time

Some teams appoint a”Yoda” to add some levity and increase human connection. Yoda is the person who mentions the elephant in the room or  calls it out when meeting norms are not being followed. Another fun role is “Rabbit Hole Monitor” that uses a technique called “ELMO” (enough already let’s move on).

For more on designing your virtual meeting, read this helpful resource from Nancy White and colleagues.

3-How To Avoid Technical and Time Zone Scheduling Snafus

It isn’t a matter of whether technical problems will happen, it is more like to expect them to happen and have a Plan B or a way to avoid falling into the pit of technical despair  where the meeting gets derailed because of one person’s technical issue or you experimenting with a new tool and it doesn’t work as planned. First, make sure everyone troubleshoots their technical issues before the meeting, if possible. Many platforms have a technical testing page and good tech support, include those links ahead of your meeting. And, if not, here’s a great infographic of common virtual meeting technical issues and fixes.

My secret is to write out a step-by-step facilitator agenda if using a new technical tool and rehearse it. And, always have a plan B. For examples, if your platform drops callers, be a little flexible with the agenda. If someone is supposed to share their screen and is having a technical problem, make sure people have copies of the document and at minimum, you as the facilitator, so you can share your own screen.

Many virtual meetings require working across time zones. My best tips and tools are in this post.

4-Always Do A Virtual Icebreaker or Check-In

A great meeting or training starts with a great icebreaker.Icebreakers are discussion questions or activities used to help participants relax and ease people into a group meeting or learning situation. It is important to build in time for an icebreaker because it can create a positive group atmosphere, break down social barriers, motivate, help people think about the topic, and get people to know and trust one another. Any icebreaker you do in a face-to-face meeting can also be done virtually.

But, you can also have some fun with virtual icebreakers that build trust and engagement. For example, you can share photos of your workspace or your location. Here’s an example of an icebreaker where I asked everyone share a photo of their space.   This helps created a shared experience.

5-Create A Line for Participants To Follow

Establish a method you can call in participants. This might include alphabetical order by first or last name or if you are using a video conference platform by order on the screen. If you are using an audio-only conference call platform, you can use the clock technique  where you assign people numbers on the clock at the top of the meeting, then use that for introductions and later in the meeting to call on people as part of the discussion. Here are some more tips for making audio-only conference calls more impactful.

Pro Tip: If you are using a video conference platform, watch for eye movement (means person is reading something), arms moving or typing sounds (they’re typing), or bored expressions. Don’t call out the person specifically, but remind people that one of your meeting norms is full attention.  Here are some more techniques to ensure that your virtual meeting participants are listening.

6-Techniques for Virtual Brainstorming, Voting, Feedback, and Energizers

In face-to-face meetings, one way we get engagement is doing activities like brainstorming and sticky voting. Both of these activities can be done online using different tools. For brainstorming and sticky dot voting, there are many free, simple to use, and low cost tools you can use. I’ve used liniot to do brainstorming, here’s an example. The tool is the least of the requirements for an effective virtual brainstorm, you need to understand how to design and facilitate an effective process and facilitate with virtual sticky notes.

Another technique that goes hand-in-hand with brainstorming is dot voting. I’ve used in many face-to-face workshops, but it can easily be done online with “Emoji” voting.

During face-to-face meetings, you can easily tell when participants are getting tired or the energy drops.  With virtual meetings, even with video conferencing, it is more difficult. You can ask people about their energy level and then ask them to do a simple stretch movement to help replenish energy. There are also some fun virtual energizers and games that make it fun.

7-Ways To Evaluate and Continuously Improve Virtual Meetings

Your nonprofit’s virtual meetings will get better over time if you allocate 5 or 10 minutes at the end of the meeting to evaluate how it went and what you need to improve. You can use the same methods you would use to evaluate any meeting or training. Here’s an example of using virtual sticky notes to evaluate meetings using two different methods, “Sad, Mad, Glad” and “Plus/Delta.”

8-Hybrid Meetings: Mixing Virtual and Face-to-Face Participation

When you have both people in the room and remote participants, use a bridge moderator (someone in the face meeting) who ensures that there is a linkage between virtual and real time participants. The bridge moderator reminds people in the face-to-face meeting that virtual participants are part of the meeting. Checks to make sure that virtual participants can hear, see, and speak.If using video conferencing, project remote participants on the screen or give a seat at the meeting table.

9-Send Meeting Notes that People Actually Read

I’m sure you are not surprised: no one reads meeting minutes. Nonprofit professionals are so under-resourced and busy, that they don’t often have time to go through meeting minute documents and reading them to figure out what they missed out on. Most people rely on what was mentioned verbally in a meeting, which can lead to miscommunication. A brief, concise follow-up email that summarizes who is working on what is a lot more more effective than meeting minutes. Here’s a good guide for meeting note taking.

Additional Tools and Techniques

If you are like me, you are always looking for more tools and techniques to increase engagement during virtual meetings, webinars, and workshops. Check out “The Ultimate List of Virtual Meeting Tools” or “The Ultimate List of Online Collaboration Tools“for more tools. If you want to evaluate meeting platforms, check out this list from Gartner or this curated list from Collaboration Super Powers.If you are looking for different facilitation techniques to adapt to virtual meeting spaces, check out “8 Fabulous Meeting Facilitation Playbooks.

What’s your best tip or practice for managing and facilitating virtual meetings?

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