As humans we naturally function better when we are face-to-face and can draw on the full range of our sensory capacities. When we meet with others in virtual settings, we can’t easily access the visual information and body-language cues that inform group communication.
Still, working virtually is with us to stay. So here are some guidelines for facilitating your next meeting with people who are in different locations. These best practices will help you lay the groundwork for a successful and enjoyable experience for your team or work group.
PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE
1. When planning the meeting, carefully and explicitly assign roles. Who will be the facilitator, the scribe, the timekeeper, the tech support? Be sure the team leader is not in a facilitative role, so he or she is free to engage the team in moving the work forward as a content expert and full participant.
2. Prepare a visual focal point for each agenda item. For introductions and go-arounds, you could create a virtual room with photos of participants positioned around a table. For other segments, you might plan a graphic recording that everyone can view or a slide that lists options for discussion. The Grove’s Digital Graphic Guides (PPT slides) provide helpful frameworks for group discussions. Ahead of time, practice the transitions from one focal point to the next. Mixing different formats is more challenging but can also help keep interest high.
3. Be clear about what the group is meeting to accomplish. Just as with a face-to-face meeting, think about the best way to approach each agenda item. Specify who is in charge of each topic, how the time is broken up, when a decision is expected, and how decisions will be reached and documented.
4. Make the meeting relevant and engaging, and be sure to give everybody an active role in it. This has to do with the design of the meeting, who is present, and how you support their collaborative work. If people (especially those participating at a distance) feel the meeting isn’t relevant, or they struggle with the tool, or they sense that there is no need for participation, their attention will fall away.
CLARIFY THE COMMUNICATION CHANNELS
5. Confirm meeting arrangements well ahead of time and send the information several times. When is the meeting? How do participants log in? Who will facilitate? What does their computer and phone setup need to include? Do they need to download any plug-ins ahead of time? Be sure to send the agenda in advance of the meeting.
6. Audio is the most important element to get right. People should not use a speakerphone to connect; mention this when you send out the meeting details. Also, it is best to use a headset when connecting to the call using a computer.
7. Determine the best way for your dispersed group to share working documents. There is no single right way, as each situation is different. Discover what best supports your group based on the tools that are available at your company. Also consider how easy a given tool is to use and integrate into people’s workflow.
“GO SLOW TO GO FAST” IN LAUNCHING THE MEETING
8. Expect a slow start and plan for it in your agenda. It will probably take about 10 minutes for people to connect to the meeting and settle in. Include a light icebreaker to help fill the getting-settled time and as a subtle way to ensure everyone can hear and be heard.
9. Display the agenda when you start, when you shift segments, and when you end. Virtual meetings are notorious for omitting agendas and related details. Whenever people come together, they want to know why they are there, what they are expected to do, and when they can leave. Use a Meeting Startup template to gather all the necessary details into one easy-to-read display.
10. Create space right away for people to get their voices into the mix. Giving people a chance to say something in the beginning makes it easier for them to participate later.
11. Include a “two-breath rule” for check-ins in your group agreements. This is a simple way to keep the check-ins short. Instruct people, “Say whatever you need, but you only get two breaths.” Set the tone in a light-hearted way—“Obviously, the scuba divers and the horn players will have an advantage”—then use the rule to keep people on track. You can say, “OK, I just heard you draw a third breath… time’s up!”
ENSURE PARTICIPATION IS BALANCED
12. Engage everyone, including those not present in the room if it is a blended meeting. Blended meetings are meetings in which some people are meeting face-to-face while other people are remote. It is especially important in blended meetings to ensure that people who are not present can still be in on the action.
13. Make space for quiet participants to be heard, as you would in any meeting. Ask for a group agreement that you will intervene if participation becomes unbalanced and some people are dominating. When meeting virtually, the lack of visual cues makes it even harder to break in, and you must be swift and clear when you do it.
14. Be sure to throw quiet people a line, that is, give them a hint that you will be pulling them into the conversation before you actually do it, leaving them a few moments to collect their thoughts.
15. Structure an inclusive process for creative and dynamic brainstorming. To make room for introverted participants’ deliberative thinking style, first ask people to write down their ideas on their own for a few minutes. Then do a go-around, with people sharing one idea at a time from their notes.
KEEP THINGS MOVING, EVEN WHEN THE UNEXPECTED HAPPENS
16. Keep participants accountable for the agenda. Let them know where they are and where they need to go. If a time boundary is being overrun, say: “This seems to be a very rich topic. Should we adjust our agenda to give more time for this conversation?” Or if the conversation is an unproductive sidetrack, say: “We seem to have gotten off topic. Is this something that we should devote time to? If so, what do we cut short to make room for it?”
17. Expect things to fall apart, because they will at times. This is not a “what if;” it is a “when.” Maintain calm control of the meeting no matter what happens, and convey that the situation is in hand. If you stay calm, the group will too. If you try to fix the issue in real time, make your troubleshooting short and minimally visible; don’t have people sit there and watch as you try to fix it.
18. Always have a lower-tech backup plan—usually, the phone. Secure a teleconference line as a Plan B, and include this phone number when you send out the instructions. Then if the web conference is not working well, simply say, “Let’s get on the phone and finish this up.”
FOLLOW UP YOUR STAR PERFORMANCE…BY FOLLOWING UP
19. Make crystal-clear agreements on next steps. Whenever possible, decide on a follow-up step for each of the agenda items not completed in the current session, along with time frames and who is responsible. Make sure these are accurately reflected in the notes.
20. Communicate with people after the meeting in a way that makes meaningful outcomes more likely. Prepare and distribute a PDF or JPEG visual post-meeting summary in which a few sentences accompany each image to put it in context. When you email the visual notes to participants, list each agreed-upon next step or action item in the body of the email along with the name of its responsible person and due date. Also add these items to an action log that can be referenced through the course of the group’s work.
Virtual Meeting Facilitation: A Key Competency
Working virtually is not going away, so this must become a core competency for facilitators despite the challenges that it brings. Remember, technology doesn’t make things easier; it just makes things possible. The good news is that with more meetings being held virtually, we have more opportunities to improve these practices as we go about the work of getting things done in the digital age.
Workshop Opportunity: Rachel Smith will lead a four-session online workshop in September on Facilitating Virtual Collaboration.
See Rachel Smith’s related Grove article, Optimizing Collaborative Bandwidth in Virtual Meetings.
Rachel’s Grove just-mentioned article is excerpted from much longer piece, “Collaborative Bandwidth: Creating Better Virtual Meetings,” published in the Organization Development Journal’s special issue on “OD in the Digital Age” (Winter 2014, Vol. 32, No. 4).