In The Grove’s recent Facilitating Virtual Collaboration workshop, the topic came up about how facilitators can engage participants in a remote meeting so that they don’t check email, tune out, stop listening, and fail to … well… participate. My unusual and occasionally unpopular advice: it’s not entirely your problem.

Let me clarify. As a facilitator, and especially as a facilitator of remote meetings, it’s my job to create a space in which people can do their best work. It’s my job to work with the group or the meeting sponsor to clarify the work’s outcomes. It’s my job to design a process that will lead to those outcomes, and it’s my job to select tools that will support each process in which I want the group to engage.

It’s not my job to entertain people. I’m actually quite bad at that, and nobody would pay me to do it. Looking at my actual job, here are my responsibilities:

Create a space in which people can do their best work. I need to answer the five key questions people have when they get together to do group work (why am I here? who are you people? what are we doing? how should I behave? when can I leave?) so that each person can set aside those pressing questions and get down to work. I need to help the group establish norms or operating agreements that will prevent common problems in meetings. I need to provide the tools, whether physical or virtual, that will let them get the work done, such as paper and sticky notes or the digital equivalent. I need to hold the space for them so that they can fall apart in the chaos of the ‘groan zone’ (Sam Kaner’s term, explained very well here by Jeannel King).

Work with the group or its sponsor to clarify outcomes. Both before the meeting and when it starts, I need to help the key stakeholders be clear about what they want to accomplish in the available time, what’s in scope and what’s out of scope, and what’s likely to happen after the meeting.

Design a process that will lead to the outcomes. I need to select and sequence activities, design them so that participants can be effective, vary them so that people don’t get sated with the same thing — and that’s the part of engagement that falls on me. My process needs to be engaging, which means I don’t talk very much. I ask questions, set up a process for people to explore them, and get out of the way. Then I help them work with the data they generate.

Select tools to support the processes. I need to choose tools that involve participants in creating their own work. Sometimes this means I’m recording what they say on a chart. Sometimes this means they’re working with sticky notes or cards. Sometimes they’re talking in small groups with video. My tools need to make it possible to participate fully in the processes I’ve outlined.

At no point do I need to draw people’s attention by being entertaining. I go into a meeting assuming that everyone there is a grownup with a job to do, only part of which happens to be taking place in the meeting I’m running. If people need to attend to something else, that’s a choice they can make. What I do is to make sure that when they are involved in the meeting, they are actually moving the work forward. Most people who care about their work find that pretty engaging.

We had a great discussion in class about this, and I appreciate how everyone contributed their points of view and shared their own circumstances and experiences. The conversation helped me crystallize my feelings on this topic into words.

You may have a different perspective. You probably need to host meetings in which the primary purpose is to share information, and in these settings, encouraging people to actually do things can be challenging. My question to you is this: what’s the highest and best use of your group’s time together? Especially if the group is meeting remotely, what can you remove from the synchronous part of the work and handle asynchronously instead?

If people come to a meeting, understand and value its outcomes, see how it connects to the job they need to get done, and understand how their participation will make a difference, then they can choose to be engaged or not. I find people usually choose engagement.

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This article is slightly adapted from “Let grownups be grownups (in remote meetings)” at Rachel Smith’s blog, digitalfacilitation.net.

The first image is by rawpixel.com via unsplash.com. The second image was created during a workshop brainstorming session using BoardThing.

The Facilitating Virtual Collaboration online workshop, led by Rachel, will be offered twice more in 2017, in October and December.

Rachel is also partnering with TeamCatapult to offer a two-day Virtual Team Facilitation class online in September 2017, with a focus on virtual support of agile teams.