One of the many benefits of modern technology is that we can now hold a remote or virtual meeting when we need to, without leaving office or home. This has been useful in the recent months with the pandemic situation.
It can often feel like we’re all together in the same room except we’re not and that poses us a number of challenges and how we run those meetings is one of the big ones. So what makes running a successful virtual meeting hard? Well, it’s hard because not being in the room and not being physically present with other people we miss a whole lot of cues about what’s going on.
We miss a lot of the emotional tone of the meeting and secondly, we are also literally not on the same page. Often we can’t see what bits of paper are in front of other people or what ideas have been written up on whiteboards or on the wall, so we can’t focus in on the same set of ideas at the same time.
When these two things come together, it is what I call a tech paradox in the sense that there’s a whole lot of cool technology at the moment that helps us to map ideas remotely and to be able to see them however if we’re looking at the ideas that are being mapped and we’re looking at that technology we’re not engaging with each other and when we’re engaging with each other we’re not seeing the mapping of the ideas and that doesn’t happen we get both those things together when we’re in the room together
So what can we do I’ve got a handful of suggestions on ways to make your running your next virtual meeting more effective.
Firstly, always work around the technology and have a backup. What we’re trying to do is to work around these tech limitations. For example, you need two people to mute their computers or phones when they’re not speaking and you need to pause and give them time to come off mute, so that they can engage. Sometimes, I kind of line them up in a bit of an order to help that smooth that process.
You need people to get off their phones. Because we don’t multitask even though we often think we can, putting their phones at arm’s reach is a great way of helping to do that. People also need to have some form of backup, for when there are connection issues. What happens is “Frank, sorry Frank, we’re losing you, I only heard three words, there okay, can you repeat that? Oh oops he’s frozen…”
Often the communications software or the broadcast or internet technology just doesn’t always do what we want. We end up with bandwidth problems, we have problems with the way something syncs, etc. So people need to have a backup for how they’re going to connect and put less demand on the system. So always work around the tech and have a backup.
Your job is to focus on helping people to be more present. We start our meetings now by having us centre, whether we’re sitting or standing. We get us to feel grounded, take some deep breaths, be in our bodies when we’re in this remote connection with other people. As part of being more present, we need to always look out for the multiple perspectives that people bring, because in these complex times what we’re wanting to do is to bring in a whole range of diverse views.
This means we can try different things out and take things forward. We also stop and we go round again and get people to observe what they’re seeing. That is, what patterns are they seeing? What has emerged from the conversation?
As people, we often try and all clump together on our views and we say we’re all agreed, however the outliers are really important because they give us different perspectives on the system. It is often what’s not being said too; sometimes that’s the hardest thing, as it helps us to focus on new things.
I sometimes use these tactics in the middle of meetings as well and it often helps us to be formal as we go through some of these processes.
You should also work to be clear about what really matters, and what’s the nature of this meeting that I’m looking to run or facilitate. Is it a meeting that’s trying to deal with complex situations, where there isn’t a right answer to be found and we need to be exploring things? Is it a meeting where we’re trying to drive into resolving a certain issue, where there is a thing we can work out? Do we need to converge or perhaps we’re in a chaotic situation and we’re needing to start taking action, and we’re needing to check those things off?
It really helps to understand beforehand if we are going to be diverging an exploratory are we going to be driving in to try and resolve things and converge and that might vary between different topics that you’ve got on the agenda so get clear about what really matters and how you’re going to approach it.
Always go slow and be flexible. I sometime talk quickly as I get excited, and I want to sort of talk in I talk over people at times, so how do I slow myself down and give space for the topic that we’ve got in front of us? How do I, as the facilitator or the chair, make sure I’m creating the space for people to really engage in that topic, and making sure that all those voices are coming into the room?
This often means putting less on the agenda and it also means being flexible about the agenda as I go and responding to different things that emerge.
My final suggestion is I find that in chairing a virtual meeting, I chair more actively and more openly and what do I mean by that, by being active I mean I do more summarising and I do more of trying to frame things up. I do more of saying “okay, this is the process we’re going to use at this point” because I need to be partly playing the role of the visual sign board, while enabling people to see other people.
What I’m doing is to try and do that almost signing of the structure of the meeting and being quite explicit about that and then as being open about that I can be explicit and we can discuss whether or not that’s the way we want to structure things, and whether or not that’s the way we want to take things forward.
It’s a structuring move to say “well I’m hearing that we’ve got three options here, how does that sound?” to people. I put up a proposition and allow people to respond to that and it’s really important to do that in a way where it’s clear that I’m being open and light about holding that proposition.
This proposition is not necessary to the thing that the chair believes in it may be here’s a way of helping frame it up for us to take the discussion forward and I’m holding this lightly enough that we’re able to move around it and not think our power has spoken and therefore we must all aligned to what power has said.
So there are my best suggestions on how to make your next virtual meeting more effective. The suggestions above may sound quite simple and they need to be simple, yet often they’re a challenge to be able to hold and implement in the moment.
In my experience, some set of simple principles or simple rules like these have helped me to lead meetings where we’ve been able to achieve results, often on very difficult subjects, when we’re working from different parts of the world.
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