Virtual meetings are here to stay. All the more reason for leaders to understand the opportunities they offer to improve engagement.
There was once a more innocent time when the word 'Zoom' was associated with nothing more sophisticated than the speed at which space rockets travelled or cheesy 1980s pop songs (we’re not kidding).
These days, the mere mention of Zoom is likely to evoke a rather different response. As a shorthand for the ubiquity of video conference tools (other tools are available), the word 'Zoom' is just as likely to be coupled with the word 'meeting', not to mention 'fatigue', 'energy' and 'drain'.
After the watershed effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on remote working, it’s a world that looks set to endure, as organisations embrace more hybrid ways of working. Virtual meetings look set to remain an increasingly routine part of how we pass on and share information and ideas and make decisions, even if they’re not the only way that we keep in touch with our colleagues and others.
In many ways, running a meeting virtually requires the same disciplines and techniques as for in-person meetings. We should still, for example, to consider whether we need to meet at all, and, if we do, be clear about purpose, have the right people on the call and chair it proactively and inclusively.
But it would be naïve to think that the context and experience are exactly the same. They’re not. For example, there’s often very little pre-meeting chat, the time when, face to face, we break the ice and build bonds with our colleagues. It’s harder to read the non-verbal cues, such as body language, that we’re so used to reading when we’re all sitting around a meeting room table. Amy Edmondson and Gene Daley remind us that virtual meetings can be challenging and isolating for less confident meeting attendees without that friendly face nodding encouragement at them – not a great breeding ground for Edmondson’s psychological safety. And that’s before we consider how we master the mute button, screen share, breakouts or the inevitable technical glitches.
All in all, it’s likely to be more important than ever to set meeting ground rules and expectations – everything from when people are on camera or muted (or not) to how we make sure that everyone contributes and is heard.
It’s not all bad news, though. Virtual meetings can bring together people across teams and geographies in ways that might otherwise be too difficult or expensive. They also offer us new opportunities to make meetings engaging and productive. Being aware of the potential pitfalls and harnessing the tools they offer will help us to make sure meeting virtually can be a positive experience for all concerned.
First things first
Organisational behaviouralist Andy Molinsky suggests that we need to think about virtual meetings as a completely different context, not just as a regular meeting “on screen”. We may want to achieve the same goals – a big announcement: a team catch-up, making decisions – but we’ll need different techniques and tools to make them happen.
If we’re running virtual meetings, the first thing we need to do is to get comfortable ourselves with these differences. Start by getting on top of the tech and all of the tools your provider of choice offers (of which more below); there are plenty of online blogs and tutorials that can help.
We also need to do everything we can to bridge the physical and psychological distance that’s probably the biggest single barrier to overcome. For example, Molinsky recommends arriving at our online meetings a bit early so that we can greet everyone as they arrive and look to replicate the pre-meeting chat that might more naturally occur before an in-person meeting. Making sure that everyone uses video, and also that their names appear on screen, can also help with personal connection – although it’s best to make sure people are aware of this in advance (those rules of engagement again) so that it doesn’t blindside them when they arrive.
Think, though, about the view options on offer. A sea of faces in boxes might provide too much visual stimuli or be distracting. With larger groups, it’s often best to “give the screen” to whoever is talking. Be aware, too, that seeing ourselves on screen can make us feel self-conscious and inhibited; “hiding” the view of ourselves might be a good option for many. There may even be times when video-off meetings might encourage everyone to listen more deeply.
When chairing, we will need to be more intentional about how and when we make eye contact and use our voices, and stay present and engaged. That might mean adopting a slightly more active persona, sitting up straight, looking at the camera and speaking more clearly and loudly than usual. Don’t sit too far away from the camera and make sure that it’s at a good angle; no one wants a close-up view of our nostrils.
We may not receive the more instant feedback we do in person (that nodding, a quick exchange of glances with a trusted colleague), so we need to be creative about imagining and anticipating what others are thinking and feeling.
Active listening techniques – such as clarifying, questioning and summarising – are more important than ever. Bear in mind, though, that open-ended questions to the whole group might result in a stony silence, or a false sense of the mood of the group. Instead, call on people by name to encourage them to contribute and participate.
Molinsky also reminds us that online environments have their own distinct cultural rules and norms; not all settings are the same. Having our cat walk in front of the screen may be adorable in a team catch-up where we all know each other well; it might even boost a sense of warmth and connection. But it may not be the image we want to project in a more formal presentation.
Working those tools
Edmondson and Daley are clear about the less positive aspects of meeting virtually, but they also stress that “the very technology that thwarts candour and mutual understanding also offers ways to offset these losses”. One big advantage of virtual settings is that they can lower the bar for participation. People who might not feel comfortable contributing in a physical meeting might offer their thoughts and insights when they perceive that they can contribute in different, less high stakes ways.
Whatever virtual meeting platform or software we use, each has a range of tools that aim to overcome or mitigate the challenges of not being in the same room. And each has tools that will help us to adopt new, positive techniques that can actively improve the likelihood that meetings will be a positive and productive experience for the people taking part.
Substitute non-verbal tools, for example virtual hands-up, applause or thumbs up/down, can help people to contribute or make their feelings known, but they might not, on their own, encourage participation or give us a rounded reading of the room.
For more nuanced feedback and participation, there are three key tools to consider, each of which can be used on its own – or in combination.
The chat function in online meetings can be tricky to manage. It’s usually preferable to follow just one agenda; it might threaten to become a distraction; too many contributions can mean that some great comments and ideas get lost; it’s not anonymous, so might be seen as exposing.
But it can also give people the time to articulate what they want to say in a safe way, and without being interrupted or swayed by others. It’s akin, perhaps, to the idea of brainwriting vs verbal brainstorming, a way of helping people to think about and communicate their ideas or questions, especially if they might otherwise feel inhibited to chip in to a 'live' meeting. It can also encourage people to marshal their thinking concisely. And, of course, people can add to the chat all at the same time, rather than waiting for their turn to speak in the meeting itself.
It helps to set some rules around when chat should be used and how long contributions should be. As chair, we also need to listen in to the chat – or nominate someone else to monitor it – and make sure that it’s acknowledged, considered and fed back into the main discussion.
When to use:
To invite a greater range of contributions; to solicit questions or answers to a specific problem or challenge; in combination with polls and breakouts.
How to use:
Make it clear when we want people to use the chat function (or not). Opening up the chat for a specific portion of the meeting – or a specific purpose – encourages contributions and makes it easier to sift through them, allowing us to pull out key points and use what’s said as a springboard for further discussion.
Online polls – where people can vote anonymously as well as publicly – make it easier for people to express an opinion without feeling like they’re being singled out or being worried about the consequences. They can be especially valuable when asking people to place themselves on a scale (1-5; least to most) rather than to ask a binary yes/no question (which is little better than an in-person vote).
It’s a meeting technique that, in person, is largely the preserve of large-audience formal presentations, often used as a warm-up or ice-breaker, or to encourage interaction. That’s still a great use for similar sessions online but, in a virtual setting, it’s also quick and easy to use them on a more ad-hoc or less formal basis. Polls can encourage engagement and make people feel they are involved in discussions and decisions.
Edmondson and Daley give the example of one of their leadership programmes where a senior leader encouraged participants to agree with a positive statement about the level of psychological safety in their organisation. Unsurprisingly, no one raised a virtual hand or answered in the chat function. So, instead, he launched an anonymous poll, using a scale of 1-5. The majority of the answers were a 3. This not only helped the executive to reframe his thinking, but also opened up discussion, with people then feeling safe to raise a virtual hand and expand on their poll response.
Polls can also be used in conjunction with chat, allowing people – if they wish – to elaborate on their poll response and share their reasoning or thinking with other meeting attendees. This can be a good use of time for early responders while they wait for the rest of the meeting to cast their votes.
When to use:
To take the temperature of the room or views on a specific issue; to encourage engagement and depersonalise a discussion.
How to use:
Think carefully about what you ask in the poll, and how. Be clear about purpose, and what will happen as a result. Be prepared not to get the answer we might expect; like our senior leader, we may have to think again.
Virtual breakout rooms offer the chance for smaller groups to talk more freely and conversationally – without muting and unmuting themselves – outside the main meeting.
Each breakout room or group is usually asked to tackle or consider a specific task or issue. Breakouts can often provide a safe place to test out and refine ideas, and for participants to get to know and collaborate more closely with colleagues or other meeting attendees.
Edmondson and Daley believe that it’s easier for people to report ideas back to the main group ideas when they’ve come from the smaller group “with the confidence that comes from testing and sharing perspectives in that relatively safer space”. They give an example where the best insight from a series of breakouts came from someone who seldom spoke in the larger group.
Breakouts can also multiply the number and range of ideas we might generate from a meeting. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Bob Frisch and Cary Greene give a powerful real-world example of how the leader of a manufacturing company used breakouts to brainstorm new business opportunities.
Twelve senior colleagues were carefully assigned to three breakout rooms, mixing up the more opinionated with the more reserved. The groups were tasked with coming up with five pressing market needs the company might be in a position to meet. Each team used a 'virtual whiteboard' to share.
When a spokesperson for each group talked through each of the group’s five recommendations, a master list of customer needs was captured on a shared screen. A question-and-answer session clarified the ideas; some were combined or refined. This resulted in nine potential areas of opportunity, four of which had never occurred to the leader. The ideas were grouped, with the 12 execs discussing and voting several times to narrow down the options with the most potential. After 30 minutes of breakout, a 30-minute reporting period to refine and consolidate ideas and 75 minutes of discussion, the company had identified the three best opportunities to pursue.
When to use:
To encourage people to contribute ideas; problem-solving; to bring meeting attendees together in more manageable, safer settings.
How to use:
Breakouts work best when participants are given a specific task or issue to discuss for a specific length of time. Again, be clear about purpose, expected outcomes and how groups will feed back to the main meeting. This might be just a verbal report, but someone from each breakout room can also be asked to summarise any insights or conclusions in the chat function so that others have the chance to read and consider the main points before the main meeting discussion continues.
The meeting host or lead can also 'visit' breakouts to listen in and contribute during the breakout period.
Meetings can be a mixed blessing. For some of us, they provide a real opportunity to speak up and make our presence felt; for others, they can be little short of an ordeal, frustrating forums where it’s difficult to get a word in edgeways and where no one ever seems to listen or agree with us. Meeting online can exacerbate this sense of otherness, to break even the slimmest of connections we might feel in an in-person session. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Understanding and using a range of virtual tools can break down some of the barriers that get in the way of participation in even the best-run face-to-face meeting. Learning how to use them to encourage engagement, to build rather than break down connection and communication, will serve us well, and make sure that we make the most of the valuable time we spend with colleagues online.
Test your understanding
- Identify three potential pitfalls of running meetings virtually.
- Describe how two of our three key virtual meeting tools might be used in combination.
What does it mean for you?
- Consider your own approach to running virtual meetings. What more could you do to improve engagement? Identify one tool listed here and experiment with it in an upcoming meeting. Did it make a difference?
- Reflect on how explicit your rules of engagement are for virtual meetings. These could be procedural and behavioural. Might creating or improving expectations make the meetings more effective?
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