How To Facilitate Virtual Meetings

For the last 15 years, I have facilitated and moderated meetings – virtual meetings, in-person meetings, strategic planning, focus groups, listening sessions and many more.  I loathe meetings.  So, it’s a tad ironic that so much of our work starts with meetings.  But, I see value in great meetings and (mostly) embrace my role as brainstormer/facilitator-in-chief.

There is a lot of good thinking about how to do virtual meetings, so I am going to focus on how to FACILITATE virtually, especially in the wake of COVID-19, which brings some specific challenges.

TWO COMPONENTS TO GREAT MEETINGS (In general)

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A great meeting, in person or virtual, needs to have two major components. It needs to be:

  1. Productive. Provide and stick to an agenda. Identify (and make) decisions.  Document action items and assign the next steps.  We know the meme…if your meeting doesn’t require a discussion around these things, your meeting can be an email.
  2. Fun or Interesting. Great facilitators will make sure that meeting participants are engaged in the process, open to discussion – AND TO DISSENSION. Meetings can be fun, but they also need to have content that is valuable and interesting.

FACILITATING WHEN EVERYONE WORKS FROM HOME. COVID-19 EDITION.

1. Use the right technology solution.

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As a facilitator/meeting host, it is essential to understand how most of your attendees will be able to join. Are they phoning in or using a video solution?  While normal circumstances will allow you to pick a conference solution that works (we use Zoom, Adobe Connect and Uber Conference, in general), there are a few COVID-19 considerations for facilitators:

PROBLEM: Secure networks are on overdrive.  COVID-19 is driving lots of people to work from home (good job employers!).  But that means that secure systems might have significant lag times for video.

SOLUTION:  Choose a combined solution where people can either call or use video.  Where possible, ask anyone presenting to use the computer feature vs. dial-in only.

PROBLEM:  Background noise and the necessity of muting. Social distancing means that people might have a lot of background noise. The kids are home, partner/roommates are also working from home, participants don’t usually WFH, so there is no dedicated office.  It is NOT ideal.

SOLUTION. As a meeting host, make sure you mute all participants from the backend and make sure anyone presenting can log in via computer.  If presenters are dialing-in by phone, make sure they know how to mute/unmute themselves (I learned this one the hard way).

2. Don’t expect virtual meetings to mimic in-person meetings.

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Don’t try to use in-person meeting tools.  Expect your virtual meetings to be different and embrace what that can look like for your participants.  Let’s address a few common issues here.

PROBLEM: Everyone talks at once.  Participants hate that everyone starts talking at once and talks over one another (UGH).  And people on mute forget to unmute.

SOLUTION. Chat commentary can be especially useful when you have a lot of background noise.  Asking people to comment in the chat and then reading some comments to the rest of the team on the phone can be an excellent way to keep engagement high.

PROBLEM.  No one participates.  Engagement on virtual calls can be challenging for many, many reasons. This is where great facilitators shine.   Participants are distracted (email, cat videos, kids at home, you name it).  So you need to have creative solutions for meeting people where they are.

 SOLUTIONS:

  • Start with ground rules, reviewing the agenda and desired outputs.
  • Start and end on time. Have an agenda, have back up materials.
  • Communicate how you expect them to engage. For large meetings, facilitators may need to do a more active “call on” participants to eliminate that annoying everyone speaks at the same time.  If you are using a webinar solution, use the raise your hand feature and/or the chat feature.
  • Use visuals, send in advance meeting prep. Not everyone is a verbal or aural learner.  Visual and physical learners may have more challenges with conference calls than others which is why slides and other materials are especially important.  If you use Slack or Teams, maybe create a chat feature that you can all use as well.  As facilitators, make sure you repeatedly let people know where you are on the agenda.
  • Find ways to confirm consensus on decisions. This can happen during the meeting, depending on whether you are using chat, polling, etc.  if not, send a follow-up note with all the decisions and action items and ask participants to confirm receipt and approval.   This will help keep everyone accountable.
  • COVID-19* – let people socialize for a few minutes in the beginning. It might be their only adult interaction of the day, and it is essential to communicate and share information surrounding a very unnormal circumstance.  Giving people space upfront can minimize disruptions.

3. Manage Meeting Disrupters.

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Disrupters exist in in-person meetings as well, but they are especially challenging in virtual scenarios.  Some disrupters are more like trolls, and they disrupt on purpose, others are just those colleagues whose disruption is innocent or a small personality flaw (okay, we’ve hit a nerve). Here are some specifics.

PROBLEM:  The always late disrupter. Warning – writer rant.  We have a project where the PM is ALWAYS late to the meeting. I’ve stopped attending.  Lateness happens.  But chronic lateness to a meeting says, “I don’t care about this meeting.” If you are running it, Care.

SOLUTION.   Don’t stop the meeting to catch people up.  It’s a waste of time, and it rewards people for being late. Also, it annoys everyone else. At the appropriate time, as a facilitator, you will give your verbal cue for where you are in the meeting agenda.

PROBLEM. The “Can You Resend It,” Disrupter. You know.  We all know this person.  They never got the materials the first time, always asking for someone to resend it mid-meeting. Look, it is especially hard right now.  COVID-19 forced us into email hell.  So, this does happen, and the disruption is probably not malicious.

SOLUTION.  Enlist a cohost, work BFF, etc. to resend on your behalf.  You can set this role up before the meeting or simply ask someone not scheduled to speak to forward the documents.  If you are using webinar platforms like Zoom, etc.  you can often attach materials that any user can download.

PROBLEM. The Deliberate Disrupter.  I once had to put someone into time out in an in-person meeting.  An adult. Sometimes people are purposefully disruptive.  There’s lots of reason and psychology for why someone does this (power, manipulation).  But that is probably a blog for another day.

SOLUTION. When a person is deliberately disruptive, here are some tools:

  • If disruption is valid, it is essential to give a person some space to dissent.  In virtual meetings, I like verbal cues for this.  “John, I know you have strong feelings about this.  Can you take three minutes, so we make sure everyone hears your points?  After that, we will have a brief discussion, and we will need to move on.” Three minutes and a promise to capture.  That is all you give this disrupter.
  • Nice Interruption 1. “Hey John, we hear you, but with everything we need to get to in the meeting, I’m going to ask if we table this.”
  • Curt Interruption 2. “John, I need this to be an all-team meeting, please put your phone on mute so we can move forward.”
  • Full Stop. “John, I’ve gone ahead and muted your line as we need to hear from everyone.”

*No Johns were harmed in this blog

Facilitating good meetings will set a precedent for productivity and allow teams to be more open to these types of connections during our national crisis and beyond.  Other tips?  Let us know on social.

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