(Part 1 of 2 on leading virtual meetings)
Many of you may be in a position where you have to lead all your meetings virtually. While some of you have some experience with this, for many of you it may be the first time. Here are some tips and tricks to help you in managing the process of this new leadership challenge.
As the leader of the meeting you need to identify what technology will be used and either know how to use it proficiently yourself or make sure you have a technical assistant with you during the meeting. In the agenda or meeting announcement you need to let everyone know what technology will be used and provide them information – typically in the form of a contact person or a link – on how to use that technology. Everyone will be looking for you to set the example so be prepared.
Make sure you have a plan B and maybe even a plan C in the event of technical mishaps. Knowing in advance how you will adjust for technology issues will allow you to move smoothly to the next plan rather than waste everyone’s time as you try to figure out what your options are and then put them into place. This includes knowing who takes over host/leader duties if the technical issue is on your end.
When you are using video conferencing, you need to set the expectations as to the acceptability of people turning off their camera during the meeting. If your expectation is that people will be fully engaged with the meeting, then cameras should be on. You should be able to see everyone, just as if you were all sitting in the same room. Being a virtual participant means you work harder at being engaged.
The word meeting comes from Old English (gemeet) and means the action of coming together. In the 1500s it was further defined as the action of coming together for the purpose of discussion.
“A lot of times, people find themselves in a meeting where the primary purpose is to receive information, and that’s a poor use of people’s time. Those meetings can be easily dispensed with and can be an email instead that people read in their own time.” Patrick Lencioni
Your biggest function in leading an effective meeting is to make sure that everyone stays engaged. It is hard to stay engaged when one person is speaking for an extended period of time. The more active, the more interactions that are taking place, the easier it is to stay focused and involved. There are a number of ways in which you can bring more interaction to your meetings and establish ways for everyone to contribute by having them share ideas, provide suggestions, give feedback, summarize another’s main point, etc.
Consider the following strategies:
- Make sure that anyone presenting information knows to keep their remarks to 5 minutes or less.
- Encourage others to ask clarifying questions. This is especially important in virtual meetings. If people aren’t physically together at the same site, they won’t be running into each other in the hall or when getting coffee. This needs to be done during the meeting. You need to make sure everyone is on the same page.
- Establish an expectation that others will respond to the remarks. What information was new to them? How might they use that information in their own work? This is a great way to build trust and support within a team. It is a way to show appreciation for what was shared and indicate how or why this information applies to you.
- If you need to call on people to ask them to respond, or are asking for round robin responses, don’t always call on people in the same order. Mixing it up keeps people at a higher level of anticipation. Anticipation creates engagement.
- Use various types of polling to check in with everyone. This can be anything from a simple hand raise (if your using video) to indicate they understand something, or an electronic polling to gauge if people are ready to move on to the next item. Try to be creative about when during the meeting you might use a poll and what the poll might be about. You can even start the meeting off with a poll or quick around the room to determine the energy level or to share a personal point of pride.
- Alternate your speakers. If you have one person who will be providing multiple updates, don’t have them report on all their items at once – unless of course the information needs to be sequential. Having changes in who is speaking means there are auditory changes, Auditory changes help keep our brains engaged.
- If your agenda is not sequentially based, in other words if topic A does not have to be discussed before topic B, be flexible with the agenda. If you see someone start to lose focus from the meeting, ask them to share next. If they don’t have a specific agenda item, then ask them to respond to the remarks made by another. As the leader you need to constantly monitor everyone’s engagement. Be prepared to invite people to engage when you see their attention start to drift.
- And finally, direct individual questions or unrelated discussions offline so you’re not wasting time during meetings. As soon as the discussion starts to get off track or the topic becomes unique to two individuals rather than the entire group, intervene and ask them to continue that discussion after the meeting.
“Are your people uncomfortable during meetings and tired at the end? If not, they’re probably not mixing it up enough and getting to the bottom of important issues.” Patrick Lencioni
Wrapping up a meeting properly is critical to an effective meeting, yet frequently rushed through or overlooked all together. Most people are ready to click the exit meeting button about 3 minutes before meetings are scheduled to end. That means you need to plan to start your wrap 5 minutes before the end time. Wrap ups are important in any meeting, but they are vital in virtual meetings. You can’t provide a reminder or clarification as you pass in the hall when you are in different locations. Everything must be made clear before the meeting ends.
In the wrap up you:
- need to reiterate what has been accomplished or decided and any next steps that have been agreed to,
- identify what discussions still need to take place and how those discussion will be handled,
- and clearly state any other responsibilities or actions that are to be taken and by who and by when.
Again – Don’t let this be rushed. Rushing is when things get missed and misunderstandings typically take place.
Putting It All Together
While virtual meetings are all about communication, there is a process to that communication. The more you understand the process, the steps and strategies to effective meetings, the better equip you will be to manage that process and achieve the desired results. But virtual communication involves people. That means you must be just as skilled at the people side of meetings as you are the process side. Part 2 of this article will address strategies for leading people in a virtual environment.