Running an effective 'virtual' meeting

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​Under COVID-19 lockdown conditions, working from home has become the ‘new normal’ for many voluntary and community organisations. Even where we actively and regularly engage off-site with service users, office-based contact with colleagues and managers is a key ingredient of being a cohesive, effective organisation. And that’s not on the agenda for the duration.

And talking of agendas, let’s look at the ‘new normal’ for meetings, whether they’re for our own staff or for sector peer colleagues – the video meeting.  Many of us are becoming used to that hereto rare event, the virtual meeting, whether it be via Teams, Zoom, Skype or any other.

It’s said that productivity suffers where video meetings are concerned. There are reasons for this, some of which of course apply to face-to-face meetings and telephone conferencing, but other factors that apply very much to electronic comings-together.

  • Attendees sometimes lapse into multi-tasking – checking emails or smartphones while someone else is speaking.  It’s less obvious than when everyone is physically gathered around a table; and it might suggest that the meeting is going on too long or that they feel they have little to contribute
  • Meeting organisers tend to be less careful with the purpose and design of the conversation.
  • It isn’t uncommon for one or two people to dominate the discussion while others sit back and ‘fade out’.
  • And being part of a video ‘gallery’ can make delegates can feel inhibited when it’s their turn to speak.                                                                                                                                              

Virtual meetings can however be run effectively, using conventional, basic meeting good practice and available technology. Here are some suggestions to help.

1. Video works very well, but personalising the conversation is more important than in a face-to-face meeting to help keep participants engaged and involved.

2. Video relies on a good internet connection that may not always be available, given that delegates may be ‘zooming’ in from ear and far. People need to be assured that ‘freezing out’ is not their fault and that they can re-engage when their signal stabilizes.

3. Test and train ahead of time. A fifteen-minute delay at the start of the meeting kills the momentum. Maybe people can’t download the software, can’t get the programme to work or don’t know how to even join the meeting.  Prior to a virtual meeting, all participants should be accorded the time and opportunity to test the technology and make sure they are comfortable with the basic features.  Try arranging a group training session with re-caps and re-visits.

4. People should be visible. Video meetings are much more effective and user-friendly when people can see each other’s facial expressions and body language. There should be optional formats for this. It might not be necessary to see everyone at the same time – perhaps just the last three or four who have spoken – but it’s helpful for everyone to know who is present at the meeting. 

5. People don’t need to be heard unless they’re actively contributing. The convenor can ask everyone who’s not speaking to mute their microphones. The convenor can also control this - it’s also a very effective way of silencing someone who’s running on a bit too long!

6. It’s a good idea to diplomatically ask people to make sure they’re not constantly interrupted by ringing telephones, passing domestic traffic or any other extraneous noises. To be fair, this is not easy if they’re sited in a busy household and some leeway has to be given but it could be especially important where there may be issues of confidentiality in the meeting.

7. Stick to meeting basics. If it’s a basic team catch-up meeting, well, it’s what it says on the tin. But for a more formal meeting, perhaps beyond the office team, it’s best to

  • Pre-notify the objectives
  • Send any relevant pre-meeting information
  • Send an agenda
  • Stick to the pre-advised timing (and finish early if possible).

8. Keep presentations short. It’s been said that the only thing worse than a long presentation in person is a long presentation during a virtual meeting.  Meetings are not the same thing as presentations. If someone needs to make a presentation, screen-sharing can help guide the conversation, so that delegates all see the same thing at the same time. But it’s important to maximize the time people can look at each other.

9. It’s usually harder to manage a virtual discussion than an in-person one – so it is very important to keep an ear to the virtual ground and diplomatically bring back into the conversation anyone who may have gone rather quiet or clearly feels excluded in some way. This would hold true in a conventional meeting and does takes some skill in a virtual meeting.

10. Encouraging everyone to participate without talking across each other is challenging in a virtual meeting. It’s useful to call on individuals to speak, by ‘going around the virtual table’ before a decision is finalized. Some software packages allow attendees to ‘raise a hand’ if they want to. This can help the facilitator move to closure without risking excluding an introverted participant’s views. And if it’s less of a formal meeting an alphabetical ‘round robin’ works well.

11. Gathering feedback during a virtual meeting can also be challenging; visual cues are harder to read.  An electronic survey tool can enable real-time feedback in a large meeting – not so crucial in a small gathering. Again, it needs some ‘dry runs’ to trial it.

12. A meeting about the meeting is a useful exercise occasionally – perhaps as an addendum to the meeting. What went well? What didn’t work?  What could we change to help make the virtual meetings as productive as when you meet in person?

These are difficult times for all of us, but we can make attending a virtual meeting one of the less challenging ones! 

And you might like to consider CAN membership, as our members benefit from a range of helpful management resources to help run their organisations effectively. Find out more here.