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Research consistently reports that the three biggest, post Covid-19 challenges of facilitating virtual meetings are:

  1. Technology challenges
  2. Distractions (keeping participants engaged)
  3. Participant buy-in and hiding (video)

In fact, facilitating virtual meetings requires more skills than facilitating meetings in person. Groups are less impacted by your good looks and charm while getting lulled into some of the multi-tasking that occurs when they are checking in remotely.

Scheduling Virtual Meetings

While virtual meetings (including ceremonies, events, meetings, trainings, and workshops), work particularly well for reviewing progress and sharing information, virtual meetings are not optimal for all deliverables. Facilitating virtual meetings becomes more challenging for kickoffs, largely attended phase gate reviews, when consensus is critical, the issues are contentious, or the situation involves highly political decision-making.

Facilitating Virtual Meetings

Virtual Meeting Considerations

Virtual Meetings are Particularly Helpful When . . .

  • Information and perspectives for a disperse and diverse group of contributors remains critical
  • Ongoing work teams must manage complex issues and topics
  • Product development and process improvement demands daily updates
  • Team members are not unable to meet in person
  • There is no alternative

Virtual Meetings are NOT Especially Helpful When . . .

  • Challenging issues, arguments, or disagreements must be resolved
  • People are experiencing job assignment, information, organizational, or technology overload
  • Relationship building may be as important as the information
  • Talking face-to-face simply makes more sense
  • The technology gets in the way

When Facilitating Virtual Meetings — All or None and NOT Hybrid

When some participants gather in person and others remain remote, challenges surmount. Remote participants frequently feel like “second-class” citizens. The secret to creating equanimity is simple. If some people must “dial in” or “Zoom in”, then make everyone zoom in. It is much easier and effective to facilitate virtual meetings with a full complement of remote participants, than trying to facilitate a combination of in-person and remote participants. And don’t forget, keep it small—five to nine.

1. “Spit Happens” — Technology Challenges

As the baby’s bib says “Spit happens”. Smart leaders ask participants to reboot their systems prior to logging in, including routers. Clean start-ups improve the chances for clean delivery. Even with stable systems, latency can cause up to a three-second delay between the time the first and final participants hear something. That’s huge. Even a millisecond can feel like an eternity to a facilitator.

Additional and collaborative meeting techniques and tools can speed idea generation and data analysis. They can also change group dynamics by allowing people to connect better and more frequently (ie, breakout sessions) and even contribute anonymously (ie, polling). While technology features may give participants additional time to think, when used in a distributed setting, they may also enable people to contribute at separate times from separate places. Some additional value-add includes:

  • Anonymous contributions may remove political overtones.
  • Everyone can see other’s contributions and build upon them.
  • Participants may work on the same topic at once.
  • Technology can increase flexibility to adapt to schedules, time zones, and travel budgets.

Setup

Optimally, the facilitator uses three screens: one for the gallery view or faces of the participants, one for static or transitory material such as legends or definitions for key terms, and one for the speaker view that includes dynamically changing materials, whether it’s an electronic whiteboard, camera focused on an easel, or some other shared screen platform.

Special Considerations

  • No hiding. Participants stay more fully engaged when they can observe and “feel” non-verbal clues and intonations.
  • Social factors. Trust and team-building needs increase and feeling connected with other people has become paramount with Covid-19.
  • Thirty to sixty percent of ‘meaning’ is communicated or expressed outside of the words that are used.
  • With English as a second or third language—do not assume that everyone is hearing or understanding the same meaning or intent.

Expect virtual meetings to take much longer to accomplish the same amount of work conducted in person

Invest heavily in scheduling and preparation:

  • Allow for extra time. Fifty minutes in virtual meetings will not accomplish as much as in person.
  • Communicate in local time, or explain how to calculate local time, when sending virtual meeting announcements.
  • Consider the impact of volume of comments on time available when building the agenda. If everyone on a ten-person call provides input on a specific issue, and comments on average two minutes each, you can complete only two issues per hour (in addition to your introduction and wrap).
  • Get your tech together. Something will always go wrong, so have a back-up plan and use it. Consider building some “hand notices” to provide visual updates when you have audio challenges. We’ve grown accustomed to sending out four cards in advance to each participant, such as “I can’t hear you.”
  • Inform participants about files or sites that should have open and available.
  • Provide a written meeting purpose, scope, objectives, and simple agenda with clear expectations about what participants (ie, subject-matter experts) need to do in order to properly prepare, even 50-minute calls. Written documents increase focus by keeping everyone “on the same page.”
  • For more extensive workshops, send participants’ pre-read package two weeks in advance.

2. Human Connections — Distractions and Keeping Everyone Engaged

Keeping people involved takes a concerted effort from start to finish. Get off to a good start by setting a wonderful example:

  • Log in first and early. For working groups that know each other well, launch one of our countdown timers and always start on time.
  • Look directly at the camera when speaking. For all intents and purposes, the camera provides the eyes of each of your participants. If you’re not looking at the camera, then you’re not looking at them.
  • Consider assigning people separate roles such as timekeeper or specialized note-takers for each of:
    • Action Items: to be assigned later if not volunteered immediately
    • Decisions: agreements, inflection points, and issues that are closed
    • Guardian of Change: specific communications about WHO needs to be informed WHAT about some issue.
    • Parking Lot: open issues to be assigned or confirmed later
  • Greet each person as they come online and assign a ROLL CALL sequence or virtual seating arrangement. Please smile when using video presence. Today especially we need more frequent human connections and confidence in our leaders.

Virtual Seating Charts

Seating charts (also known as roll calls) are indispensable and will be used frequently with virtual participation. When facilitating virtual meetings, assign a virtual seat in the sequence to everyone as they join the meeting.

Tell them where they are sitting at an imaginary U-shaped table so that they create a mental picture of the room and their orientation to the other participants. Use their seating to determine the roll call sequence for using at inflection points.

Based on who is attending, setup your breakout rooms in advance. Vary them by issue as appropriate. Some topics need homogenous groups that think alike and others need to be stirred up with heterogenous groups

  • If or when you have a hybrid meeting or participants that who may be visually impaired, please establish and enforce protocol demanding that speakers announce their name (could be nickname) when taking a turn speaking. The ideal protocol is “one name only” as verbs and prepositions add no value.
  • Install ground rules and then enforce them. Add the ground rule “NO HIDING” so that your video participants are expected to stay live and not hide behind a still photograph. Be flexible of course and allow people moments of turning off the video, but as an on-going rule, we should all agree that no hiding should be expected.
  • Regularly remind participants where you are in the agenda to visually impart progress.
  • Transition smoothly for each step in the agenda as you advance.

NOTE: Icebreakers or “Where are you?” sharings remain particularly valuable in virtual meetings, even simple questions like “favorite ice cream” strengthen connections between participants located remotely from each other..

Etiquette and Quality

While the following reflects common sense, your role facilitating virtual meetings mandates enforcing discipline and standards:

  • Be aware of the impact of accents. Have participants slow down their pace and tempo, perhaps project louder, and explode their consonants.
  • Carefully manage cadence and control pace. Slow down during transitions and speed up during the middle of your agenda steps.
  • Consider body-stretching exercises during longer sessions and take a ten-minute bio-break every 60 – 75 minutes for longer sessions.
  • Decide how to reach each other if technical problems arise.
  • Do not permit multitasking. Remind people to “Be Here Now” to avoid keyboard sounds, barking dogs, and flushing toilets. Speak with violators after the session so that you do not embarrass them.
  • For video-presence sessions especially, beware of audio lag. Compression algorithms cause latency that varies up to three seconds. Be patient. Everyone does not hear everyone else at the same time.
  • Have participants put their cell phones in silent mode. Also have participants turn-off notifications and secondary noice sources (eg, landlines).
  • Silence is OK. Letting people catch up or catch their breath is natural.

Video-presence Tips

  • Set camera at face height, or very slightly above.
  • Look directly into the camera (eg, green light), not above or below or to the side.
  • Lean forward at critical moments, cutting off your hairline.
  • Bring your hands forward slowly and in full view to stress key points.
  • Rely on hand drawn artifacts more than powerpoint slides
  • Place an analog clock in your background to indicate progress.
  • Always use an agenda pointer to visually confirm progress.
  • Use one social learning event per hour. Strive for a balance of 20 minute lecture, 20 minutes interaction, 10 minutes breakout session, and 10 minutes break.

Other Differences Contrasted to Face-to-Face Sessions

Use your intuition. Be firm but flexible.

  • Add a second or third camera to your arsenal to point at an easel pad or white board.
  • Break-up long stretches of any one speaker sooner to prevent scope creep.
  • For decision-making points, with cautious precision, restate or repeat key issues as articulated.
  • Large floral prints, stripes, and bold patterns are not friendly during videoconferences. Plain colored shirts and pants/ skirts are optimal. Also, avoid wearing white and red (don’t ask me why).
  • Restrict quick movements that disrupt participants, especially with poor video transmission.
  • Use breakout sessions frequently (where two or more go to a separate line or “room” with each other and then return to the large group to share their findings). Remember to appoint a CEO for each team for reporting back, and be more creative with Team Names than simply Team One, etc.
  • Use people’s names when appropriate.
  • When appropriate, go “a round circle” (round robin using your virtual seating arrangement) for inclusive participation. If participants understand where they are sitting, there should be no time lag. Everyone has permission to say “Pass” at any time.
Facilitating Virtual Meetings

Are your participants checking in or checking out?

3. Checking In, Checking Out — Participant Buy-in and Engagement

The likelihood of engaging multiple cultures in virtual meetings increases. Therefore, to maintain clarity, closely monitor elements that contribute to rhetorical precision:

  • Grammar—remember to listen and stop processing content. Someone needs to be listening, and that role belongs to you. Use active listening to correct for imprecise word or grammar choices.
  • Jargon—Monitor carefully, such expressions as “shotgun approach” and “on the same wavelength.” Avoid idioms that are not universal such as “Don’t make waves” and thousands of other examples.
  • Local color—from idioms to accents, people need to slow down their rate of speech, enunciate and project louder.
  • Officialese—your particular concern here ought to be acronyms or what many people call acronyms (technically, an acronym needs to spell an actual word). Even basic English abbreviations may not be understood by everyone, such as “P & L” or “AC” (air-conditioning or alternating current?) Groups can never be too clear, so be certain to use active listening to provide a clear reflection of what is being stated.
  • Slang—in Islamic and Buddhist cultures, a simple “thank God” may be considered blasphemous unless meant piously. Avoid even simple comments that lack precision such as “go for it”.
  • Vocabulary—after providing reflection, confirm that everyone understands what has been stated. If you sense that someone is holding back, consider a roll call approach (round robin) to have each person interpret how the most recent content affects them.

Facilitating Virtual Meetings: Special Emphasis

  • Before bio-breaks, consider a quick Plus/ Delta (aka Retrospective) and ask for immediate feedback on improvements or necessary quick fixes.
  • Enforce “Silence or Absence is Agreement” but solicit one-by-one audible responses for critical decisions and inflection points.
  • If you don’t want to ask each person to respond to a general query 
(“do you understand the new procedure?”), ask questions so that silence implies consent, and tell them to speak up if “they can’t sleep at night” with the outcome. If necessary, remind them that they have a fiduciary responsibility to speak up and your will protect them, not reach down their throat and pull it out of them.
  • The larger the group, the more your session leadership skills need to keep select people from dominating virtual meetings. Remember, scope creep begins in meetings.

Preparing to Wrap

Throughout, emphasize reflection and confirmation of content. Too frequently, virtual participants are distracted and do not capture or retain as much as they do when meeting in person. Summarize, summarize, summarize . . . a “clear group” may be an oxymoron.

  • Offer each participant an opportunity for final/ closing comments. Consider “PASS” or “Just Three Words” for example. “What three words describe your experience with today’s meeting?”
  • Review and confirm next steps, assignments, and deadlines.
  • Summarize the meeting and end by confirming the next scheduled session.
  • Use the MG RUSH review, wrap, and Guardian of Change.
  • Use an evaluation form to improve subsequent sessions. A Plus/ Delta can also be completed at the conclusion or use electronic polling devices. For longer projects or sessions, send out anecdotal forms.
  • Distribute notes within hours after the meeting and emphasize the follow-up steps and responsibilities in your email cover note.

Finally: Additional Training Always Helps

First, don’t expect to facilitate successfully online if you don’t have the training and skills to facilitate a meeting in person. If you’re not a professionally trained facilitator, now is the time to step up your game. Check out our calendar of professional ONLINE and on-site classes HERE.

That said… There are tips and techniques specific to connecting with your participants online. Fortunately, we attended Daniel Mezick’s class, Connect and Communicate: How to Teach ONLINE who will help you better connect with all your virtual participants, and yourself. Daniel is a special person and superb instructor.

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Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills. #holarchy

Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, and 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.) #facilitationtraining

Want a free 10-minute break timer? Sign up for our once-monthly newsletter HERE and receive a timer along with four other of our favorite facilitation tools, free. #facilitatortraining

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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