How to hold a kick-butt virtual meeting

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The coronavirus (COVID-19) is having a stunning impact on so many aspects of our lives, business included. For a rapidly growing number of companies, working virtually will be the norm for at least the next few weeks. It wouldn’t be crazy to expect longer. Whether you are an organization experienced in using virtual meeting technology or an office-only organization that is now being forced into the virtual world by the spread of the coronavirus, establishing a way to conduct a virtual meeting can create an amazing experience that dramatically boosts the productivity and usefulness of your meeting. Moving a company to be able to take on virtual meetings is an act of leadership even though management tactics will be used.

Before we start on the good, here’s a hilarious view of the bad as described in this video about a phone conference.

How do I run a kick-butt virtual meeting?

Start the meeting by greeting everyone as they enter. This is not just to be polite but also to announce each person in the meeting to all of the others. In a virtual environment, not everyone will have video to be able to see all who are in a meeting as you would in a conference room. Some or even all people may be on audio-only. It also starts the human connection which will be critical to building trust in a virtual environment. Before starting the meeting, quickly review who is there. This reinforces the human connection that would otherwise happen naturally in an in-person meeting.

At the top of the meeting agenda have the task to establish three roles:

  1. The Conversation Leader. This person will start by clarifying the purpose and expected outcomes of the meeting and generally move the conversation forward. This is often the meeting owner or organizer but does not to be that person.
  2. The Time Leader. This person will respectfully remind the participants how much time is left to discuss an agenda item and how much time is left to reach the outcomes for the meeting. The Conversation Leader communicates to the Time Leader how much time will be dedicated to each agenda topic and how much flexibility there is.
  3. The Visual Leader. This person will share their screen through a conferencing technology like (Zoom, GoToMeeting, Skype, or even an internal instant messaging software) and write down salient points from the discussion live so that everyone can see them. The Visual Leader is not taking copious notes, just the ideas and actions that seem most important to the group.

During the meeting, there will be switching between the presentation materials and the shared screen of the Visual Leader who is taking notes. The Visual Leader role is similar to a “Scribe” that is sometimes used in an in-person meeting, but the work of the Visual Leader is critical to keeping everyone aligned on the conversation (occurring virtually) and not only about keeping notes.

What if I have materials that need to be presented?

For a meeting that has materials that need to be presented the following etiquette rules can be helpful.

  1. When participants have a question, they use the chat window to send a “?” to the Conversation Leader. The Conversation Leader pauses whoever is presenting at an opportune time and then goes around to everyone who has indicated they have a question. For example, “Jen, let’s pause for a minute. I’ve got questions from Hector and Sandra. I’ll go around now to each person for their question.” Similarly, the Conversation Leader can also take a pause with the presenter and ask everyone to say their name if they have a question or comment. Once the Conversation Leader has the names, each person is then called one at a time.
  2. Once a question is asked the ConversationLeader will moderate the discussion so that there are not too many voices on the line and understanding who is talking and what is said becomes difficult.
  3. The Time Leader should monitor how long everyone is talking and work with the Conversation Leader to keep everyone moving along
  4. The Conversation Leader should summarize any conclusion that comes from questions and the Visual Leader should record it.

What if my meeting is mostly a discussion

For a meeting that is a discussion and does not have very many materials that need to be presented, (or the cultural norm is to read ahead or silently before the meeting like Amazon) these etiquette rules are useful.

  1. In a back and forth discussion, it can be difficult for people to pick up on the normal cues that are used to let someone know when the can jump in. This is especially true if some are on video and some are on audio. To handle this, all participants should allow a bit of a pause between each speaker so that others may jump in. It is also useful for the Conversation Leader to actively check on the input that may be available but cannot be added. For example: “Paul this seems like your area do you have anything to add or any questions we should consider?”
  2. Similarly, whoever is speaking can take an active role in drawing others into the conversation, so that there is an interactive flow and not a series of monologues.
  3. Finally, the Time Keeper can also help by indicating that it is time to move on to another speaker.

How do I set this all up?

These rules can all seem very contrived, but this is a contrived situation. The normal rules of conversation will not work because the normal cues of conversation are difficult to employ with limited or no visual cues. To make all of this work smoothly, it is best to set it up at the beginning of the meeting with the Conversation Leader reminding everyone of the grounds rules. That set up can go like this:

  • “The purpose of today’s meeting is…
  • These are the outcomes we’re going for….
  • We’ve got this much time to do it, and why we need those outcomes
  • I am going to respectfully interrupt when we are off track. Do I have your permission to do that?
  • Our time leader and visual leader will help us stay focused on the outcomes
  • When you have a question send me a “?” in the chat window; I will pause to give people an opportunity to be heard
  • The Visual Leader will send what was taken down during the meeting”

At the end of the meeting, it is useful for the team leader or the Conversation Leader (if different than team leader) to share what they really liked and what the team could try doing in the future to be even better.

Virtual meetings can be a powerful way to keep people together and aligned and energized. Try these steps, and who knows, you may find something you will want to use for your in-person meetings.

A former Navy pilot, now Analytics professor at the Univ. of Richmond and President of The Change Decision consulting on managing change to achieve Joy at Work!

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