While we all go to lots of meetings (too many?), more and more people are spending more and more time in meetings using technology, rather than being face to face with everyone. And while meetings are still meetings and people are still people, virtual meetings are different.
One of the biggest challenges with virtual meetings is keeping people engaged and participating. Having led many virtual meetings, I’ve found five things that can help make a difference to increase participation and engagement, and reduce distractions for meeting participants. Let me share them with you here.
Determine and communicate the purpose of the meeting. There are many purposes for meetings. Some meetings are intended to be one-way information exchanges. If that is your purpose consider three things:
- Is a meeting the best way to share this information? Perhaps a meeting with everyone isn’t the best way to convey your information. Consider a video of your slides (or sending the PowerPoint file) for people to review on their time, with a much shorter scheduled follow-up meeting or call to handle concerns, questions and clarifications.
- If a meeting is the best choice, let people know what to expect — at least they will know that it is one-way information flow.
- If you are meeting for this purpose, adjust your expectations of participation. After all, if you (or someone else) is doing all the talking, how can they engage or participate anyway?
Distribute an agenda before the meeting. This relates to the last point but expands on it. Inside of your meeting you might have several desired outcomes that you want to achieve. Once you have decided that having a meeting is the best option, put together this agenda in advance and distribute it to the attendees. This does several things, but in the context of our conversation of engagement, it can serve as a way for people to know when during the meeting they need to be prepared (and are expected to) participate. There are at least three big mistakes that people make when building agendas:
- Describing topics of discussion, but not the desired outcome or goal for that portion of the meeting.
- Not describing when people are expected to participate.
- Trying to pack too much into the meeting. Since engagement and participation is often harder in virtual meetings, this is an especially important point. Recognize that if you want people to participate, especially if the group is larger than 4-5 people, it will take likely take longer remotely than face to face, so be careful about how ambitious you get with your agenda.
Expect participation. If, as a leader you aren’t getting the level of participation you want from your virtual meetings, make it clear in both the meetings and one on one communications what your expectations are. This is especially true if most of the virtual meetings in your organization are “dead” with little participation or very unequal participation.
Design the meeting flow for participation. This is a critical point. There are several things you can do to engage people that you might not have to do, or even want to do in a face to face meeting. Here are a few strategies to help you get started.
- Ask specifically for input from people or sites. While in a face to face meeting you might not call individuals out, in this setting it is more important. Face to face people can see who is ready to talk, so fewer interruptions occur. One of the many reasons people don’t speak up is that they don’t want to interrupt someone else. Asking “Angie, what do you think?” gives Angie space, permission and sets an expectation that she share.
- Move through the group randomly. In meetings where everyone will report out, I have come up with unusual ways to order the group and then have the group try to figure out how I selected the order. I’ve done obscure things like the alphabetical order of the college they graduated from, reverse age of their oldest child and much more. It keeps everyone on their toes and ready to participate, reduces the multi-tasking that too often plagues these meetings, and injects a bit of fun.
- Have people call on the next person after them. If you want everyone to participate, have each person pick who they want to share next.
- Facilitate more strongly. Because people can’t see each other, someone needs to moderate the discussion a bit more than might be needed in a face to face meeting. As just one example: When two people speak up at once, intervene and ask one person to continue than let the second person in next before allowing the discussion to continue. This makes people feel safe and heard — and improves the chances they will speak up the next time.
Reduce the use of mute. You’ve experienced it — people are talking but are still on mute and their comments weren’t heard. Or someone asks them something and there is a long pause before they respond. While I have mostly avoided the big elephant in the virtual meeting room — which is multi-tasking — we can’t avoid it. One of the ways people try to hide their keyboard clicks (and other noises) is by muting their phone. While there may be a time for mute if there is lots of background noise, the bigger question is, how can people really engage in the topic at hand if they are in a noisy place? Expect people to participate from a place where they can concentrate, and not use mute unless absolutely necessary for the success of the call.
This gives you five strategies to promote and create more engagement and participation in your virtual meetings. I encourage you to take the action steps to make your future virtual meetings more effective and successful.
Before I go, if as a leader you find yourself leading many remote meetings or leading a remote team, I encourage you to consider the resources — both free and otherwise — that can be found at http://RemoteLeadershipInstitute.com.