It’s Easier Than You Think to Switch to Great Online Meetings

In my recent conversations with neighbors working from home and colleagues near and far, we’ve shared a realization. Even when the Covid pandemic is over, many of us will not be going to go back to work in the same way. More functions will happen from home or remote locations and replace or supplement in-person collaboration.

Even before this disruption, I’ve increasingly found myself participating or needing to facilitate meetings using online platforms. Honestly, I’ve dragged my feet about learning the technology. It’s true that online collaboration isn’t the same as in-person and can’t replicate all the channels of communication open when we are physically present. But I’ve discovered that with a little design savvy, many group tasks can be equally and sometimes even more engaging, novel and productive.

What doesn’t work, especially for groups who need to accomplish tasks together, is to model online meetings on webinars that present information to passive, often anonymous participants. Instead, we need to apply what we know from education and best business practices about how people learn and engage, and provide them with structured opportunities to focus, plan and make decisions collaboratively.

Here are four essential design principles with some examples of how to apply them, fresh from my own learning curve with online delivery.

1. Connect first

Before you can engage people to do something together, you need to help your collaborators tune in to each other and turn on to the task at hand.

Consider opening your online “meeting room” about 10 minutes early if the group is relatively small and invite people to come with their coffee for informal online conversation. If they don’t know each other, help break the ice by encouraging them to post their names and where they are from in the chat box as they enter.

I have always advocated that everyone “put their voice into the room” at the start of a meeting by saying something to the whole group or to a partner or small group. It’s even more important when meeting remotely to establish an expectation and immediate experience of active participation, since clicking “join meeting” to those of us who have attended conventionally conceived webinars can flip on associations of passivity and a feeling of removal. If the group is small, you may want to do a go-around and have everyone answer a question or share something about their connection to the group’s purpose. If it’s larger, use your online platform’s breakout function to have people do this in small groups and then share a sample of themes from those conversations in the large group. A last choice (though good sometimes for larger groups or webinars), is to use the chat function and have everyone type in a contribution.

2. Streamline content

You can’t present as much information, or work through complex data in the more concise and visually-oriented online format as you can (or think you can) in person. The challenge is not to dumb things down, but to put in the prep time up front to synthesize and distill essential points. Make them as visually engaging and accessible as possible. I like what Justin Hale and Joseph Grenny in their Harvard Business Review article, “How to Get People to Actually Participate in Virtual Meetings”, call the MVP Rule – determine the Minimum Viable PowerPoint deck you need to give the group the information they need to act on.

3. Learn a few basic online tools

You’ll need to provide opportunities for participants to share information, develop ideas collaboratively, and test the group pulse for decision-making. Familiar in-person facilitation aids such as sticky notes where everyone in a group can be writing ideas down at the same time, small group discussions, or lineups on a continuum of choices have online counterparts. These include chat functions, randomly generated or pre-assigned “breakout rooms,” and polling. And it’s easy to record discussions and chat logs to refer to later, or to provide to people who couldn’t be at the meeting.

4. Adjust your meeting times

Make online meetings long enough to allow for connection, short enough to avoid brain melt.

Your “stand-ups” – those short meetings that many teams do to share essential daily information and priorities – may need a few extra minutes for a thoughtful check-in to build a sense of personal/team connection without sharing physical space.

Conversely, no one can hang on a video call for hours on end and remain focused and productive. 90 minutes is a good limit for most online sessions, if structured well with varied activities, presentation and participation opportunities. To substitute for a full day planning retreat recently, I scheduled two 90-minute sessions, with a full hour “screen break” in between.

Happy planning! And see you online.