By Ben Kopel, Project Brilliant

I have been working with remote teams since the late 2000’s. Long before Coronavirus and Zoom were household names. My experience since then is mainly with Agile teams, but what I have learned can apply to any type of meeting. Below, I will outline my tips for effective virtual meetings.

Like most people, I’d prefer not to have a lot of meetings, and if we’re going to have a meeting, let’s get in, do what we need to do, and wrap it up. I am not a fan of those all-too-common meetings where nothing is accomplished and there are no clear next steps.

There are many tools and techniques that make virtual meetings work well. However, these meetings will typically not be as effective as an in-person, face-to-face meeting. Therefore, an important consideration to keep in mind is… what can we do to make this virtual meeting as close to an in-person meeting as possible? Meeting agreements, face-to-face communication, facilitation and good tools are a few pieces to the puzzle.

Meeting Agreements

Nothing sets your meeting group up for success quite like having a shared understanding of how you’d like to work together.

If you’re not familiar with meeting agreements, they are a list of items that are agreed upon by participants to help everyone be on the same page. Similar to working agreements or team norms, some examples are: “Be on time”, “One conversation at a time” or “No electronics unless they are for the meeting.”

Meeting agreements can be used to encourage behavior we’d like to see (“Check egos at the door”), how we’d like to resolve conflict (“When Roman voting, a tie goes to the thumbs up group”), or to provide safety (“Don’t be afraid to say I don’t know”). Meeting agreements offer the opportunity to more easily address the elephant in the room and navigate challenging circumstances.

Some potential questions that could lead to virtual meeting agreements are…

  • Is it ok to eat lunch during the meeting?
  • Will we tell each other if the background noise is distracting?
  • How do we engage people if it appears they aren’t paying attention?
  • What is Plan B if our virtual meeting tool stops working?

If you don’t have meeting agreements, I would consider creating some. If you already have in-person meeting agreements, now could be a good time to update them.

Face-to-Face is Paramount

In today’s day and age, with all the technology available, there is no reason not to use webcams so we can see each other’s faces. I often hear excuses as to why someone doesn’t want to be on the camera, but think about it… when was the last time you were at an in-person meeting and someone wore a bag over their head so you couldn’t see their face? I’m guessing that has probably never happened, so why would you do it for a virtual meeting?

Common excuses I have heard are…

“I’ll be making coffee or lunch during the meeting, and I don’t want people to see me doing that.” If you’re making lunch during the meeting, that means that you are not paying attention to the meeting. So, we’ve identified a pretty significant issue which is completely unrelated to the use of webcams.

“I haven’t put my make-up on yet or haven’t gotten dressed.” Just because we are working remotely doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be prepared for the day. Remote work requires more focus and discipline so it is extremely helpful to stick to your routine.

“I don’t want everyone to be staring at me on the computer.” Again, this is no different than an in-person meeting, other than the faces are neatly organized in a Brady Bunch style grid. Seeing people’s faces provides many benefits. You can read facial expressions, identify that someone was about to speak up and build stronger connections.

In addition to face-to-face communication being a common sense approach, it’s also backed up by science. According to psychologist Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect, face-to-face communication releases oxytocin, a chemical known for its ability to produce trust between people, boost your mood and improve your capacity for learning. Face-to-face communication also lowers cortisol, a chemical released when people are under stress.

All the evidence points to large benefits from using webcams for meetings. If you’re not doing it, you’re missing out on A LOT.

Facilitation

Facilitation for virtual meetings is very important and is often overlooked. But again, remember to think about how to make your virtual meeting as close to an in-person meeting as possible.

Clarify Agenda

First off, clarify the agenda. This is good practice when you’re in person as well, but even more so when you’re virtual. Make sure everyone understands the goal or desired outcome. State it out loud. This makes it easier to bring the group back if you get off track. 

Engage Everyone

Start by trying to get everyone involved. It’s common in virtual meetings to let one or two people dominate the discussion because it’s not as easy to see everyone. Here are a couple of techniques to try and engage everyone.

  • The longer a person goes in a meeting without speaking, the more likely it is that they won’t speak at all. To combat this, start the meeting with a quick check-in and invite everyone to say something. It could be any topic… What was something interesting that happened over the weekend? What’s one thing you’ve learned working remotely?
  • Engage introverts and help extroverts share the space. This might require a facilitator, but it’s important to make sure that everyone has the opportunity for their voice to be heard. Some techniques for this are… invite introverts into the conversation (“Can we hear from Tony?”) or round robin speaking. Having this be part of the meeting agreements makes it easier to bring up.

Keep Focus

An important piece of virtual facilitation is to help everyone keep focus. Working remotely leads to a lot of distractions. It’s easy to be doing side work or checking email when you’re in a virtual meeting. Discussing how to handle distractions as part of your working agreements is a good way to address it.

Be candid and acknowledge that there will be distractions and ask people what can be done to help everyone stay focused. Perhaps that means making it ok for people to call others out or step away from their computer if they need to handle something. Or maybe it simply means everyone is trusted to be responsible.

Another effective way to keep the focus is to timebox discussions. This means we’ll set a timer and talk about this topic for a certain amount of time, say ten minutes. After ten minutes is up, we can check-in and evaluate. Are we making good progress? Should we keep talking about this topic or move on?

Next Steps

Before you leave the meeting, confirm next steps, and hopefully, this will tie back to the agenda. Are their action items? Who is working on them? When will we regroup? It’s frustrating to leave a meeting and not know what was agreed to, and it’s even more important to clarify on a virtual meeting to make sure everyone has one last opportunity to chime in before ending the call.

Meeting facilitation is important. If you don’t have a natural facilitator – like a Scrum Master – consider inviting one to your meetings or ask if someone can play that role.

Useful Tools

Video

The tools that remote teams use make a big difference. First off, since we want to see everyone’s faces, we need a video conferencing tool. I’ve used various tools for this – ranging from Facetime and Google Hangouts to Microsoft Teams and Skype. I would recommend using Zoom. For me, it has been the most stable and has the best user interface.

Audio

This may seem like it’s not a big deal, but use headphones, especially if you’re in a space with other people. The background noise from people in another room or even downstairs can be a distraction. Some built-in laptop microphones pick up the keyboard clicking and can be an impediment to communication. I have been using the new Apple Airpods, which allow you to toggle noise cancelation off and on, and they are great.

Collaboration Tools

One big benefit of in-person meetings is that it’s easy to collaborate. You can use a whiteboard, flip charts or sticky notes and sharpies. You can move notes around and add your ideas to someone else’s. Often, in virtual meetings, we lose the sense of “hands on” collaboration. This is a big reason why typically not as much gets done in virtual meetings. Instead, people often say “how about I work on it after the meeting and then I can share it with everyone later.” This approach leads to silos where people become more isolated to get their work done.

Fortunately, there are many wonderful tools that can support virtual collaboration and are free to use. Muralis one that Project Brillianthas been using for years. It provides you with a virtual whiteboard where you can create sticky notes and drag and drop them around an open canvas. Multiple people can collaborate at the same time.

IdeaBoardz, FunRetroand Lean Coffee Tableare simple and effective tools for having retrospectives or other focused discussions. These tools offer features like timers, voting, customized layouts and much more to help you recreate the in-person experience.

Conclusion

I hope these tips have helped you consider ways to improve your virtual meetings. Remember to think about how to make your virtual meetings similar to your in-person meetings. Meeting agreements, face-to-face communication, facilitation and good tools are only a few pieces to the puzzle. Try these out and keep experimenting to find what works for your virtual meetings.