Online meetings can be exhausting, frustrating and often deliver very little of value. But with good planning and strong leadership they can be transformed.
The Covid-19 pandemic has seen many people start to work from home. As a result, a lot more of us are having to get used to regular online meetings. On the surface, these are highly efficient as you don’t have to travel to them.
However, they can be frustrating to participants who may struggle to follow discussions when several people talk at once and others submit questions via a chat line. And they are hard work as, without the ability to see the whole of a room and to pick up on body language, participants have to concentrate extra hard to pick out what really matters. It’s often hard to stay engaged and attentive.
With careful planning, appropriate behaviour, and an acceptance that things really are different when you are online, many of these difficulties can be overcome. Just how you overcome them will depend on the type of meeting: an interview will be different from a sales pitch and both of those will be different from a business innovation workshop.
The most common business meeting is perhaps the “where are we and what are we going to do about it?” meeting, where people come together to try to solve operational problems. So here are a few pointers for making this type of meeting work better online.
Planning the meeting
Plan for a meeting that lasts no longer than around 45 minutes to an hour. Any longer and peoples’ engagement levels will be very hard to maintain: this means that you should avoid having online meetings that cover too many agenda items.
Invite a maximum of seven or eight people: any more and it is hard for individuals to make an effective contribution. If you need a wider set of people then it makes sense to divide them into active participants and passive observers.
Don’t assume people know how to use the meeting software. Send simple instructions about how to connect and how to use any chat or hand-raising functions.
If you can, assign a role to everyone in the meeting: this is to ensure that everyone has an active part to play and thus is more likely to remain engaged. Roles could include:
• Acting as rapporteur for an individual agenda item
• Ensuring that any questions and important points raised in the chat function are shared with the group
• Acting as the agenda timekeeper
Prepare an agenda with timings for each item. Avoid agenda items where people report results; the meeting should have the aim of reaching decisions rather than sharing knowledge (this can be done via circulated documents).
Appoint a moderator
Appoint a moderator for the meeting. This should NOT be the most senior person in the room. Ideally it will be someone who is disinterested in the outcome of the meeting (and so has no bias) but whoever it is they must be sufficiently forceful and confident to control the meeting.
The role of the moderator is to ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute: they must encourage shy or junior people to talk and shut down people who are hogging the discussion (especially senior people). People should be discouraged from interrupting others when they are speaking: the moderator should use the mute button actively to do this.
It is important that everyone remains engaged in the discussion: the moderator can manage this by keeping an eye on the video, looking for a lack of attention, and by asking random people questions to keep everyone on their toes.
Prior to the meeting
Before the meeting circulate the agenda and any briefing documents. Emphasise that anyone who has not read the documents before the meeting will not be invited to contribute to that item.
Ten minutes before the meeting starts everyone should be encouraged to test their technology: can they connect to the meeting, is their microphone working, are their speakers working?
At the start of the meting the moderator should run through the agenda items and explain the objectives of the meeting and say that agenda timings will be strictly adhered to. They should also emphasise their role as moderator with the power to mute people or to stop discussions that are over-running or going off track. Ask participants to agree to this, making sure to get confirmation from senior people.
Then ask people to switch off their mobile phones (unless they are attending by phone of course) and make sure they are in a quiet space or muted. Check that everyone is on a video link. Using video should be a requirement, unless previously agreed: this is so everyone can be seen by their fellow participants and engagement levels can be checked by the moderator.
If any participants have not met physically, all participants should be asked to introduce themselves – name, job, role in the meeting. This part of the meeting should be very informal, but don’t let it go on for too long, as time is (or should be) limited.
The moderator should then start the formal part of the meeting, going from agenda item to agenda item and keeping to strict timings. The point of each item should be to reach a decision about something. If there is no clear majority view, a vote can be taken. However, if discussion of a particular item is still in full flow when the time allotted finishes, it may be appropriate to arrange an additional session to discuss the item if opposing positions are very entrenched.
At the end of the meeting make sure there are five minutes to outline the next steps, to say thanks to the participants, and to ask them how the meeting format might be improved.
Online meeting etiquette
Finally, here are a few points of etiquette that it may be worth circulating before every meeting:
• Make sure you can connect to the video call before it starts (for instance you may need to turn off your VPN). Test your video and audio before the meeting and make sure you are in a quiet place (if it’s noisy mute your microphone during the meeting unless it is your turn to talk)
• Make sure you understand how the video system works. If there is a chat function or a “hand raise” function, find out how to it
• Read any briefing documents before the meeting and be ready to comment on them
• Be aware that people will be able to see your face during the meeting. Is it distorted or does it have a distracting background? What is the lighting like?
• Have a cup of tea by all means, but eating on video is out!
• Talk in turn when invited to do so; do not interrupt other speakers. When talking look at the video of the other speakers, not your own video: this helps maintain engagement
• If you are sharing your screen during the meeting protect sensitive information: close all other applications and turn off email alerts
• Don’t ty to multitask: focus on the meeting out of respect for your colleagues
• Be nice: in the absence of physical proximity there may be a tendency to be less polite that you would normally, so be aware of that
• Keep it professional: just because you are online it doesn’t mean you should be completely informal, especially in front of relative strangers