As I’ve been compiling tips and tools to create a better online meeting experience, the changes of the last week now make me feel like I’m stepping up to home plate with the bases loaded – the pressure is on to facilitate groups, even large groups, skillfully, remotely. As we all contemplate how to shift from that meeting we planned to have in person next week to a remote experience, here’s a few tips that can help ensure that you are able to be productive and create value in an online environment.

  1. Subscribe to some great software. Many effective online video meeting platforms are available – investigate them, subscribe, and deploy.  Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Adobe Connect, to name a few.
  2. Set expectations up front for participants to be effective online. When sending materials in advance of the call, outline expectations so participants understand that they need to be in front of a computer to see shared screens and enhance their ability to engage with the group. Encourage video whenever possible for groups of 15 or less. Send simple instructions with everything in one place (materials, log-in or telephone information). Avoid multiple emails with materials; if you make a mistake, resend one email with everything.
  3. Get everyone into the space – opening activities. Create a simple activity for the first five minutes of the meeting, which is on the screen when people arrive or log in, to help participants focus on the meeting content. Facilitators monitor the log-in and welcome each guest, directing them to the first activity. Before officially launching the meeting, facilitators show the “whole desktop” to introduce tools, such as how to raise your hand, applaud, etc. Get everyone to try it out. For meetings of 20 or fewer that are meant for engagement and dialogue, prepare a roll call or use a virtual whiteboard with a list of participant names that can be checked off, rather than asking “who’s here?” and having participants interrupt one another awkwardly.
  4. If you have a mix of in-room and online participants, have two facilitators: one to monitor the online group and the other focused on the in-room participants, with both facilitators working together closely. Paying attention to online participants is critical, especially in a mixed (remote and in-person) audience. We’ve all been in the situation where we’re online and feel like we have to interrupt to get in the queue, someone puts their phone on mute with accompanying music or background noise comes on from a mysterious caller’s phone. Having a facilitator track online participants can fix this.
  5. Use video. Video engagement is a wonderful way for participants to see expressions and connect with the group. Facilitators can also turn on their camera so participants can follow the facilitators’ expressions and instructions. Any individual who is presenting formally to the group should also have a laptop with a camera on them (rather than a wide angle view where the participant only sees the speaker as one of many in a meeting room). This will help participants focus on the speaker and connect better with the content. If you have more than 15 people in the meeting, other than the facilitator or presenter, video can be overwhelming; one way to manage this is to set the technology up so only the person speaking appears on the screen.
  6. Use screen sharing to drive attention and participation. While some participants may not have a camera, nearly all can follow a link. Facilitators can help everyone focus on the same information via the link and screen sharing. Rather than just sharing the presentation, periodically display summary information or questions so people can engage with the issues at hand and participate actively. Keep a summary slide updated along the way and share it toward the end of the conversation, much like you might do on a white board or flip chart. Avoid taking notes onscreen as it can be distracting. Of course, because not everyone may be able to see the shared screen, sending materials ahead of time will make sure that everyone can follow along.
  7. Take a pulse regularly, to keep online participants engaged. Demonstrating that you want to hear from online participants and facilitating their engagement is what creates a valuable online meeting experience. To generate quick feedback, use virtual meeting tools that don’t require talking: like and dislike buttons, applause symbols, polling, etc. Facilitators can and should invite online participants to speak: “Anyone on the phone or online wish to add in to this topic, Abe? Sofia?” Or, “Abe, we haven’t heard from you for a while so I’m going to check in with you after this speaker.”
  8. Manage the chat. People want to talk and connect. Allowing folks to participate and weigh in on the chat is often a great outlet. The facilitator should monitor the chat and may occasionally want to prompt input. If the chat is getting so active that it is distracting from engagement in the full group, caution participants.
  9. Use online idea-generating tools. These tools (such as virtual whiteboards where participants can place and arrange virtual sticky notes) can be incredibly helpful to collect ideas, brainstorm, identify pros/cons, etc. Use them strategically to generate or clarify ideas. They can be fun and interactive.
  10. Take breaks, watch the length of online meetings, and define the ending time. It is not uncommon for people in the room to say “we don’t need a break, let’s keep going” while online participants feel like they’ve been waiting to have a bio break or grab a coffee. Take the break and say what time participants should return. Remember, in online meetings there is no visual queue of people gathering, so setting a specific return time allows online participants to move, leave their desk, etc. and be ready to go when the meeting reconvenes. Taking breaks will make them better participants. Furthermore, in CBI’s experience, online meetings that last longer than three hours can draw energy and focus away from the work. Meetings that were formally all-day affairs are better off broken up into two or more components spread out over a few days or a week.

If you follow these simple instructions, your online meetings will be much more effective and meaningful for participants. For those who are not used to engaging virtually, online meetings may at first seem like foreign territory, but I assure you that in short order, these meetings will feel like business as usual. And, with COVID-19, this is our “new normal” – at least for now!


Read more from CBI on virtual facilitation: