by Jen Mowery, Lecturer of Agile Methodologies & Project Management, Harrisburg University of Science & Technology
If you work in an environment where packed calendars are common, you’ve likely heard a coworker whine about having too many meetings with an exasperated smile that belies just how unhappy they are about their schedule. Maybe you’re the person who talks about meetings this way. With most meetings occurring virtually these days, it can be daunting when facing hours of phone calls where you spend half of the time answering emails rather than participating in the discussion. However, virtual meetings don’t have to inspire this type of reticence in their attendees.
Coming recently from an Agile software development background, where every meeting must push us further towards our goal of delivering continuous value to our customers, I understand that it’s my job as a facilitator to ensure that everyone who attends my meetings is engaged and understands their purpose. But how do we maintain this engagement in the virtual space? Let’s explore some ideas for getting the most out of your virtual meetings.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. The Harvard Business Review notes that one of the best ways to ensure that people remain engaged and that everyone is on the same page is by asking that all attendees use a video chat feature. In-person meetings can be so effective because it’s much easier to relate to someone if you can talk to them face-to-face. Personal interaction allows you to see expressions, maintain eye contact, and better determine if all parties understand one another. It also increases the chances of people paying attention during the meeting instead of getting distracted by other tasks. It’s important to understand that not every virtual meeting will necessitate the use of video. Still, if you’re receiving silence from a certain group of people, this can be a great way to ramp up the interaction and hold them accountable.
One of the more challenging parts of facilitating any meeting, regardless of setting, is the preparation. There are a few questions that you need to ask yourself before you send out the invites:
- Why do we need to meet? Is it necessary, or can the situation be resolved via email? I’ve often found myself sitting through hour-long meetings and thinking that I could have answered these questions with five minutes of typing. Be mindful of your coworkers’ time before you pull them out of their work to discuss something.
- Who should attend? Too often, we find ourselves in meetings with multiple people who are there to listen or have nothing to offer. Avoid inviting people as an FYI. Also, avoid asking anyone who may derail the conversation (such as upper management) to come. The only people who need to attend are the people who will be involved in answering a question or implementing a solution. For anyone else who needs to be in the know, a thorough recap of the outcome sent via email should be sufficient.
- What goal are we trying to accomplish? Not every meeting needs to have a strict agenda, but there does need to be a goal. As the facilitator, you need to understand the goal and how to get the group there. For a more creative approach to the meeting agenda, I like to use this graphic organizer from the Project Management Institute. I can bring this image up during the meeting, and we can use it to help direct our conversation and figure out what we need to talk about next to meet our goal. An illustrative guide helps lessen the need for follow-up meetings and keeps the discussion more organic.
When you’re facilitating a meeting, it’s very easy for things to get awkward or even tense as people disagree or don’t know what to offer to the discussion. Try to keep the tone light with a bit of conversation at the beginning to get everyone comfortable. For people who tend to stay quiet during meetings, Forbes suggests keeping track of who’s doing most of the speaking and who’s staying silent. Invite those that aren’t speaking to add their thoughts to the conversation. In the same article, Forbes suggests taking breaks as necessary, depending on the meeting’s length, to keep everyone fresh and allow for cooldowns if things get heated.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we always want to ensure that we end our meetings with a mutual understanding of what happens next. If we’ve just spent an hour or more having a discussion, we don’t want to end that discussion with confusion or inaction. If everyone who attends the meeting is supposed to be there, you should be able to summarize what each person is responsible for once the call ends. This call to action is how we continue to deliver value. Additionally, as soon as you’re able, make sure to send out a recap to everyone who needs it, and include action items. If a follow-up meeting is necessary, try to schedule that right away so that it’s on everyone’s calendars.
Facilitating meetings can be stressful in any environment, but virtual meetings add an extra complexity that can perplex any facilitator. Like everything, it’s going to take practice, trial and error. I’ll leave you with a final tip that comes straight from my experience as an Agile leader: as you’re having these virtual meetings, be sure to get feedback from everyone to see what went well and what should change for next time. A retrospective will not only help you improve your facilitation, but it will also help your attendees feel more valued and involved.
Have any tips that help you keep your virtual meetings productive, yet enjoyable? Let us know!
Abrams, Matthew. “Seven Disciplines To Master Virtual Meeting Facilitation.” Forbes, 16 Apr. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2020/04/16/seven-disciplines-to-master-virtual-meeting-facilitation/#7437010d23f6.
“Certified SAFe® Agilist.” Scaled Agile, 16 June 2020, www.scaledagile.com/certification/certified-safe-agilist.
Frisch, Bob, and Cary Greene. “What It Takes to Run a Great Virtual Meeting.” Harvard Business Review, 5 Mar. 2020, hbr.org/2020/03/what-it-takes-to-run-a-great-virtual-meeting.
Pullan, P. (2011). The seven secrets of successful virtual meetings. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2011—EMEA, Dublin, Leinster, Ireland. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.