Although I’ve been a big fan of video conferencing for more than a decade I’ve been in more video conferencing meetings over the last eight weeks than ever before. Now that nearly all of us currently have a “stay at home” order we’ve been forced to change from working in office space to working in virtual space. We are turning to video technology to continue our lives and livelihood. Video conferencing is not just a business tool. It has also become a way to stay personally connected. Over these last few weeks I’ve been a virtual participant at parties, classes, business meetings, and faith-based discussions to name a few.
But what makes virtual space work? Does virtual space need its own set of protocols and best practices? Why do some virtual meetings feel chaotic and frazzled? With a little thought and preparation, anyone can put together an awesome meeting where people feel heard, cared for, collaborated with, and ultimately get stuff done.
Vince Corsaro (www.vincecorsaro.com) is an executive coach and moderator of small groups and forums that have mostly been held in person. Face to face meant being physically there. But over the past few years, Vince has leaned into the zoom technology and modified the use case from business to very personal, to continue meeting and creating meaningful conversations in virtual space.
Over the last few weeks, he and I collaborated to put together a guide that can be used by you to hold better and more productive meetings.
Before You Start
Choose the right meeting platform
Good video conferencing is perhaps the cornerstone of effective remote meetings. That’s because 70% of communication is visual. There are multiple platforms to choose from but Zoom has taken the lead. Most find it to be intuitive and simple to use. You can chose another platform but the ability to see, hear, and manage all the participants on one screen is the primary requirement.
Use the Technology Well
Practices to consider
- Put the video conference link in calendar invites so there is no scrambling right before the meeting. Include the agenda and any handout materials that will be shared on screen.
- Use a computer or a full-size iPad if at all possible. The screen on the cell phone hampers the experience because of the small size.
- Even if some members are in the same physical space, all MUST have their own private screen.
- Reduce the back lighting. Otherwise your face will appear dark.
- Use headphones for better sound quality than your computer.
- Assign a "technology expert" role in the meeting (the Moderator shouldn’t be both) who is responsible for understanding the technology chosen for the meetings and dealing with any issues or troubleshooting during meetings (including members having difficulty connecting).
- Take the time to train all members in the use of the chosen technology prior to their first meeting. After the training send a list of YouTube tutorial links on how to use the features of the platform . That way members can return to these after the training session.
Reinforce Security and Confidentiality
- If the subject of the meeting is private, ensure all members are in quiet, secure locations during virtual attendance. The moderator should conduct periodic 'security' survey checks throughout the meeting. Have a method (think “safe word”) to quickly notify other members if your location is no longer secure (e.g. someone walks in the room).
- Do not record meetings or screen-capture materials unless all members agree.
Consider the unique challenges of maintaining focus and protocol and set expectations in advance. Examples:
- All members are expected to sign in ten minutes ahead of the posted time.
- The meeting starts promptly on time. Late arrivals are bad form.
- Only the moderator may interrupt a speaking member.
- Keep your microphone on mute.
- All members are expected to maintain a safe and confidential environment during the meeting. No public spaces. No driving.
- All e-mail and text services are turned off or put in silent mode while meeting. No additional screens or devices are on. Distractions are kept to a minimum.
Think Different. Think Virtual
Just as you would think through the beginning, middle, and closing elements of a live meeting, give the same thought to your virtual space.
Opening the Space
Be sure to do something that provides a break from “Real World” and helps everyone put aside the distractions and thoughts that preceded the virtual meeting. Help everyone become present and remember that we are all people first before business leaders or group members. Start with a “Check In”. Think about how you will set the PACE for the meeting (Purpose, Agenda, Conduct, and Expected Outcomes).
- Close eyes. Lead a meditation or breathing Pray, if appropriate.
- Have everyone write three words in the CHAT area that describe how they are feeling right now. As moderator you can read the list out loud. If a small group, have everyone share their words.
- Invite group members to show their surroundings… something they are looking at or the view out their window.
- Reminder of Confidentiality and Tech Rules… nothing is shared outside the meeting, stay on mute, no backlighting, raise your hand if you want to speak.
- Invite members to set and intention for today. What do you hope to get from today’s gathering? Put one word next to your screen name.
- What are your ideas?
Maximizing the Space
The Pro-Tip is to ensure that everyone does something tangible or physically engaged no less than every 5-10 minutes. Something that helps ensure group members remain present. Consider the “50-10 Rule”… Fifty minutes of work and then a ten-minute screen break. Always consider how you will decide who is next to speak. In what order will members respond?
- Provide a seating chart on a shared screen so everyone knows who is on their right and left. Put a list in chat for order of responses. Have members put their city in their name box and then respond from east to west or north to south.
- Breakout Rooms: Use often! Engagement is always better when broken into small groups of four to six people. As Moderator, write the discussion questions in Chat so each room can refer to them as needed while in breakout mode. Invite groups to report back on a shared screen bulletin board or shared document.
- Consider using collaborative tools (Google Docs, Mural) outside of the Zoom platform to enhance the ability to see group members while reviewing documents or collaborating. This is especially useful if group members have more than one screen available.
- While Zoom has a “Thumbs Up/Down” icon, it is easy to invite member to respond with “Thumbs Up or Down” on the screen. Try “Fist to Five” as a method for rating satisfaction or agreement (where “0” or your fist is the lowest score and 5 is the highest score).
- Invite member to respond to a question in chat.
- What are your ideas?
Closing the Space
All meetings want to integrate whatever was learned or discussed back into the “Real World.” Look for how to end the meeting on a positive and appreciative note.
- Takeaways: Each individual’s “big learnings” from the meeting.
- Evaluate: “What worked well and what could be improved?”
- Appreciations: “Something (or someone) I am appreciating today is…”
- Agreements and Action Steps: “What will you do or do differently as a result of today’s meeting?”
- Check Out: “What is the one word you’d like to carry back into your real world today?
Other Ways to Connect
Let your creativity run free! Just as you would with a group of close friends or team mates, keep it fun. It is okay to insert connecting moments into the life of your group. some ideas include:
- “A Day in the Life…” Post a few selfies on the group or teams social media stream.
- “Happy Hour or Coffee Meeting: A one-hour social meet up with everyone on the video platform. Make it as if you were sitting around a bar or coffee shop.
- “Holiday Happening”: Same as a happy hour but centered on celebrating a holiday or significant event.
- “Activity check in” Some groups use shared apps for monitoring health and fitness goals.
- “Social media” Many virtual groups create a private social media space using their desired video platform. Norms are established and typically include: Share only meaningful personal moments, no political or social cause posts, “feel good” videos or the like. Responses allowed but never required. No obligation to ever post. Out of respect for confidentiality, most groups have a norm to never share forum photos or any information on any public social media platform.