There are many valid reasons to consider having an online meeting - maybe your squad is spread across multiple time zones or just different regions, or maybe you're trying to foster a time of inclusive change at your org. However, with that optimistic reach for cohesion comes some real risk: online meetings are, inevitably, much more difficult to do effectively than in-person ones.
These two meeting types do share some goals: not having a single talking head, needing to pay attention to the “room’s” temperature, needing an agenda and a dedication to timekeeping. What changes is that people are even more likely to be distracted and less likely to engage, reading a room is different, and audio/technical issues are exponentially more likely as more people join.
To host a successful online meeting, you’ll ideally have:
strong, uninterrupted connections for each attendee;
a conferencing system that allows for “hand raising” or other signals;
a place for notes to be taken collectively;
someone whose sole task during the call is dealing with technical issues (at least until the system and participants are tried and true).
Adjusting your own expectations is also a useful exercise. I think of online meetings as a block of time everyone has offered to spend attention on the topic at hand… not that they’ve agreed to listen, nor (if they aren’t listening) to speak. Maybe I’ve simply admitted defeat too early.
How to Be Remote
When it makes sense
If anyone on your team is remote, everyone on the team should act remotely. Sometimes we have 4 or 5 people of a 6-person team in the same room but on laptops for a Truss meeting. We do this because the moment meatspace is prioritized is the moment you’re not able to hear your remote crew. They matter. That’s why they’re your crew. Invest in noise-cancelling headphones and a reliable conferencing system.
When you simply can’t all be online, have a person in the room dedicated to watching for signals from the online crew that they want to speak, can’t hear, have questions, etc.
It’s harder to gauge how people are feeling during a meeting when it’s not in physical space. Are shoulders slumped because energy is low or because proper posture at a desk is hard? Are people looking away because social media truly is a fascinating cesspool, or because they’re displaying the video on their other screen? WHO KNOWS. Here are some ways to read a digital room.
Optimize for how many people you can see at once. Zoom gallery mode works well for this. There’s even a special setting for sharing a screen on one screen and still having gallery mode on the other screen if you’re sufficiently decadent to have more than a single screen to work from.
Be sure to check in on people you can’t see. People still call by phone to video sessions; that’s part of their beauty. But not seeing someone’s face means not only are their reactions not included in temperature checks, but also that sometimes we even forget they’re there. Make a conscious effort to include them.
Set (and stick to) how people “raise their hands.” We often use the “raise hand” button in Zoom to help the facilitator keep stack. This is because, again, lack of physical bodies means a sudden lean into a camera might be someone getting comfortable, not wanting to jump into the conversation.
Some tools have options to use (or adapt to use) for polling, including Zoom and Maestro. These can be used for a multiple-choice question, for voting on if a proposal should pass, and for flagging technical issues.
One of the most distracting and time-consuming aspects for the facilitator (thereby impacting everyone else on the call) is a participant experiencing technical difficulties. “Are they ok? Is it their setup or ours?” One of the easiest wins for online calls is to have a person dedicated to troubleshooting technical issues. While the facilitator moves the group towards the meeting goal, the troubleshooter can help everyone engage fully.
Agenda and what you ask of participants
Online meetings don’t have to be a time during which everyone half-listens-in while perusing parts of the internet with the other half of their attention (we’ve all done it). Your goal as facilitator is to offer opportunities for people to engage even when not fully listening to the speaker. Having other things related to the topic to work on assists in maintaining and regaining attention.
Collective note taking and asynchronous questions
In contrast to fully in-person meetings, where it’s reasonable (even vital) to ask people to put away their devices so their attention can be maintained, remote meetings take place on the distraction device. One of the best ways to keep people engaged is to ask for their help in documenting. Multiple people can take notes in one place, with others cleaning up typos or adding in links. This can evolve into a “live blog,” and/or will sometimes spark side conversations in nested bullet points. Both add depth and thoroughness to something that might otherwise be a bare-bones skeleton not much better than the agenda itself. Taking notes this way can lead to documentation like this.
Taking this approach also helps those who are joining late or having audio issues - they can follow along in the notes to catch up, or to read ideas they weren’t sure they heard correctly.
Breakout Groups and Other Activities
Breakout groups and other activities can still happen when meeting online, it just takes a bit more planning and group robustness than doing it in person. Zoom and Maestro both have a breakout-room functionality, for instance, which allow you to randomly or directly assign people to rooms, to indicate when wrap-up times are nearing, and to regroup people. You might also set up jit.si or Google Hangout rooms in advance for breakouts, and include the links to the breakouts in your notes. Asking people to maintain documentation from these breakout sessions in the main set of notes ensures a cohesive understanding is still maintained across all groups.
Activities such as spectrograms can also be adapted to online space - when using collaborative note taking, put a grid into the space, like so, and then have people move their cursors if visible (Google Docs) or mark an “x” if highlighted by color code (etherdocs) based on where on the spectrum they “stand.”
We’d love to hear how you engage with folk in online meetings - it’s a growing art form, and we’re still wet behind the ears ourselves!