The hot topic – effective virtual meetings

My meetings with fellow board members and trustees before the pandemic had a rhythm and routine. I would arrive at the venue to be greeted with chat and laughter, fellow board members catching up and sharing the news of their highs and lows of life. Our meetings started with a purposeful agenda and thoughtful papers. Everyone participated with creativity, challenge and appropriate humour, arriving at the important decisions that needed to be made. In the end, the feedback is thankful for a well-run meeting resulting in a visible sense of achievement.

How was yours? Are there some challenges as we all get used to virtual platforms and our patience and resilience is tested?  What I have realised since the pandemic is that good governance is still possible online but now needs the additional ingredients of preparation, creativity, attentiveness and a fair bit of collaboration. Aside from the obvious benefits of reduced travel and increased attendance, what we have seen in the shift to virtual meetings has been speedier decision making, improved collaboration through shorter agendas, crisper presentations, more inclusive and bolder conversations, and the ability to involve key outside experts.

At Golden Marzipan we have been facilitating virtual client meetings which have helped make significant strategic decisions. So, outlined below are some of the ingredient’s courtesy of my fellow colleagues and myself, as well as the best of the business website including HBR and the Association of Chairs. What I have realised since the pandemic is that all this is still possible online but with the right ingredients of preparation, creativity, attentiveness and a fair bit of collaboration. Aside from the obvious benefits of reduced travel and increased attendance, what we have seen in the shift to virtual meetings has been speedier decision making, improved collaboration through shorter agendas, crisper presentations, more inclusive and bolder conversations, and the ability to involve key outside experts.

  • Let’s assume you need the meeting. Getting people get together in real-time is going to take preparation and good planning. Is good remind ourselves that the purpose of meetings is focused collaboration and diversity of ideas, which is a very powerful premise.
  • Sometimes formal meetings don’t feel powerful of collaborative. If you are generating ideas you need a different approach and mindset. We use our Lightning Decision Making or our Double Diamond Decision approaches that identify what the objective of the meeting and get everyone to work together for a solution.
  • Planned meetings with agendas are fairly basic fundamentals. Virtual meetings create fatigue quickly, so we build our agendas into 15-minute increments. Consider how you will keep the energy high by changing exercises, using small groups (which can be done using virtual breakout rooms), and more advanced techniques such as virtual whiteboards – Golden Marzipan use and recommend Mural: https://www.mural.co/.
  • Think about your audience. For introverted people who like to reflect, whole day creative meetings can be exhausting. Consider dividing up the time rather than holding half-day and full-day sessions. In the virtual world, it can be harder to keep attention and energy up. To keep up the momentum, share briefing notes between sessions to keep everyone on the same page. Beyond reading materials in advance, leaders should encourage members to exchange feedback ahead of the meeting, using file-sharing services and secure chat platforms

  • Appoint a facilitator who will make sure the purpose of the meeting is met, participation is high and the experience is good. Make it clear that they are not participating – they are facilitating. They are there to make sure team norms are upheld, you are on track, and no one is coasting in the meeting. We use what we call a double diamond approach, which allows divergence and then convergence around an issue or problem over two sessions.
  • Double-check tech in advance. Nothing is worse than finding out two people in your group have scheduled overlapping meetings, Make a habit of signing in 10 minutes early to troubleshoot, get slides loaded and test any technology making sure participants also do. We ensure that we have a familiarisation session in advance of the meeting with each participant, walking through the video-conferencing platform and our whiteboard application.
  • Remind people at the start of meeting that the norm is to be present. Remind everyone that you’ll be calling on people throughout the session, possibly at random, discouraging participants from letting their sights wander to email or social media.
  • Set some ground rules – mail is off, video is on. If someone violates your multi-tasking rules, have the facilitator gently remind the group of the norms so that everyone’s time is well-used. Make this about respect

  • Warm-up. This is what ice breakers are for. There are a million you can choose from, but it is always a good idea to get people interacting and speaking up at the start of the conversation. It sets the tone for participation.
  • Set the agenda. Start with your purpose: what are you there to do? Set any criteria you believe are important to structure the meeting. If you are in a creative session, note that you are in the building phase and that this is a “yes…and” meeting, not a “that will never work” one. If it is a decision-making meeting, describe how you will consider the decision and ultimately how the decision will be made.
  • Follow best practices for collaboration. In general, adults can pay attention to one topic for about 20 minutes and then you need to change what you are doing. Use survey tools to get people to answer questions and review insights generated and gain feedback. Encourage use of the chat box and interact with people’s questions and comments there. Go around the virtual room so that everyone speaks. Call on people randomly to keep attention. Make sure people are not talking over each other and making it hard to hear.
  • End the meeting with a reflection. Meetings often run right up against time, with people signing off early. They miss the next steps and you miss a chance to do a final check-in. Plan for this by ending the formal part of the meeting ten minutes early. Before you close, summarise what was accomplished during the meeting and map out what will happen next.

Virtual meetings are not going to go away, but that doesn’t mean you have to lose the magic that happens when people come together and collaborate. Using these tips and taking an innovative and multifaceted approach will set you up to have productive and successful meetings, no matter where you are.

Additional reading and inspired sources:

What it takes to run a great meeting (HBR)

The upside of virtual meetings (HBR)

Top tips for Boards (Association of Chairs)

Good time to get good at virtual meetings (Spitfire Strategies)

E-Meetings (REMUK)

Effective Convening (Deloitte)

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