20 secrets to mastering a large virtual meeting

large virtual meetings - mainVirtual meetings have become a fact of our work lives in the Covid-19 era. As a facilitator, I’m learning so many things about this fairly new-to-me medium and feel I’m really starting to get a handle on it.

Until now, the largest virtual meeting I’ve facilitated has been for around 18 people. Next week, I’m making a big leap, and will be hosting two meeting for about 68 people using Zoom. They are a group of stakeholders in a fledgling industry who are preparing to launch an industry network to share research, learnings and technology. Many of them are strangers to each other.

The purpose of the consultation-style meeting is to get input from the attendees on a draft proposed vision of the network. The organizers have already done a lot of aspirational thinking and had conversations about its goals and purpose. We want to present their ‘first draft thinking’ to the participants and give them opportunity to weigh in during the planned three-hour meetings .

I’m feeling confident that the meeting will go well , because during the past few months I’ve learned what makes a successful virtual meeting, especially one of this size:

  • Getting everyone engaged quickly
  • Inspiring great conversations
  • Optimizing the flow of the meeting
  • Keeping the meeting within the planned time frame
  • Ensuring everyone’s tech is working.

It sounds like a tall order for a virtual meeting room, but I’ve discovered a lot of tips and tricks that I’d like to share with you for when you’re feeling brave enough to host a big group meeting.

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What’s in my toolbox?

  • Ask for help! I’ve decided to up the production quality of the event and so I’ve determined that I will need two co-facilitators, one who is purely technical operating the broadcast components and assist with technical issues, and hybrid helper who will operate the zoom platform,. This is essential!
  • We’ll set up a contingency communication channel that is external to the meeting as well. This is necessary in case a participant is bounced out of a meeting room or is struggling with meeting access. It’s also helpful when participants need something in a breakout rooms because the chat is not persistent between main rooms and breakout rooms. This will be published to participants in advance and again during the meeting.  For help, text xxx xxx xxxx
  • Zoom will be our platform, which has the superpower of breakout chat rooms. It can manage up to 50 chat rooms, more than enough for our 68-person meeting. Everyone will be assigned to a break out room, allowing for smaller group conversations which we will ladder up from 2 to 4 to 8 over the course of the three-hour meeting.
  • We’ll also be using another Zoom superpower, which is the ability to pre-set a countdown timer for how long each of the breakout chats can last. (Find this under the option menu when setting up breakout rooms. Then people will be automatically re-assigned to another breakout room for further discussion with new faces. This was an important experiential objective of our meeting, that stakeholders would have an opportunity to meet peers and make connections.
  • Google slides are your friend. This is an easy-to-use data collection tool because everyone knows how to type on a document. And because I can’t eavesdrop on rooms (dropping into a breakout room is quite disruptive), using Google slides allows me to see the progress of all the groups in real time. We’ll use a Google form for participants to fill out if they’re willing to continue to stay involved with this network.
  • We will also make our client sponsors co-hosts. This will allow them to move between breakout rooms so they can participate in small room conversations according to their preferences.
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Art of virtual engagement

Because we are not face to face, here are some essentials for the meeting to be a success:

  • Cameras must be ON – you need to see faces.
  • Be clear about the purpose of the meeting and realistic about the tangible outcomes.
  • Get people engaging quickly – this is where breakout rooms are so powerful. I encourage people to use chat box, either one to one or one to many. These alternate channels really help, even if I can’t see them all. For example, I’ll be using the online platform, Mentimeter, which has a Iive polling tool. You simply go to the link in a browser, get a six-digit code and can ask participants a question, such as an icebreaker: “What do you like to be called?” which generates a word cloud and is quite fun. (Thanks to Martin Gilbraith for that tip!) This is a simple way to get instant engagement.
  • I will also create in meeting polls to ‘take the temperature’ of the group on the ideas presented.
  • Get a little personal. Because people are working in their homes or apartments, ask them to bring something personal to share with everyone – the kid, the cat or the dog. I’ve done this before, and it really personalizes and livens up the experience. Or, ask them to grab something close by that relates to what we’re talking about.
  • You will not know the technological capabilities of the attendees and though there will be a range, it’s wise to assume lower capability. You’ll no doubt get a few, “I clicked on this link, but it didn’t work!!” (Pro Tip:  Make sure you have a public link for your google docs!)
  • Strip out complexity. I’ve learned that in virtual meetings you need to take it down to the basics. I will replace a lot of ‘large room’ conversations with small-group conversations. This helps with maximum sharing capability.
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Other dos and don’ts

DO – Send meeting reminders with meeting links 1 – 2 hours before a meeting starts.

DO – Open the meeting early so you can test audio and video. We will be opening an hour early to catch any potential problems. It’s also a good idea for the facilitators to do a dry run.

DO – Be fastidious about timing, ensuring the meeting starts and ends on time. Have a timed agenda and be sure to build in transition time between activities and chats. And, be sure to send the meeting link out ahead of time.

DO – Be crisp and clear. Use verbal instructions and screen-sharing written instructions when you are asking people to do something, such as a task or assignment. Copy the instructions into the chat box so they persist into the breakout rooms.

DO – Ensure that you pattern the meeting to build safety and capacity for people to talk with each other. For example, I will say, I’m going to give you something to think about and then pair off people to talk about the topic.

DO – Be thoughtful about the conversations you’ll have in the larger room.

DO –  Be clear with your co-facilitators about exactly who is doing what. Who will share the file link? Who will admit participants? Who will monitor the chat box? Who will share screens? Etc.  It makes for a MUCH smoother meeting experience.

DON’T – Bite off more than you can chew, putting too much process into the stages of the meeting and trying to cram in too much information and expectations.

DON’T – Use new technology you haven’t tried out ahead of time. Nobody needs to experience that.

DON’T – Be in intransigent mode, lecturing for hours. People will just shut down.

DON’T – Forget to give people breaks.

And finally – be sure that you have thought about how you will follow up with participants and that your participants are clear about how they might follow up with you. We plan to send them the documents they generate in the workshop immediately following the workshop. The contact information that we will collect in the Google form is immediately delivered to the client.  We will also collect a bit of meeting feedback too!

Bottom line, conduct your meeting like the professional that you are and you’ll be rewarded with the satisfaction of nailing this new world of workplace meetings.

Virtual meetings and Coronavirus: We need tech know-how but also compassion

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Who would have thought just four short weeks ago, a majority of us would be hunkered down working from home? But in this once-in-100-year pandemic, this is our new normal.

So just how do we navigate this new work world and remain productive? It’s not ‘rocket science.’ We do have the technology, and everyone is learning to roll with it, from organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other world leaders who are conducting virtual meetings, locally, nationally and internationally.

If your company or organization has little experience with virtual meetings, it will take some keen organizers, a few tech-savvy folks and discipline to keep your workplaces ticking as close to normal as possible.

Most importantly, cut yourself a little slack if you’re new to this.

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Our new reality

I’ve been working from home for five years, so I feel comfortable with it. But now that I have to meet with my clients digitally rather than face to face, I’m experiencing some of the challenges we all face in the coming weeks.

Whereas I once had space to myself, I suddenly have more company in my home office with the kids out of school. I find myself asking my 16-year-old son to vacate our shared space (“ Mooommm!!!”) when I’m about to go into a Zoom meeting or a video conference call.

From a client’s perspective, this will certainly change how I work with them for the foreseeable future. What does that look like? We’ll meet online in shorter, more frequent, chunks and there will be more takeaway work for participants.

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“The more you adapt, the more interesting you are.” – Martha Stewart

We will all have to learn how to adapt and we will evolve as we do so. I’m finding myself doing that every day. This will force us to elevate our remote working game, that’s for sure.

On March 12, I began the first of a four-part series of discussions with a client. On that day, everyone was in the room. It was business as usual.  By March 17, 40% of the group was remote. By the third meeting a few days later, 75% of participants were remote. The final two meetings were larger groups and 100% remote participation.

What were some takeaways?

  1. Virtual meetings require more planning: In addition to typical process planning (establishing objectives, building supporting process), we also need to think about how technology supports and disables.  What tools do we use for co-creation? How will we create breakout groups work when people are both inside and outside of the room? How will groups capture their content?
  2. It takes (at least) 2: It is really important to have someone running the technology – addressing microphone issues, feedback challenges, video cameras, screen shares, poll launches, and breakout rooms.  The other person is managing process, conversation, the chat box and capturing notes. It’s overwhelming for one person to try to everything.
  3. Arrive early: Let participants know the room is open 15 minutes early so you have time to troubleshoot technical issues.  The most common phrase we hear in a virtual meeting is …“can you hear me?”
  4. Use a common platform: In the third meeting, I had voice participation, video participation, and in-room participation. Managing sound and creating breakout rooms is much more complex. I tweeted a comment “hybrid meetings are almost more difficult” and had a flood of responses from facilitators who said, “almost?? no ALWAYS”.
  5. Level the playing field: To balance participation, ask everyone to use the same mode of participation. Everyone is on a conference call, or everyone is on a video call, or everyone is in the room. In my last set of meetings I had a few folks gather in a meeting room to participate as a group. I sent them to their individual work spaces (totally not what I would normally do) to join the call individually to ensure the same experience for all.
  6. Leverage breakout rooms: Breakout rooms create intimate discussion spaces where participants have more opportunities to share. Decide how you will capture their input. If you are in a hybrid scenario, match people in the room with people outside of the room to balance participation.  In my second meeting (conference call participation), I had my in-room people fire up a Skype meeting with the remote people so they could conduct their break out session.
  7. Consider co-creation tools carefully: To the extent possible, use platforms that your group is familiar with. For example – if they are accustomed to working in Powerpoint, asking them to shift to Google Slides will create some discomfort and cost you time.  If you are using a platform for creating content that is new, build in time for the group to learn it.  It often takes longer than you expect.

I admit that I am finding it a bit exhausting, never mind my tech helper who had a tiny meltdown after our third meeting where we had so much complexity. But I’m determined to make this work.

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For those of whom working from home is relatively new, we are all on a huge learning curve, so how do we need to be?

For one, we all need to have compassion for one another. We all have different home setups. Some people may be working from a cluttered kitchen table with an older computer, while others have an aspirational, eye candy office and impeccable tech. (Jealous!) Pro tip: If you’re working with the popular Zoom online tool, the virtual background feature (Click on the up arrow beside the camera icon in lower left hand corner, select virtual background, choose your background) allows you to have a bucolic background like the Golden Gate Bridge. Thought you might appreciate that!

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Meanwhile, here are some tips for making your routine virtual meetings go smoothly.

  • Be patient with each other, we’re all in the same boat.
  • WiFi connections are often unreliable. If you can plug your computer into a router, in many cases you’ll get a more reliable connection.
  • If you’re trying new tools, don’t be afraid to experiment. There are an infinite number of tools online. (See the list below)
  • Ask experts at your workplace for help.
  • Try to be in a place that is distraction-free and let the people in your home know, so your husband doesn’t walk into the room in his underwear. (My family has learned to wave at me from behind the laptop to avoid being in my video meetings).
  • For better lighting, have windows in front of you rather than behind.
  • Buy a webcam if you can.
  • A good headset goes a long way and blocks out background noises.
  • If you’re using Zoom, like so many people are, it has a “touch up my appearance” function in its help centre, which incorporates a soft focus that evens out your skin tone. Yes, for real.
  • Use the mute button as your default to minimize background noise and for those moments when your dog decides to bark, or your kids are getting a bit loud.
  • Shut down email and other notifications to keep distractions to a minimum.
  • Have a Plan B for when technology goes sideways. You can always go back to the dependable conference call.
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Break the ice and acknowledge everyone

Just because you’re not all together in one room, doesn’t mean you can’t set a positive tone, encourage meaningful conversations and establish a sense of cohesiveness.

Because online meetings are asynchronous deliberate attention to connecting conversations is really helpful. Here are a few things you can do to achieve this:

  • Ask each participant their name and a simple question, like how the weather is where they are. I was recently in a video conference with 60 people from around the world, and this technique worked quite well because everyone in the group felt acknowledged.
  • Use a poll tool, like Zoom’s or Mentimeter , and ask a variety of questions of participants on the subject matter. It’s super easy to use. In fact, Zoom has a whole suite of cool functions. (See below)
  • Use a shared document for taking meeting minutes (e.g. Google Docs, Word now allows co-creation). That way, everyone can work on the same document to get better results.
  • Record the meeting if people can’t make it: Zoom also has a record meeting function.
  • Even if you’re a bit camera-phobic or haven’t showered yet today, it’s always helpful to see faces, so please put your video function on, (you can always use the “touch up my appearance” function!)
  • Do something fun, like ‘virtual lunch’ or ‘virtual coffee break’. Schedule a time when everyone gathers just to each lunch, share a coffee and talk about their day. No shop talk.
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Look at the bright side – no commuting!

Working from home is not terrible. Think of all the advantages – no commuting, staying in your pajama bottoms (though you may want to have a decent top for video meetings), and the ability to throw in a load of laundry in the middle of the day and take your dog for a walk.

There’s a simplicity and fluidity that can be beneficial to working from home, even if virtual meetings are on the agenda. There’s a new intimacy to the way we have to work now, and we may just have to be more deliberate in creating cohesiveness, documenting our work and communicating with intention.

Helpful resources

There are infinite online resources for virtual meetings. Here are a few I’ve found helpful

Officeless: This site represents a movement that started in Brasilia. They posted a particularly good guideline for working remotely in our current circumstances.

This CNET article has a long list of Zoom tips, tricks and hidden features.

Co-creation tools

Google slides / Google docs – really great for co-creation. Google was the first to create co-edit docs and they are an easy to use, easily accessible tool.  It’s always fun to correct someone else’s typos as they make them.

Liniot is a free, sticky and canvas service that requires nothing but a Web browser. This is a simple tool for a brainstorm / cluster process. A bit ‘old school’ looking – it covers off a basic brainstorm session.

Miro.com is an online collaborative whiteboarding platform.  Use it for brainstorming, clustering, mapping and diagramming.  I have not used it, but have heard some good reviews from others.

Mural.co has come to my attention.  It is also an online collaborative whiteboarding platform. It seems to support a larger canvas and offers many templates.

Hardware tools:

Jamboard is an interactive style of whiteboard that supports cloud-based collaboration.  From Google, it’s got lots to offer and requires some investment dollars.

What I’m reading

Collaborating with the Enemy, How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, Adam Kahane

Adam Kahane works on complex problems and has discovered that the conventional collaborative scenario where all are aligned to a common vision, harmonious relations and that clarity about who does what is not always possible. Collaboration, in these scenarios must embrace discord, experimentation and genuine co-creation to emerge in conflicted situations.  This book is about his experiences and the model he has evolved.