Planning virtual meetings

Some weeks in to the coronavirus restrictions, people are connecting through virtual meetings.  But are you planning meetings so they are effective, participative and achieve their goals?

This matters most for complex meetings, perhaps a strategic discussion with external collaborators.  But good planning matters for any meeting even it’s only running through the key points with a collaborator for five minutes a few days in advance.  For more complex meetings, time invested in planning pays off down the line.

Here are some things I have learned about planning virtual meetings.

Focus on outcomes

For virtual meetings it’s even more important to focus on what you are seeking to achieve.  Generally there are two aspects to this:  tangible deliverables like agreeing an action plan, and the more intangible dimension such as people feeling enthused or a commitment to work together.  Today the intangibles may be more important than the intangibles as many people feel isolated, scared or confused.

Put yourself in participants’ shoes

Generally meeting organisers are pretty good at clarifying what they want to achieve.  Equally important is putting yourself in the shoes of participants to consider what they might want to get out of the session.  ‘Why would I want to attend this session and what would make it worth my while?’ are good questions to ask on their behalf.

Involve participants in planning

Even better than putting yourself in participants’ shoes is actually involving them in the planning.  Simply mailing people to ask them what they want to cover orcomment on a draft agenda ensures that you don’t miss key points and helps people feel involved.

Synchronous and asynchronous activities

The magic jargon words for virtual collaboration are synchronous (at the same time) and asynchronous (at different times).  Before diving into ‘we need a meeting’ mode, consider what can be done by people collaborating at their own pace.  This might mean completing a survey, contributing to a shared document, or simply responding to an email or WhatsApp message.  The outstanding question, then, is ‘what do we absolutely need to be together at the same time to do’.  Often that’s the people stuff – the opportunity to share feelings, synthesise ideas or reach consensus.

Involve your co-facilitator

It’s a good idea to have someone responsible for the technology side of the meeting so the other facilitator can focus on the people and process.  It’s an even better idea to involve your co-facilitator in planning the session so they can advise on ‘how we do this’.  To be clear, the technical co-facilitator is not necessarily a tech expert, just the person who’s looking after any technology issues on the day.

Have a session plan

It feels much safer if you have a session plan, however short.  It should include timings, who does what, cover both technical and process side – and it should include enough time for decisions, next steps and who does what.  Print off your session plan and have it next to your computer in case of problems, or have it open on a separate screen or tablet.

Make it interactive

Virtual platforms like Zoom enable participation beyond seeing people’s faces on webcams and talking.  Plan to involve people in appropriate ways – breaking into smaller groups, annotating a shared document or whiteboard, expressing opinions via polls.  This helps people stay connected and also makes it more likely that meeting outcomes will be owned by group members.

Keep it short

Participation asynchronously before and after the meeting enables you to clear space for what really matters:  enabling people to connect with each other, bounce ideas off or express difficult views.  Virtual meetings generally should not last longer than 90 minutes.

Do a run through

It really helps to run through the technical process in advance – practising the shifts, links, annotations and resources.  This need not take long but will help you spot any glitches and provide a smoother experience for the participants.

Think about what happens after

In planning your session, think about what you want to happen as a result.  How are you going to map actions and next steps, who is going to do what?  Often it works well to populate a shared action plan during the session which can then be worked on afterwards.