By Alli Marshall
After a somewhat chaotic—and certainly very courageous—18 months of pivoting, pushing through, making it work, a veritable cornucopia of technical failures, trying to find that elusive unmute button, we have all truly seen and experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of online meetings. This brave journey is associated with many different experiences and stories—however, one that has often been shared with me is a view of these “virtual” and “remote” meetings as an impenetrable fortress, one tough nut to crack indeed.
To that I say—think of the catapult! Catapults were designed to penetrate seemingly unassailable castles and, as with many marvels of engineering, they did so through leverage (and certainly a heavy dose of cannon lead… and sometimes fire, but for the sake of this metaphor let’s focus on the leverage).
In my experience the “leverage” that makes an online* meeting successful consists of two things: the quality of presence of participants in the online space and the design of the session which unlocks the highest value synchronous** work of the group.
*Note, I consciously changed my language from “remote” or “virtual” to “online”—in my opinion, we seek connection, not distance, and there’s nothing imaginary about these meetings.
*Synchronous collaboration = what you do in real time together. This contrasts with asynchronous collaboration = the work people can do at their own pace/in their own time in between or after workshops such as polling, surveys, shared documents or even visual platform collaboration such as MURAL, Miro, or Google Jamboard.
Sounds straightforward, but how do you achieve that leverage so your next online meeting will reach the promised land of the interior castle? In the past 18 months I’ve given this topic a lot of time, attention and experimentation as I have delivered 95% of my work online as a strategic planning facilitator and team performance coach. I have compiled my top 5 suggestions to help you catapult your next online meeting to greater success. Please note these suggestions are for 100% online meetings; hybrid meetings are another beast entirely.
1. Believe in the dream: as Henry Ford famously said, “whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.” Certainly there are plenty of reasons to feel discouraged by online meetings, but let’s face it, there were plenty of unpleasant, unproductive and even disastrous in-person meetings before COVID precipitated our online shift. My mindset going into an online workshop is that we are going to be productive and participants will have a good experience. I live for, and also expect, that participants will share feedback like “the time flew by!” or “who knew an online meeting could be so engaging?” I believe it is crucial to begin with the firm belief that you will create an impactful and enjoyable experience for your participants. If you don’t hold that dream, who else will?
2. Seek moments of delight: in an unfamiliar format, you have the freedom to make your own rules! I’ve been loving the opportunities to bring unexpected elements into online meetings—this is a double win as participants appreciate your effort to deliver something pleasing, which then helps you to maintain their interest and presence. From the very start of the session, I’ll set the tone using fun polling questions, thoughtful and/or topical check-ins, online visuals using MURAL and breakout room activities. There’s so much room to exercise creativity—one major highlight for me during COVID was the chance to co-create a Board agenda with an award-winning Broadway director where we turned a 4-hour online workshop into a type of performance, with a series of acts, intermissions, a sense of movement through space, and “TA TA!! moments” (his words for exciting moments interspersed throughout the workshop). There’s so much room to play—let your inspiration and creativity guide you to new tech developments (such as Zoom’s new Immersive View feature), visual thinking activities and purposeful games such as scavenger hunts or even thematic “gifts” that participants bring to share over the course of a long online workshop.
3. Connect with humanity: in the flattened, two-dimensional online world we need to work a little harder to invite our full human being-ness into the experience together. Again, this is something I do from the very start—those fun polls I suggested in #2 can be a great way to kick off a session with some laughs and dialogue with participants about their answers, and the check-in questions also help to foster connection and forthright communication. Heartfelt Land Acknowledgements that go beyond a script can help to keep us on a path of Active Reconciliation while also connecting on levels beyond our brains and analytical processing powers. At the start of COVID, I created a colour zones check-in tool that I have used constantly. I have never seen more than 65% of participants in the well-regulated “green” zone that is optimal for teamwork, so I also use this check-in tool as permission to do a brief mindful focusing or relaxation activity to democratize the participation so everyone can make their best contributions. There’s so much more I could offer here, including sharing stories or facilitating listening activities. Even in a 30-minute team coaching session, I will devote 10 minutes to connecting with intention. To close on the point of democratizing participation: to bring empathy and to know that everyone is coming from different circumstances, I have polled participants on the temperature in their place of connection during heat waves. I have sent out surveys in advance for long sessions to understand what barriers participants have so I can plan in advance—these could be everything from disabilities such as a hearing impairment, or home situations such as one participant who disclosed “two kids homeschooling, two dogs…it’s CHAOS!” in advance of a session.
4. Ask for full presence with adequate breaks: I design for and ask for participants’ full attention through shorter segments of work (barring any barriers for them identified in #3). With practice, you can start to feel the quality of presence in the group; if it is waning before a scheduled break we’ll do a quick active break with a few stretches together. I love working in 90-minute blocks online and have broken up what would be one or two days of strategic planning into a series of shorter workshops. In one recent three-hour planning session we took a full 30-minute break—I want the breaks to feel spacious and encourage participants to get outside to recharge if they can. I’d rather participants say they had too little time rather than too much as the collective energy and focus can drop precipitously. I also like to create visual processing breaks where people can turn their cameras off.
5. Structure for success: my experience is that there is more flex and ease to “improvise” in-person, so online meetings require more juice in this department (although going back to #4 those long breaks sure come in handy if you need to execute a 180 degree turn in facilitation design). The topic of structure could be the subject of a whole separate blog post, so for our purposes, my suggestion is to spend more time thinking about that catapult point of leverage: what is the highest value synchronous work of the group? There’s a lot you can do asynchronously before and also after the session, including distributing a video with firestarter ideas and questions, and voting on ideas or surveying for the most important “now what?’s”. But what is truly crucial to do all together at the same time? Once you sort that out, structured and thoughtful main room and breakout room activities, strategic analysis or other visual sense-making tools, even visual metaphors, help to ensure you can unlock that value. Structure also applies to the “rules of the game” for collaboration: when someone takes themselves off mute, is that the signal they want to speak, or will they give a wave? Are you using the chat box? What about an “in the weeds” space or “parking lot”? Making these online collaboration structures clear at the start streamlines collaboration for better outcomes.
So there you have it: a few ideas that I hope will help you to unlock the germ-free, no travel downtime, no travel expense, and lower CO2 riches of online meetings. Please get in touch if you would like to discuss these ideas further or to receive a copy of my Online Connections Approach handout, which contains more tips and ideas. And most importantly, we are all making this up as we go along, so enjoy the journey!
Alli Marshall (she/her) is a CSAE member and the Founder and Principal Consultant of Strix Insights, providing services online and in-person, specializing in strategic planning, teamwork and change. Alli can be reached at amarshall(at)strix.ca or on LinkedIn. You can also follow her business on LinkedIn for occasional tips and educational content posts.