Timeless Tips for Designing and Facilitating Engaging Virtual (or Hybrid) Meetings

“Hi Nancy, I hope you can help me. We just had to cancel our 2-week-long program kick-off meeting in New York City, and now we have to figure out how to run the whole thing virtually. I’ve been looking all over for someone like you. Can we talk?”

Even though I got such emails when COVID first hit, this one appeared back in September 2001. It was from someone I had never met, Penny Pullan, who then worked for a global confectionery company, and now leads Making Projects Work Ltd. in the UK.

Turns out Penny and I had a lot in common. My biggest client at the time, a global Fortune 50 technology company, had suddenly put a stop to all air travel in the wake of 9/11, just as we were gearing up for a new round of workshops in multiple locations. My client issued me a challenge: Convert our usual two-day onsite workshops to virtual sessions. “That will never work. It can’t be done!” I insisted, to which my client replied: “We’ll find someone who can figure it out.” I accepted the challenge, but dreaded the prospect.

There we were, Penny and I, grappling with nearly identical challenges two decades ago when there were so few known experts in the nascent field of virtual meetings. One of our earliest conversations led us to create a checklist to help people decide when certain conversations really required an in-person meeting and when a virtual meeting would do the job just fine. More than 20 years later, that checklist is still relevant today.

Over the years, Penny and I went onto become experts, authors, consultants and presenters in the areas of virtual meetings and distributed teams. We meet regularly to check in, brainstorm, share ideas, and ponder answers to our clients’ questions. In our most recent meeting, broadcast on LinkedIn Live, we compared virtual meeting challenges from more than 20 years ago to the challenges of today. Not surprisingly, the struggles to keep people focused and engaged haven’t changed all that much, despite virtual collaboration technologies we could have only dreamed about in 2001.

Here’s an excerpt from our interview:

❇️ Virtual meetings were quite common for the global teams both of us worked with 20 years ago, but no one referred to them as “meetings.” They were called conference calls or teleconferences, because the telephone was pretty much the only technology that we used to connect people in different locations. (And everyone knew that a phone call was not the same as a meeting!) Sharing screens was considered leading-edge, and collaborating on a shared document in real-time was practically unimaginable. If you were lucky enough to work for a big company, you might be able to get a free teleconference account. But if not, chances are, either you or your participants would have to absorb the cost of dialing into the conference.

❇️ We were almost completely reliant on audio to connect us, as almost no one had any sort of camera, and that early audio technology was woefully lacking. It was frequently a struggle to hear what everyone was saying, and many voices –especially those in the most remote locations — literally could not be heard. Even worse, with some audio-conferencing services, someone had to stop speaking before anyone could say anything, which gave big talkers a huge advantage.

❇️ One thing that was true back then and remains true today: Many people consider virtual meetings to be inferior to in-person meetings for collaborating, relationship-building, brainstorming, problem-solving, etc. Even now, “virtual” is often seen as “not real.” (For the record, this perspective is one we most emphatically do not subscribe to.)

❇️ Keeping remote participants engaged has always been a perennial challenge, whether it’s an all-virtual meeting or a hybrid meeting (a phrase relatively unknown before COVID). If participants have their cameras turned on, it can be easier to detect disengagement, boredom, confusion or multitasking. But even so, making these needed interventions to bring everyone back to the fold is not necessarily easier. In fact, we rarely see virtual meeting leaders today who are consistently adept at reining in dysfunctional behavior.

❇️ Despite the last three years of practice most of us have had running virtual meetings, we still see a lot of jam-packed agendas that don’t allow enough time for participants to have meaningful discussions or needed debates. Despite tools that make it easier to keep people actively engaged (e.g. polls, hands up, chat, virtual sticky notes, etc.), many people seem to use these rather haphazardly, if at all. We do see an uptick in the use of asynchronous online conversation areas to make meeting time more efficient, but adoption has been slower than we had imagined. Many virtual meetings still start with a tedious content review that could easily have been consumed ahead of time.

❇️ During our recent conversation, we summarized many tips for keeping people actively engaged in virtual meetings which may be somewhat different today compared to 20 years ago, due to emerging technologies. Despite these advances, techniques for keeping people engaged in virtual meetings haven’t really changed over the last two decades. Here are a few:

  • Build in multitasking on task: People will multitask, so we might as well take advantage of the propensity to do it by building in multitasking opportunities throughout our meetings. Such multitasking activities should all help advance your shared meeting goals.
  • Create opportunities for interaction every 3-5 minutes: This can be as simple as a quick poll, hand up, typing a word or number into chat, posting a sticky note or dot, a one-word reply, etc.
  • Come armed with a set of great questions to stimulate conversation, using a combination of open-ended and closed questions. Asking the right questions at the right time is one of the best ways to get, and keep, people talking.
  • Anticipate issues and establish plans to manage them. Just because your agenda looks good on paper, it’s easy to get blind-sided in the moment, especially when dysfunctional behaviors emerge when you least expect them. Run through all of the possibilities in your head, preferably with a colleague, and role-play situations that threaten to derail the meeting.
  • Allow more time than you think you’ll need for debate and discussion when it comes to building consensus or making decisions. And/or, set up an online conference area where people can weigh in and offer their suggestions and perspectives ahead of time, so you can jump right into the needed discussions without wasting time.
  • If people need to do some pre-work to jumpstart a stimulating conversation, don’t leave it to chance. Find ways to make it compelling and validate that people have done it. If you open your meeting narrating one-way content, you’ll lose people in the first few minutes. Try both a carrot and a stick approach. If doing pre-work isn’t part of your team’s culture today, it will be tomorrow, as long as you hold people accountable for completing it.
  • Grab a colleague or someone else who can be your “co-pilot” to manage technical issues, keep a close eye on participants’ engagement, run breakouts or polls, track time, and more. Especially for meetings that call for complex conversations with a lot on the line, having a partner can help stave off any imaginable disaster.

Despite the advances in virtual meeting technology over the last 20+ years, along with the long period of virtual meeting “experimentation” since the start of COVID, most meeting leaders still have trouble keeping people focused, engaged and actively participating. Yes, having cameras on can often encourage people to at least pretend to pay attention, but that’s no replacement for a well-planned meeting design and assertive, diplomatic facilitation.

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