Virtual Meetings: Why Bother Showing Up If You’re Not Really Present?

You’re trying to pay attention to your third video meeting in a row, where your colleague is making an impassioned case for getting the team much-needed resources. Despite the fact that you’re desperate for this request to be approved, you’re struggling to focus. In part, it’s because you didn’t bother to review the documents she sent so you could lend support for her proposal. You’ve also allowed your attention to get hijacked by a series of pings from people begging for a response from you right this minute via email, IM, and texts. When you look up to scan the video images of your teammates, you see that you’re not alone. When your team leader’s request for consensus is met with a chorus of half-hearted responses, he abruptly declares the request DOA and moves to end the meeting.

Wait – what just happened?! Everyone had agreed that obtaining more resources was crucial to the success of this project. So where was everyone when your colleague most needed visible, active support for her carefully-constructed proposal? Clearly, they were off somewhere else (just like you!), but where? And why????

Was this a case of team members failing to take responsibility for their needed participation? Or was it a case of a meeting leader who failed to design and lead a meeting that encouraged and enabled active participation? Yes, to both. In this article, Bob Whipple, a.k.a. The Trust Ambassador, joins me to reflect on how an active presence can foster a sense of mutual trust, how a failure to be present can erode trust, and what participants and meeting leaders alike can do to ensure that everyone stays focused and present.

Tips for meeting leaders to invite active presence and build trust:

  • Invite the right people, and no more. Determine who must absolutely be present to achieve the meeting goals and identify what roles each participant will play. For example, will certain people be presenting information, while others assess the data? Do all have an equal say, or do some carry more weight than others? Make sure all invitees are prepared for the needed conversation, which often means reaching out to key people in advance. People often tune out when discussions seem irrelevant, or when they don’t feel they can make a useful contribution.
  • Share the agenda, which should contain action words such as decide, create or prioritize, and spell out the minimum requirements (or “price of admission”) participants must complete to join the conversation. Examples: Skim the attached report and come prepared to assess the trade-offs. Survey your organizations and be ready to summarize prevailing concerns. Identify recurring themes you find in our online discussion. Put participants on notice that if they haven’t done the work to prepare for this discussion, they won’t be able to participate on equal footing with those who have. (In my experience, people who attend to prework are far more likely to be active meeting participants than those who skip it.)
  • Find ways to keep people busy every minute. Give people reasons to pay attention and invite them to interact continuously. This can take the form of a chat, poll, hands-up, a quick energizer, verbal response, breakout session, cross-table conversations, or a stretch break. The longer people are asked to pay attention without interacting, the greater the chances they’ll tune out. (And even those who look like they’re paying rapt attention because they’re staring into the video camera may in fact have drifted off to parts unknown, especially if they are touch typists.)
  • Prepare a set of provocative questions to stimulate conversations that draw people in, and pose them at appropriate places throughout the meeting. Have a “just-in-case” set of additional questions ready to go when energy lags, or when people seem to have drifted off. Consider whether you want to ask just a few people, or whether you’ll ask everyone. Depending on the available time, typed responses might work better than shout-outs.
  • Make sure people are comfortable and confident in using the chosen tech tools. If you’re introducing a tool that may be new to some, find a way to “soft launch” it in a low-risk setting, either as part of the prework or at the start of the meeting. A note on the use of video images of the participants: Note: While the use of video can be a useful way to gauge interest, understanding or agreement, the constant use of video can tax our brains and actually make it harder to detect certain sentiments. Gain agreement on the need or desire for video from meeting to meeting, and be prepared to be flexible, especially for those who have little control over their working environment or bandwidth.
  • Be vigilant about spotting signs of boredom, low energy or lack of interest. Be prepared to act quickly to shift the energy. This might mean taking an unplanned stretch break, conducting a quick poll, validating that the topic is of interest and importance to most people, or in extreme cases, it might mean declaring the meeting over after stating your observations out loud. It might be that people simply need a break, or that other priorities must take precedence over this conversation right now, which may mean postponing this meeting, or meeting your goals another way at another time.
  • Call out digressions and other behavior that can prevent you from achieving your goals within the allotted time. The less the meeting leader appears to be in control of the conversation, the more people will tune out. State what you’re observing, ask for validation, and offer the group options, when appropriate. The more you allow dysfunctional behavior to invade your virtual meetings, the less likely people will willingly return to your next one.

Tips for meeting participants to maintain presence and build trust:

  • Take the time to review the meeting objectives, understand your role, and determine how you can contribute to a successful outcome. When in doubt, reach out to the meeting leader before you respond, to ensure that your participation represents a good use of other participants’ time as well as your own. If you decline, you might suggest another person to the meeting leader, or offer to provide input another way. What’s not okay is to accept and then not show up, or to show up and sleepwalk your way through the meeting. This helps no one.
  • Come prepared to make a meaningful contribution. This means, at a minimum, reviewing prework, making notes, jotting down ideas and preparing some of your own questions. You might also do some of your own research on the topic, so you have something new to add to the conversation. For example, if the meeting goal is to create an action plan for the launch of a new service, solicit input from those likely to be doing the work as to the time and resources required, to ensure that your resulting action plan is grounded in reality.
  • Try out new technology in advance. Don’t hesitate to ask the meeting leader for assistance, which may include directing you to test links or an online demo, or personally navigating you through the tool. No one wants to be that person who slows down the meeting because they haven’t figured out how to use the technology, if you can help it.
  • Arrive early. First, clear your desktop and clear your mind. Before the start of your meeting, finish or file any important posts or messages. Turn off or minimize and silence other apps on all devices, after you’ve posted a “do not disturb” sign on your messaging app. Attend to any needs that might otherwise prevent you from fully participating. For example, grab a glass of water, have a paper and pen or any needed documents handy, let your dog out or grab a quick snack. Be sure to test your audio and video settings before the meeting officially begins.
  • Turn off mute and turn on video. Yes, there are exceptions, such as if your work environment is noisy or chaotic, or if this is your fourth video meeting in a row with few breaks. (We all have “bad hair” days, so that’s less of an excuse for keeping video off than it used to be.) By staying audibly and visually present, we tend to feel more accountable for our attentiveness and are more likely to contribute (or to be asked for a contribution) when we are leaning in, rather than hanging back.
  • Pay attention to others’ words, voices and expressions. This doesn’t mean your eyes have to go blurry by staring at every video image with unwavering focus, but it does mean that you should at least occasionally scan the landscape to get a sense of the meeting. Show that you’re listening by nodding, smiling or frowning, making a verbal or chat comment, or by posting an appropriate icon, such as a thumbs-up, thumbs-down or clapping hands. Notice out loud when you sense confusion, disagreement or agreement, boredom, enthusiasm, meandering, etc., and invite others to say more. Comment when you sense agreement or notice recurring themes. The responsibility for guiding the conversation need not fall solely to the meeting leader.
  • Take responsibility for your own energy. If you’re feeling bored, you may not be the only one. Think of ways you might add a spark to the conversation, like asking an insightful question that can restore flagging energy. If you need a stretch break, try asking for one, if appropriate, or type into the chat that you need to step away for a moment or two. Grab some water, step outside for air, or take some deep breaths. Try not to use break time for more screen time. Your eyes and brain will thank you.

It’s reasonable to expect that during any given virtual meeting, people will zone out. If it’s just one or two people, the problem may lie with participants who struggle to stay focused for any number of reasons. If, however, most people appear distracted, disinterested, or disinclined to contribute to the conversation, the meeting leader probably has some soul-searching to do. Meeting leaders can’t require people to actively participate, but they can create an environment where it’s easy and rewarding to do so. Meeting participants, for their part, can’t expect to show up unprepared and then magically become fully engaged. With virtual meetings, it’s truly a case of getting out of it what you put into it. And if you’re not willing to put something into it, why bother showing up?


122 Tips for Planning and Leading Exceptional Virtual Meetings – PDF tips guide available for purchase online from Guided Insights

The Impact of a High-Trust Culture – blog by Bob Whipple

Trust Barometer – YouTube video where Bob Whipple demonstrates the high cost of breaking trust

Past Communiques:

12 Tips for Building Trusting Relationships Across Your Virtual Team

Cultivating Trust From Afar in Tough Times (written with Bob Whipple)

Building Trust Within Virtual Teams – Small Steps Add Up

The Real Costs of Persistent Multitasking – 9 Tips to Minimize Damage

Designing a Distraction-Proof Virtual Meeting

Related articles:

How to Elevate Your Presence in a Virtual Meeting – Harvard Business Review (April 2020)

Virtual Meetings Don’t Have to Be a Bore – Harvard Business Review (March 2020)


How to Get People to Actually Participate in Virtual Meetings – Harvard Business Review (March 2020)

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