Awesome Meetings in the Age of COVID-19

Compass on a map

With conventions, conferences, and school classes being cancelled and postponed due to fears over the novel coronavirus SARS CoV-2, many are scrambling to find a replacement for the face-to-face interactions they were planning for.  Beyond social distancing practices, virtual gatherings like remote meetings, workshops, and conferences can be a great option for organizations to continue to safely connect, convene, and congregate. 

Whether you’re a team leader seeking to effectively sync with your team, an instructor now having to teach online, or a salesperson now being forced to demo via Zoom, making this switch can be a daunting task if you’re not familiar with the nuances of online facilitation and how to make the most of the many features that come with going remote too.  

I admit, when I enrolled in Seth Godin’s altMBA program a few years ago, I was terrified that a majority of the course would be held via synchronous online video chats.  I thrive on in-person connection, but I had never really used video chat (I was never a fan of Facetime), and I was anxious. 

However, I’ve since come to basically live on Zoom and love it! Through experience, I realized that many of my skills honed from running IRL meetings (producing a theater group, leading grassroots organizations, and teaching university students) translate successfully into remote meetings, and there are even more skills I’ve picked up along the way to make this virtual medium feel deeply human. 

For those of you just getting comfortable with remote facilitation, I wanted to share a few things to keep in mind to help you more readily embrace remote gatherings!  

4 Trust-Centered Tips to Level Up Your Remote Facilitation Game

1. Your appearance (still) matters.

I know, I know, there’s the dream of being able to facilitate meetings from home, cozy and snug in a blanket or your sweatpants.  It’s true – 7am meetings are much more tolerable when they can be made from the comfort of your bed.  

That said, your appearance is a credibility signal and can help you earn trust. If you care about engaging your audience and enrolling them in the conversation at hand, it’s crucial to keep your appearance in mind when on a video call.  Especially as a facilitator, video off is not an option in a digital meeting, and you should look the part of a professional.  

You’re going to want decent lighting hitting the front of your face (you don’t need a fancy lighting rig to do this – simply ensuring your in a well lit room can make a big difference), an appropriate background (depending on your industry, this can vary), and to be dressed appropriately.  Note that with creative room/laptop configurations and interesting top/bottom wardrobe matching, you may still be able to do this from your bed, but I’d still recommend against it. 

2. Your body language is crucial

Online meetings are missing the magic of handshakes, fist bumps, and the thrill of a facilitator who knows how to work a stage, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t translate the same feelings into your online meetings.

Smiling as people “come into the room” is important here, as well as making sure you’re leaning towards the webcam to show people you’re engaged.  The trickiest part about online facilitation is that when you want to make eye contact with your participants, you shouldn’t stare into the digital representations of their eyes that you see on screen – you should be staring directly into your camera.

This is a very weird thing to do at first, as it’s a natural human response to want to look at the people and their reactions, but it’s crucial, especially when first building trust with the group that you make eye contact with them by looking into the camera.  On the plus side, by staring deeply into a single camera, every participant will get the sense that you’re there looking at them.

3.  Make sure your environment is distraction free.

When you go into a meeting IRL, you can easily hit the “Do Not Disturb” feature on your phone or go into airplane mode and you’re set.  When you go into a digital meeting, you are completely engaging with a digital device, so it’s important to make sure you’re set up for a distraction-free meeting.

On top of silencing your phone, remember to turn off notifications on the computer you’re taking the call from.  For me, that’s remembering to snooze notifications on Slack, closing my calendar and email so I’m not getting reminders or notifications, and making sure that if I’m not speaking, I’m on mute.  

Muting is an important part of online meeting etiquette.  It’s much easier to just stay silent and go off mute the entire meeting, but often the clacking of your keyboard, the rumbling of your stomach, or the dog barking next door can be incredibly distracting to whomever is talking.  Staying on mute also cuts down on feedback, as not everyone uses headphones, and helps all participants experience a more enjoyable virtual gathering.  

So remember: mute yourself when you’re not speaking, and be sure to ask all participants to only come off mute when they’re ready to talk.  

 4. Leverage the tech.

It’s true – remote meetings are different than in-person ones, but they don’t have to be inferior.  You don’t have a lot of the in-person magic, but that doesn’t mean you can’t leverage the digital space to innovate and engage in a way that is often too cumbersome in person.

One technique I like to use to democratize the space is the chat waterfall.  In real life, when I want to get feedback in a succinct period of time, I often have to pick and choose who the group gets to hear from in that moment.  This can limit perspectives, and often, this can even alienate and discourage some people from participating. Instead of asking just one person’s feedback, you can open it up to everyone and ask them to drop their answers in chat instead.  

Not only does it allow for everyone’s feedback to be seen and heard (or in this case, read) in a fraction of the time it would take to call upon and listen to every individual, but you can use the opportunity to make space for participants that are less likely to verbally contribute by inviting them to speak more about what they’ve contributed in chat.  

While it also depends on what platform you’re using to host the meeting, Zoom comes with the ability to poll the room.  You can use this to quickly get feedback (instead of having to deal with a stack of paper surveys), make fun activities, and to create other interactions that engage your participants.  

Zoom also allows you to create breakout rooms, which allows for participants to get put into groups and sent off into their own private video chat rooms.  In an in-person meeting, group work can sometimes require furniture moving, awkward numbering or counting off to figure out who is in what group, people moving around with their stuff – it’s always effective, but always eats up time.  

With breakout rooms, you can literally send all of your participants off with a few clicks and also call them all back into one big room at any time you need to.  No more waiting for people to come back from sneaking off to the coffee machine, or trying to get people to come to attention. It’s a very distinct change of space, which resets the frame of being in one large meeting again, and people will quickly get back on topic.  

You Can Make Remote Meetings Awesome

As you can see, remote meetings don’t need to be a huge, scary hurdle to your team, school, or organization.  You likely already have many of the required skills to get started, and you’ll get even better with practice!

I hope these tips were helpful in making the pivot to remote meetings, and if you’d like some dedicated practice and more advanced techniques (like what we call “the Penn and Teller method”), The Brightspot Trust is hosting a deep dive remote facilitation masterclass on March 26th at 12pm Pacific.  Lisa and I would love to see you there as we pull back the curtain on all of the facilitation skills we’ve built over the past years both as online facilitators, but also as 100% remote collaborators.  

Register here (spots are limited!):

Best of luck on the transition, stay safe, and I hope to see you in the Masterclass!