Virtual Meeting Design: The Mantra is Preparation

How long COVID-19 will keep many of us in a virtual work environment is unknown, but what’s more interesting to consider is what work life will be like on the other side after months of collaborating over the internet. Will this period convince more organizations and teams that virtual work is not only possible, but sustainable?

Sacha Connor hopes so. As the Founder and CEO of Virtual Work Insider, she pulls from her years of experience to coach organizations to work seamlessly across distance. We previously published advice from Sacha on influencing across distance and avoiding pitfalls of remote work. Now, she shares tip for one of the bigger hurdles she helps remote teams tackle: meetings. How do you keep people engaged and involved when you’re not in the same room together? How can you foster a spirit of collaboration virtually and how can you keep that momentum going once the video chat ends?

Before you think about designing the meeting, first ask yourself a very important question: do you really need to meet? Sounds obvious for any meeting, right? But for remote work, which often compels us to communicate more or work more than normal to prove productivity, it becomes even more important to be intentional about when and why we’re scheduling meetings.

While we should always be discerning about when and why we need to gather others together, it becomes increasingly important for virtual sessions. They’re more taxing. The cognitive load gets heavy, fast. You’re navigating the technology, figuring out how to adjust communication norms, managing the right amount of eye contact and focus, all the while hoping the dreaded drop-off from an “unstable internet connection” doesn’t occur.

If you decide that you do need to meet, be prepared to put even more time in than you would for an in-person meeting. “The mantra is preparation,” says Sacha. To get the most out of your time, use these three questions to guide your pre-work:

  1. What are the essentials for planning?
  2. How can you make it as inclusive as possible?
  3. How do you keep the momentum going afterwards?


1. What are the essentials for planning?

Your work begins before the meeting starts. When it comes to planning a virtual meeting, Sacha uses a variation on the 5 P’s framework.


Why are you meeting? Everyone in the meeting should have a clear understanding of why they’re needed and why it matters. 


Choose a tangible outcome for the meeting. Do you want to generate new ideas? Get feedback on two options so the work can move forward? Get as specific as possible.


Invite only as many people as are truly needed. The goal is to avoid tourists—those just sitting in and listening. They can get a recap after the meeting ends. 


Think in advance about the tools you will use such as video conferencing, virtual brainstorming software, or a collaborative document. You may even consider additional cameras or a better microphone. Do a test run to avoid tech hiccups taking up valuable time.


Send out anything you can in advance to make the most of your time together. Is there some pre-reading that would help folks contribute more readily once the meeting begins? Should they acquaint themselves with a software tool in advance?


2. How can you make it as inclusive as possible?

Knowing that there will be a mix of introverts and extroverts on the call, you’ll want to think in advance about how you can encourage the strongest participation from everyone. Speaking up for an introvert is already a big hurdle, but to do that through video can be an even bigger barrier.

One way to get in the practice of including everyone’s voice is to kick off the virtual session with an icebreaker that gets everyone speaking right off the bat. You could keep it simple and ask what people had for breakfast or lunch, or what they’re looking forward to about their weekend. If you want folks to go beyond simple shares, and activate their creativity, try the “Pencil Activity.”


3. How can you keep the momentum going?

Keeping the momentum going is all about clarifying next steps for how the collaboration will continue after the meeting. It’s easy to think everyone is walking away with the same understanding, but often they’re not.

When you’re all in the office together, this alignment can happen more naturally with the opportunity for a quick drop-in at someone’s desk or over coffee, but when you’re remote you have to create a structure for it. According to Sacha, it gets back to the communication norms and deciding on the appropriate channels.

For those quick, fly-by questions you might opt for an instant messaging tool, perhaps using a dedicated channel for the project team. For things that need to be more permanently saved, you could go through email or have the team upload artifacts to a document sharing site.

No matter what you choose here, the most important thing is coming to a common agreement on how the tools will be used and clearly communicating the plan. Otherwise, everyone’s going to create their own processes, causing folks to spin their wheels and information will inevitably fall through the cracks.

Find more resources from Sacha on planning virtual meetings on the Virtual Insider site.

Get more tips on facilitating collaborative work to unlock innovative ideas in our online course, Cultivating Creative Collaboration.

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