by Kai Andrews, Eric Hammons

Tips to help prepare for virtual meetings – and keep your audience engaged.

As COVID-19, or coronavirus, continues to influence working environments worldwide, many companies have shifted to remote work. Yet, even during a time in which remote work is gaining popularity, holding effective remote meetings can suddenly become a whole new challenge. From technology issues to maximizing participants’ time, holding productive meetings with a distributed team can be complex.

To build a process for effective meetings while your teams are virtual, always remember to follow good meeting hygiene. These fundamental rules apply to virtual, in-person and mixed attendance meetings:

Assign a meeting owner to schedule the meeting, set the agenda, facilitate the discussion and capture decisions and action items.

Establish goals by clearly stating the goal for the meeting in the invitation – as well as having a time-boxed agenda and assigning pre-work as necessary.

Invite the right people. Before holding a meeting, the meeting owner must make sure the right people are invited – otherwise, you risk wasting time and causing churn.

Keep the discussion on track. When the conversation goes off-topic, the meeting owner can table the topic and assign someone to follow up after the meeting. That way, the points themselves are captured without derailing the meeting.

Next, it’s important to have the right tools and technology to conduct effective virtual meetings – here are some useful tips.

Prepare Yourself

  • Prepare your environment: Consider the possibility of noise and distractions during the call. Find an isolated room in the house to hold the meeting. Let others in the house know you are about to be on an important call. And, should there be a sudden interruption, simply acknowledge it, smile and move on.
  • Prepare your audio: Make sure your audio setup is up for the task. Many laptops have good microphones but some do not. Some laptops will pick up typing. Others will broadcast your fingers drumming on the desk. Know what you have and be ready to get a good headset if needed.
  • Get the technology ready: Identify and test your technology setup prior to the meeting. Get everyone on a central, modern tool for meetings – Teams, WebEx, GoTo Meeting and Zoom are all great candidates. Is the actual application loaded, not just a browser extension? Do you have a wi-fi signal in the room in which you will be taking the call?
  • Content and sharing readiness: If you are going to be sharing content, do you have it ready for virtual consumption? Do you know how to share your screen? Many apps give you the option of sharing just an application or sharing your whole screen, decide which one to use. Make sure you have all of the presentations and content to be shared open and ready. If you are using multiple monitors, know how to either mirror or extend your presentation. Consider leveraging virtual white boards to simultaneously collect inputs and support ideation during virtual meetings. We recommend checking out Mural, but conferencing tools like WebEx and Zoom have whiteboards, and consider Microsoft Whiteboard for O365 users. If someone insists on using a physical whiteboard, pan or zoom your camera. If you don’t have digital white boards, take a photo and share via OneDrive for Business, SharePoint Online or Google Docs.
  • Think about your content’s structure: Text-heavy content is not easy to share virtually…and most of the time not good for in-person meetings either. It is also a good practice to not go off script during a meeting in which you are sharing content. If you absolutely must move to another piece of content, stop sharing, open the content and then re-share your desktop.
  • Set meeting defaults: Depending on the size of the meeting, consider auto defaulting participants to be muted when joining. This prevents a lot of background noise as the meeting participants come together. You must also consider whether participants can self-unmute or whether that is controlled by a central administrator. Also make sure that meetings have a dial-in component option.

Engage Your Audience

  • Set meeting guidelines: Announce the guidelines at the beginning of the meeting including muting oneself when not talking, turning on video, etc. Remind them of minimizing distractions and not multi-tasking. Explain how to ask questions by using chat. 
  • Use video: While it will be difficult for all attendees in large meetings to have their cameras on, the presenters must have their faces seen. Individual laptops may suffice but if there is going to be a group in a central location, then consider using a professional company to live-stream the video.
  • Eliminate multi-tasking distractions: Listen, engage and pretend you are in a room where everyone can see you. Turn Outlook off, close other applications and notifications. Most operating systems have a do not disturb mode – turn it on.
  • Use chat for participant engagement: Use the meeting’s chat features to engage everyone. Make sure there is a person dedicated to monitoring the chat channel and interrupt the presenter as needed – have this cadence set up ahead of time. The presenter should pause on a regular basis so the chat moderator can intervene. Another option is to use multiple monitors so you share the presentation on one monitor and have the meeting notes and chat window on another.
  • Other engagement methods: Feel free to call on folks during the meeting. You would if you were in the room with them…don’t let a virtual meeting keep you from doing what you normally would do to engage participants.
  • Remember your audience during breaks: Remember you have an audience during breaks, especially if you are in a room with others and you have virtual participants.
  • Leverage break-out sessions: Use break-out sessions to get more engagement, but make sure you have logistics set up for those meetings. The invite should have links to break-out meetings so people can easily join on the fly. Apply all of these rules to those smaller meetings and remember to come back together on time.
  • Record the meeting and/or take notes: Record important virtual meetings. It is simple and a great way to get those who could not attend the relevant info. Long videos are hard to find time to watch, so tell folks that it is OK for them to take an hour and catch up. Still too long? Consider having someone cut the video into parts, especially if the agenda was long. That way, everyone can jump to the parts they find most important or can simply break down the viewing time into digestible chunks. Place the recording, notes and meeting collateral all in one place.
  • Centralize content: Meetings inevitable require pre-reads or follow up content distribution. Make sure this happens in a centralized location such as a Teams site, OneDrive for Business, Box or cloud-based sharing tool.

The Bottom Line

It’s important to keep the rhythm of business flowing even in turbulent times. Mastering the art of holding virtual meetings among a remote workforce is an ideal way to keep business moving – and one that organizations may want to consider using on an ongoing basis once this epidemic has subsided.