Have better virtual staff meetings

January 27, 2021

Zoom fatigue got you down? Experiment with these techniques for smoother, more productive, more interesting team meetings.

A young man faceplants into his laptop.
A young man faceplants into his laptop.
Graphic by Violet Dashi

Few aspects of office life inspire more grumbling than meetings. And the fact that they’re taking place almost exclusively online now hasn’t helped their reputation much. There are lots of things that make virtual meetings with your office team tricky to pull off, according to The Hub’s Autumm Caines, who’s been facilitating virtual meetings since 2015. But she says much of the “doom and gloom of Zoom” (to steal some clever verbiage from The Hub’s latest workshop) can be softened with a few simple tweaks to your team’s approach.

As you’ve no doubt experienced, one of the most significant ways virtual meetings differ from their in-person counterparts is that the former can get messy when two people attempt to talk at the same time.“In an in-person meeting, there are lots of occasions where people might talk in close timing to or, for short bursts, at the same time as one another. In a brainstorming environment, it can be really important and even fun, and your ear is pretty good at sorting through all the layers,” Caines says. “But it’s one of the quirks of the videoconference software that the camera shifts to whoever is the loudest, so if two people try to talk at the same time, even for a few seconds, it’s basically chaos.” 

To leave room for this kind of layered communication but avoid the confusion, Caines says try leaning on the chat feature a little more in your meetings — especially large meetings. For example, facilitators can use chat to quickly take the pulse of the room, collect instant feedback on an idea, or deploy an icebreaker at the start of a meeting. Caines says this kind of chat activity typically works best in situations where the feedback can be dished up in a word to a few words, not sentences and paragraphs. 

In fact, Caines says chat is generally a great tool for boosting participation. If a facilitator is a capable multitasker, or if the meeting has someone who can play the chat monitor role, you might try encouraging folks to chat out questions or comments during a presentation, with the facilitator briefly working in this feedback as it rolls in. And while you don’t want chat to take over your meeting, Caines says it can also be useful to create a little meeting “side banter,” which can be a visible way for folks to indicate they’re listening.

Instructional designer Autumm Caines
Instructional designer Autumm Caines
Instructional designer Autumm Caines

Another one of Caines tips: Think of hosting a meeting almost like you’re hosting a party — a setting where hospitality is crucial and also really multidimensional. For example, one of the most awkward parts of a party can be that liminal space where the first guests are arriving. It’s often the same for virtual meetings, but there are things you can do to make this time more interesting and comfortable. Caines says you can try assigning a designated greeter, who shows up early to acknowledge each person as they log in. You can also use the chat to answer a predetermined icebreaker question. “I also recently tried playing music for people, which I thought would be cool, but I actually got some feedback that the volume levels were different for different participants. So for some it was fine, but not for others,” Caines says. So don’t be afraid to experiment and see what works best with your group. 

The party metaphor also works in another important way: Both meetings and parties take teamwork to pull off, and the larger the gathering, the more help you might need. At a party, you’re going to be less stressed if someone helps you clean, another person is assigned to food prep, and someone else is taking coats at the door. Sharing the labor of meeting facilitation can directly engage more people on your team and make sure no single person gets overwhelmed. So while someone is holding down MC duties, someone else could be monitoring chat, while another person takes notes.

If you’re up for trying out some more advanced techniques, Caines says using other collaborative tools during your meetings is a way to add an extra layer of participation. For example, a shared Google Doc that everybody has access to can be updated in real time for brainstorming sessions, though she notes if you have a big group, users working at the bottom of a doc might find it distracting to constantly have their text bumped down by those working at the top. However, using a slide deck in Google Slides solves this problem, because everyone gets their own slide. Caines loves this video tutorial of that technique that Hub Director Carla Vecchiola found and shared with their team. If you want to give it a try, here’s a customizable template

Finally, Caines says don’t forget that the basic rules for good in-person meetings apply to virtual meetings. The biggest one, of course, is you should always have a clear purpose for getting together. Point being, if it can be handled in an email, make it an email.

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Want more ideas about how to get the most out of your synchronous time together? Check out Caines recent post on The Hub blog: “Avoid the Gloom and Doom of Zoom.”

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