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24 March 2020

Watch the Process: A Covid19 how-to guide for virtual meetings

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

About a century ago, last week, I wrote about how to face into virtual meetings in a new way. Since that time, I have been on about thirty more hours of virtual meetings, and so my series continues, with me a little wiser in my self-isolation. You can find the whole suite of suggestions here and a deeper look at the first two suggestions here. There I talked about the importance of setting a solid foundation. But there are also really big differences in how we need to actually hold conversations once we’ve begun. This blog will help with that.

Educate about etiquette

So even after a week or two of meeting virtually, people have probably learned that staying on mute is a good idea unless you’re actually talking (in which case it’s a bad idea). But even after years of meeting virtually, I can tell you that slipping off mute by mistake or forgetting to mute once you’ve finished talking is incredibly common. This leads to little annoyances like chewing noises or big challenges like exposing your colleagues to things you and they would rather not hear (like the fellow who murmured his sharply negative opinion about the current presentation without realizing he had come off mute). If you’re the leader of the meeting, it’s a kindness to everyone to nicely ask colleagues to mute, or to interrupt them to let them know they are breaking up etc. We always need feedback from others, but when we are virtual, we literally don’t know how we are coming across. Make a habit of letting people know. It might it easier to give other forms of necessary feedback too.

Be clear about what you want

Virtual meetings tip more easily into two basins of meeting hell: the-everyone-just-randomly-talks basin or the no-one-says-anything basin. To encourage the more helpful approach, ask people for what you want. “I’m really stumped so I’d like a wide range of opinions about this,” helps loosen the tongue. “I’m pretty clear that this is the right way to go but I need to hear what I’m missing. Can anyone who sees a flaw just speak up quickly?” Watch out here for the mindtrap of agreement and support people to disagree well.

Naming your need once isn’t enough. You’ll have to come back at it again and again. Put a post it that says BALCONY right next to your camera so that every time you glance up you’ll see it. That will remind you to check in with yourself and the group—is this conversation going well? Are a wide variety of people sharing? Are some people checked out? Call attention to the process of the meeting—not just the content—to keep everyone engaged and learning.

Watch faces, not decks

Anyone in a meeting with me will hear my constant request, “Thanks—can you kill the screen share now?” That’s because the habit nature of talking to a slide overtakes us—and then the slide overtakes the people. Often you don’t need the slide at all: use the chat function to put useful content such as directions or agenda items. Flash a necessary slide and let people take a picture of it before you pull it back down. Just remember that you’re always subtlety answering the question: is this slide more important than the people on the line? The longer you leave the slide up, the more your operating answer is Yes.

Basically, my conclusion is this. I lead a firm that is entirely virtual. We have found that virtual meetings can be at least as filled with creativity, connection, and information as any in-person meeting. And we have found that our meetings can have something that many in person meetings lack. Paying attention to the process of the meeting—the way you set it up, the way you run it—can give the meeting a kind of a spirit of togetherness that those of us who are locked in our individual homes around the world are missing. Do this well, and when we all come back to work again, you’ll find that the quality of the relationships and the quality of your meetings have improved while you’ve been protecting your health and the health of others. This generates hope for today and hope for the future, something we should all be manufacturing these difficult days.


4 thoughts on “Watch the Process: A Covid19 how-to guide for virtual meetings”

  1. Lissa says:

    Thanks, Jennifer for more great tips on virtual meetings. Will be sharing with others. Be Well.

  2. Hi Jennifer
    Nice recommendations. And a blog full of very inspiring articles. 🙂
    There is no doubt that the on-line meeting tools – the Zoom, Skype, MS-teams etc. in an amazing way enables our cooperation at a distance – However, I am missing the “water cooler talks” the smal informal dialogue on the way to a meeting, or at the water cooler or coffee machine or lunch room, I miss the joke across the tables in the open office that sets off a laughter 🙂 and some energy. I am missing the contact where we share a little of our selfs, where we get to know each other and ask open and interested questions on “how are you to day” and are willing to use the time it takes to listen and share.
    So – in your “virtual company” how do you create the space on the daily on-line interaction to make the informal dialogue happen ? how to be “on-line and present”?
    Happy Easter

    1. Jennifer Garvey Berger says:

      Hi Henning. I’m glad you found our blog–we’ve been writing up a storm! I really understand what you mean about missing the watercooler talks (we have a Slack channel called “watercooler” to encourage some of this chatter). At Cultivating Leadership, where we are nearly only virtual, I think we are used to finding digital ways to make up for that in-person time, but it does make our rare in-person time much more vital to us. We cancelled an upcoming in-person event this week and even though it was obviously the right thing to do, it left me really sad. To make up for it, we’re adding a variety of things: lunchtime sessions where anyone who wants can just hang out–we watch babies get fed and just connect with each other with random conversation; we’ve added weekly COVID calls where we spend a lot of time just checking in on how people are, emotionally and physically; we’ve found ourselves scheduling a rare number of no-agenda “coffees”; and we’re compiling small groups to meet monthly and just talk about what’s going on for them. In our network of independent entrepreneurs who tend to travel to earn their income, this is a scary time in so many ways. Finding ways to ease some of the isolation is an important gift for us to give one another. Happy Easter to you too!

  3. Barbara Noyes Brown says:

    Instead of writing about this, post clips of your sessions. You guys are some of the best virtual facilitators I know. Most people need to see it in action. Reading a how to doesn’t do much. Even better might be interesting to do a Gen Call session on it.

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