For over a year now we've been functioning in a different reality where almost all contact between us is made via the Internet and tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams. All of this can influence our job and change it in many ways to a worse experience. Therefore, it’s important to acknowledge that some things must be changed and evolve - so that every meeting – even online - is still as productive and as valuable as ever.

The very first thing we're doing is to understand the goal of the meeting. It will be crucial at many of the stages and will help you set expectations for you and the participants. Usually, meetings have one clear goal – giving a better understanding of a certain topic or solving a problem that the team is facing. Those goals affect the form of the meeting; it can be necessary to discuss a certain topic, brainstorm some innovative ideas or plan actions. But sometimes there are additional goals, like team integration, resolving conflicts, celebrating. Seeing goals clearly can help with planning and conducting the meeting itself. At this stage, it can also become clear that the meeting is not needed or maybe there are other things to be done before the meeting itself.

What makes a good invite

Once the goal of the meeting is clear, there's a few things we need to do to make sure everyone attends it and benefits from it:

  • Invitations are placed in the teams' calendars – and it’s so easy to do in this new world, maybe a little too easy? Don’t jump ahead and plan a meeting in the first available slot – consider how many meetings there are already, ask the team if they are fine with the date, or maybe ask them if they have their propositions.
  • Don’t make meeting too long – don’t add one big slot, add breaks to the agenda instead – give yourself time to relax away from the computer. In our team we include breaks in every meeting longer than 2 hours. If you know that the meeting will take couple of hours, it's better to split it across several days. I encourage you to ask your team, maybe experiment a bit, to know what best suits you.
  • Avoid creating back-to-back meetings, but take into the consideration that some other parties might plan meetings right after yours. To help with that situation, create a 50-minute slot instead of an hour-long one. It gives people time to reset, have a small break before the next meeting, but also removes potential overlap between the meetings.
  • Prepare a meeting agenda and put it into the meeting description – even a draft can help. This will set participants’ expectations and help them prepare for the meeting.
  • Think about who you want to invite. It’s really easy now to just click and invite the full team, but after setting a goal you might see that there are only a few people needed and the rest are optional. That can help you to increase productivity, understanding and efficiency.

Preparations before meeting

Preparation heavily depends on the meeting type, so not all the things can apply to all the types. I will focus on the meetings in which the team is meant to discuss issues and find possible solutions - actions – but some of these ideas can also be considered when preparing a presentation.

  • Is there anything that team can do before the meeting? Let them know! It can help with shortening the meeting, giving it a quicker pace. Participants can think about the topics beforehand and, thanks to that, more time on the meeting itself can be assigned to finding solutions.
  • It's great to have a virtual whiteboarding capability and create space for people to add their ideas in a structured way. Shared whiteboards such as Miro work great in such a scenario. Perfect way to check the clarity of prepared materials is with someone who won't attend the meeting. This way you can find out if everything is understandable – get feedback and change things up if necessary.
  • Recognize what parts of the meeting are important and ones that might not be so necessary to complete the goal. In a perfect situation, the agenda will be 100% complete, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes there will be unexpected discussions that can change the plan – but you must realize which are truly important and which can be postponed to a different meeting. Don’t be afraid to improvise during the meeting, but always have the goal at the back of your head.
  • Use Visual Thinking to better illustrate some of the meeting elements. Graphics are better than text for people to remember more. It also makes them more interested and involved in the meeting. Now when we are online, you don’t have to draw everything yourself – search the Internet and don’t be afraid to use some gifs. You can also encourage participants to use images too – some things are hard to explain in text, but images can help.
  • Now, let’s talk about cameras and showing yourself at the meeting. This topic can be delicate for some teams and it should be established before the meeting. Ask the team if it’s okay for them to be on camera (or why not). Provide the reason: maybe you want to do some fun energizer or it's easier to see actual people when presenting. That is a good way to start the discussion and come up with a joint decision that everyone is comfortable with.
    It’s also safe to see if cameras are needed during the whole meeting or only at the beginning. Don’t go into meeting with some untested expectations or demands as this may lead to unwanted behaviors, conflicts or inactivity from participants.

Meeting structure

  • Many meetings in the office used to start with some form of energizer and this practice can be also successfully used in remote situations. We had to invent new ways of doing it online, but now after over a year of remote work we can google a plenty of inspirations. We can also take the challenge of adapting an old energizer to the new ways of working.
    Most people think of energizers as just casual fun, but this can be much more than that and help us support our meeting plan. If the meeting is at the end of the day, it’s good to consider something easy, but awakening – maybe easy movement exercise. If you want people to come up with some solutions during the meeting, consider a puzzle that requires using the brain more. New team? Select an energizer that can help people to learn more about one another. Energizers in which every team member must say something can boost the activity during the meeting.
  • After the energizer, should you choose to have one, present the meeting goal and planned outcome. Establish basic rules i.e., raising hand in the application if some want to speak up, being muted etc. Start recording if needed– people can go back to the material if they need to.
  • During discussion make notes, visible for everyone. You can do this alone or ask someone to help you – keep in mind that this person might not add too much to the discussion itself. Making notes during the meeting can really help with keeping team focused. They can clear some misunderstandings or refer more easily to what has been said a few minutes ago. It can also show how big the discussion is. Participants may realize that discussion is pointless and focus again on the goal before you have to intervene. Such notes are also a fantastic source of information after the meeting (next to the recording).
  • Online tools have features that can help you with setting priorities of discussed topics by voting. Explain the tool and the rules to participants (i.e. if the voting is anonymous and why). Priorities can help when there is no clear goal of the meeting, or if there are multiple goals. It might be the case that not every topic is discussed but they should be acknowledged at least once – try reading all the topics before the voting. This can also be a good time to explain some of the topics if they are not clear enough for everyone, as this will help with the voting.
  • Regardless of how the meeting is going - whether perfectly as planned, or there was more improvisation, always leave yourself some time for a final summary. Share the notes, remind about the goal and if it was achieved (if not, plan the next step) and thank everyone for participating in the meeting.

Remember about feedback

  • After the meeting it’s good to ask for feedback. You can do it via a form. Ask if people are satisfied about certain elements (especially when you tried them for the first time), if anything needs to be changed, etc. Use specific questions – people will answer them more likely than open questions. Add some space for people who want to share something more.

And that’s all. Facilitating meetings can be scary, but it’s a skill that can be perfected through practice (even with many mistakes on the way). Many things can be done, so continue searching for them. The most important is to be open to possible changes and constant improvement. Good luck with your meetings.