Guide For Facilitating Successful Online Meetings

WRITTEN BY Ta Corrales & Liz Hunt

Planning and facilitating a successful online meeting requires preparation and thoughtfulness. When done well, a meeting can make your team feel connected, engaged, and accomplished. However, a poorly-run meeting can lead to feelings of frustration and a sense of time wasted. We’ve been leading online meetings with corporate departments, project teams, and groups of volunteers for many years. In this post, we share a three-step process to help you facilitate your own successful meetings and also include some tips for increasing online engagement and participation!

1. Understand Your Purpose & Desired Outcomes

Understanding the purpose and desired outcomes of your online meeting are a key (and often overlooked) factor to success. We’ve all attended meetings that felt unnecessary and thought “this should have been an email”. That’s why it’s critical to reflect ahead of time on why you’re having the meeting, what you’d like to accomplish, and who you need to invite.

Why?

Common purposes for meetings include education (synchronous training and development), project management (discussing project status and next steps), and collaboration (co-creating products and services). In addition to purpose, well-run meetings have a more specific goal which can only be accomplished through participation, collaboration, and sharing virtual space. Nowadays, while remote workers are suffering from significant levels of zoom exhaustion, we strongly recommend that teams ensure that their meetings are high in quality and low in quantity/duration.

For example... Good educational meetings encourage peer-to-peer learning. We recommend a flipped-classroom model to increase effectiveness, boost engagement, and strengthen relationships. Activities which don’t require synchronous communication or collaboration, like reading an academic paper or watching a video lecture, should be given as prep work to individuals before the meeting. After the educational material has been reviewed, gather the group together online to share their learnings with one another and discuss how to integrate what they’ve learned into their work. Use breakout rooms with subgroups of 2-4 people for deeper conversations, and then afterwards ask each subgroup to share a summary of their conversation with the whole group. To increase comprehension and cross-pollination of ideas, plan for multiple rounds of breakouts with different topics and/or combinations of people in each subgroup.

For What?

Once you’ve reflected on your meeting’s purpose and goal, you also need to think about the desired outcomes for your meeting. Reflecting on why you’re having the meeting and what you’d like to accomplish not only helps you plan, it’s also of great interest to the folks you invite. We all want to feel a sense of accomplishment after a meeting. Including a summary of the purpose, goal, and desired outcomes in your meeting invite will give your invitees an opportunity to prepare ahead of time and increase the likelihood that they’ll participate and contribute.

For example... Effective project management meetings enable everyone on the team to understand the current state as well as how their efforts are dependent upon and/or impact the work of their colleagues. We recommend a tactical approach to daily and weekly meetings, and a more strategic lens for quarterly meetings. Focus the time you have together for whichever conversations and collaborations require or benefit everyone attending your online meeting. When a topic is raised that isn’t timely or applies only to a subset of the team, acknowledge it then ask someone to follow-up afterwards with the relevant folks. Notes should be taken (a responsibility ideally rotated amongst you and all of your regular attendees). Every action item discussed should be given an owner before the end of the meeting (whether that’s you, a volunteer, or someone who’s been voluntold).

Who?

Gathering the right people is another foundation to successful meetings. Don’t only consider who can best help you accomplish your goal and desired outcomes, also reflect on who does not need to be there. If you’re unsure, ask yourself if a person’s contribution could be requested via a slack message, if they’re only needed for a portion of the meeting, or if they could be updated afterwards via a summary email. Thinking about your invitations from all these angles will minimize the number of passive attendees and help ensure that everyone in your meeting finds it a valuable use of their time.

For example... Productive collaboration meetings are participatory. We recommend considering your attendees and using whichever techniques and tools are most inclusive for all of them — that way you create an environment in which everyone will be most likely to participate and enjoy helping you achieve your goal. Share data, research, and brainstorming topics ahead of time so that folks who prefer more time, space, and/or quiet to think can more fully participate. Be considerate of device and network capabilities and constraints. Use online tools that everyone has and already knows how to use. Plan for breaks and energizers throughout your online meeting since co-creation is intensive work and can often be tiring — people will appreciate your consideration and will be better able to contribute their best work

Sample Meeting

Purpose: Education

Goal: Deepen Understanding of Justice, Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion

Desired Outcomes:

  • Clarify Each Concept & Relationships Between Concepts
  • Develop A Common Vocabulary
  • Establish Foundation For Increased Understanding & Compassion
  • Share Resources & Ideas For Further Learnings

Invitees: All Team Members

2. Plan Your Meeting

Now that you know why you’re having the meeting, what you’d like to accomplish, and who you need to invite, it’s time to plan your agenda. Well-run meetings start with some sort of welcome, use the majority of their duration working towards the desired outcomes, and then end with some sort of closing.

We strongly recommend including an icebreaker in your meeting’s welcome. Icebreakers are an incredibly effective way to boost engagement during meetings. People who have unmuted themselves and begun participating at the beginning of a meeting are more likely to remain active and engaged throughout. If you need some ideas, check out one of our earlier posts describing five hands-on icebreakers.

During the main part of your meeting, we recommend splitting your agenda into shorter sections to increase digestion and using creative ways to increase participation whenever possible. Technology can be your ally for improving engagement online. Encourage attendees to use whichever features your conference call platform offers — share your agenda and instructions via the chat, remind folks about the reaction buttons and if appropriate comment when they’re used, voice people’s chat-comments and answer their chat-questions in real-time, and mix things up by asking folks to turn on/off their videos to answer yes/no questions. If appropriate for your meeting and attendees, incorporate collaborative tools like miro or mural and survey visualization tools like mentimeter or slido. However you design your meeting, always ensure that you’re considering how accessible and inclusive it will be for all of your attendees. Everything you plan should be something in which everyone can meaningfully participate. If your meeting is long, consider scheduling bio breaks and energizers. If you’d like some ideas, check out our recent post describing five online energizers.

It’s important to close your meeting. The key element of a good closure is ensuring that your team leaves the meeting with a sense of accomplishment and time well spent. We recommend summarizing what you all accomplished together, reminding everyone of the agreed upon next steps, and thanking folks for their participation and contributions.

Sample Meeting

Agenda:

  1. Welcome

    • Greetings
    • Quick Overview of Meeting Purpose, Goals, & Agenda
    • Ground Rules & Code Of Conduct
    • Icebreaker
  2. Clarify Justice, Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion Concepts
  3. Breakout 1, Then Group Discussion
  4. Breakout 2, Then Group Discussion
  5. Present JEDI Case Study
  6. Breakout 3, Then Group Discussion
  7. Breakout 4, Then Group Discussion
  8. Share Resources & Ideas For Further Learnings
  9. Closing

    • Summary of Accomplishments
    • Reminder of Next Steps
    • Thanks

3. Think About Before, During, & After Your Meeting

Once you’ve planned your agenda, you’re just about ready. To take your facilitation to the next level, put some additional thought into the moments before, during, and after your meeting. Organizers of the best online meetings also prepare, consider the nature of virtual spaces, and follow-up.

To prepare, start by finding a date and time for your meeting that works for you and hopefully all of your attendees. Don’t only consider people’s availability, but also think about how your meeting fits into the greater context of your team’s schedule and/or current events (like don’t schedule an educational meeting right before a big project deadline, or a celebratory gathering on an election day). Be very clear about the logistics of your online meeting — communicate the date, time, and duration; include the platform link; provide sufficient information about the agenda; and highlight any expected prep work or required materials. It may be helpful to send invitees a reminder before the meeting, especially if there’s expected prep work or required materials. Online meetings require extensive juggling of content, pacing, and technology and often benefit from having a support person or team in addition to the facilitator. Think about whether or not you might need help taking notes, keeping track of time, and/or wrangling platforms or tools during your meeting. If so, we recommend you arrange for that support ahead of time (don’t surprise someone with a request to take notes during the meeting).

On the day of your meeting, verify that your support person/team is still available, knows their role, and is prepared. The most important thing you can do as a facilitator is to relax, both before and during your meeting. In our experience, every single online meeting has at least one glitch — a person who requires assistance finding the link, tech problems when sharing your screen or video, or occasionally even a network or power outage. There are so many things you cannot control in a virtual space, nobody will fault you when something inevitably goes awry during an online meeting. So do what you can to relax, proactively accept that one or more issues will happen no matter how much you’ve prepared, and enjoy the time you have together. Not only will your positive vibes be picked up by your attendees, your calm(er) state of mind will enable you to better handle whatever comes your way.

Afterwards, follow-up with your attendees. Thank them again for their time, express appreciation for your support person/team, link to any meeting notes or recordings, share relevant supplementary information, and/or update on any next steps.

If you try out any of these facilitation tips, let us know how it went by tagging #SmithAssembly on social media or emailing us at team@smithassembly.com!

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