From Triage to Routine: 5 Tips for Better Online Meetings

Working mother with daughter during an online meeting.

This article originally appeared on the Georgetown ITL Blog.

Many of us made a wild, frantic leap from our familiar, in-person meeting models to a totally new, untested, all-virtual model of gathering and working together. We’ve “zoomed” into this involuntarily, and the unspoken hope is that this situation will end as soon as possible and we will “go back to normal.”

I don’t think we are “going back” any time soon, and, our current reality is going to shape and transform our immediate and long-term future. Part of our incredible challenge now is to shape and form that future with imagination, creativity, and humor, even in the face of fear, uncertainty, and loss.

Though it may seem relatively insignificant, the way that we meet and work virtually is crucial. Our best thinking happens when we bring diverse people together. That is inevitably going to be happening primarily online in the coming months, and will impact our assumptions and practices about how we work in the future. As we transition into week after week, month after month, of coming together online, we must bring more mindfulness and rigor to the way in which we convert in-person meeting experiences to effective online gatherings.

These tips are meant to serve as a guide and reminder for anyone gathering and facilitating learning and meeting in the endless maze of virtual rooms we are all currently haunting:

  1. Acknowledge the loss. It is critical to name that we are in a frightening, upsetting, uncertain situation. That is the reason we are all gathering virtually instead of in person. If we do not name or hold the loss, it will hold us. In moments of extreme change, we must let go of certain things that we have held dear. It will be important for your participants to spend time talking about what you must let go of, or at least put on hold, in order to continue on in today’s reality.
  2. Design for the Heart. We tend to focus our learning on heads and hands. Here’s what the participants need to know—these skills, these concepts. Here’s what we’re going to have them do—make this, sell that. But we are all sitting in a storm. The bravest amongst us is terrified. We don’t know what tomorrow, next week, next month, or even next year will hold. Make time and space to name this, to talk about it, to share feelings. This isn’t “tangential” to the meeting; it is at the core of it. The work of holding and naming and shepherding people through this turbulent time is a crucial part of a facilitator’s current job.
  3. Purpose. Be very, very clear on purpose. Name it. Here’s what we’re going to accomplish in the next little bit together. This is what we’re going to do in our meeting today. Name it and keep to it.
  4. Engagement is Key. It is much harder to keep everyone engaged in a virtual environment. It’s hard enough in-person. My advice, perhaps counter-intuitive, is to direct the multi-tasking, since they will be multi-tasking anyway.
  5. Distribute Leadership. That said, there is a danger of people becoming too dependent on authority figures at this time. We regress when we are frightened, and we want to be taken care of. Part of your responsibility is to simultaneously hold and direct people, while also challenging them to play an active role, to trust themselves, to help do the work. Don’t hold them too much. One way to ensure this in meetings is to distribute the leadership. Request that participants lead different parts of the meeting. Set that up in advance and work with individuals or small teams so that they are prepared.

None of us is ever fully prepared for, or wants, involuntary, difficult change. We are in a situation we hope will soon pass, but we also know that this pandemic will have a long tail, and that we will be altered inevitably as a result. Even as we mourn what was, we have the opportunity to adapt, gain new tools and techniques to inspire people, and to gather them so they can contribute in meaningful ways to the world around us.