We’ve all participated in truly terrible online conferences or webinars—the ones where technology troubles take up half the time, everyone interrupts each other, and we leave wondering what was accomplished. With COVID-19 halting travel and in-person meetings, many of us are turning to virtual platforms for events that we’d originally envisioned very differently. Though the change can feel daunting, rest assured: virtual meetings can be just as successful and impactful as in-person ones!
I have always appreciated the challenge and creativity involved in convening people virtually. At Meridian, we’ve never let oceans or borders impede collaborative problem-solving—and, even in the face of extraordinary new challenges like the current coronavirus pandemic, we can continue to help our partners connect. Over the years, we’ve developed unique expertise in virtual convenings: not just running day-to-day team meetings, but shifting entire conferences, strategy sessions, and policy dialogues into the virtual environment. Don’t hesitate to reach out—we may be able to help. In the meantime, read on for my top virtual collaboration tips.
Design, don’t replicate
#1: Virtual convenings are not the same as in-person convenings.
That’s an obvious statement at face value, to be sure. Still, it’s worth remembering that virtual collaboration involves more than copying and pasting a real-world event into digital space. No one will enjoy an 8-hour webinar, even if it would have been a productive in-person event! Virtual meetings come with more distractions, shorter attention spans, and limited options for informal socializing between official sessions. However, these challenges can be overcome; moreover, the virtual environment also offers unique opportunities. Personally, I’ve been able to broaden the reach of a virtual convening, engage diverse participants that couldn’t have traveled to join in person, and nab “hard-to-get” experts.
#2: Fit the format to the purpose . . .
Before you dive into the details, think hard about the purpose and objectives for your meeting. What are you trying to achieve? Are you aiming to build alignment and connections between groups? To make a decision or reach consensus? To share learning or information? You wouldn’t book a meeting venue, hire a facilitator, or send out invites until you think through the objectives and purpose; in the same way, don’t dive into a virtual convening without forethought. Based on the objectives, I might design conversations and breakout group brainstorms within a two-day period. Maybe it should be a webinar with built-in opportunities for interaction. Or maybe it’s a few small group virtual coffee chats, spread over a few weeks to let ideas develop between sessions.
#3: . . . and start with the purpose, not the tool.
It’s easy to get carried away with creative virtual collaboration tools, which run the risk of becoming gimmicky and distracting. There are some fun ones that have popped up in the past few years that foster new forms of online collaboration (e.g. whiteboarding or polling). But, again, the key is to assess the objective of the meeting or session first, and then determine whether a particular tool is needed to achieve it.
Keep energy high
#4: Promote interactivity.
One of the easiest ways to keep online events interesting is to design interactive agendas that switch up formats, allow ample breaks, and include activities. Considering using virtual breakout groups (most video conference platforms allow this), real-time polling to get inputs or ideas, or asking for a thumbs up, sideways, or down to test group buy-in for a specific idea.
#5: Create short breaks.
Maintaining high energy is tough over video conference. As a facilitator, I also lose many of the cues that help me assess a group’s mood in person. Regular breaks help keep participants focused and energized. Thankfully, I’ve found it easier to stay on time in virtual settings! People can’t linger and chat on their way back from the bathroom during an online meeting—so a five-minute stretch/coffee/check-your-email break is less likely to derail the schedule.
Build momentum—and capture insights
#6: Include long breaks.
Like many facilitators, I am strategic about using any break during an in-person meeting to take stock, recalibrate, and adjust so that we achieve our shared goals. In a virtual setting, this can be a long lunch break—or adjourning for the day and coming back tomorrow. I strongly prefer spreading a virtual meeting over several days instead of holding a very long session on one day. For the Meridian team, breaks might offer an opportunity to synthesize ideas, take a first crack at revising a document, or caucus with certain participants to tease out an idea. We want a group to return from a break with new momentum and clarity on how we might proceed. By sequencing a convening over several hours, days, or even weeks, participants and facilitators can make progress on objectives offline, maximizing face-to-face time or personal reflection between sessions.
#7: Facilitate closure.
Closure is harder to achieve in a virtual setting. That sense of momentum towards a decision or turning point is harder to intrinsically feel as a participant, and to recognize as a facilitator. In these moments, I turn to more formal decision-making techniques: explicitly narrating the process, calling on people, polling participants, taking a break to consult with key decision-makers. My tip is: keep an eye on the clock so that you don’t run out of time, and don’t exclusively defer to “I’ll follow up by email.” Achieving closure and a sense of collective fulfillment is a key element of a successful convening—including a virtual one.
At this time, more than ever, we need connection and collaboration across physical locations. In the spirit of turning lemons into lemonade, this is a chance for all of us to find new ways to create the rich and meaningful gatherings that can make real progress on the toughest challenges we face today. Let us know how Meridian can help you design and facilitate your virtual meeting!