By Nancy Settle-Murphy, Guided Insights and Jesse Bibbee, Gazelle Interactive
After months of planning, everything is finally in place for next week’s two-day meeting in London, which will chart the course for the launch of the company’s new product. The 25 participants from eight countries will be convening to make final decisions on pricing, sales and marketing programs, and launch details. (The meeting has suddenly taken on a new sense of urgency, with the recent discovery that their competitors are well on the way to launching a similar product.)
As the meeting convener and facilitator, you’re feeling optimistic that the meeting will be a resounding success. The hotel rooms and meeting center are booked, everyone has plane tickets and visas in hand, the room logistics and menus are nailed down, and the agenda is finalized. You breathe a sigh of relief, eager for the weekend ahead when you can muster your energy for next week.
That’s when you get the email that upends every single one of your plans: “Out of abundant caution for the health of our employees and colleagues, all travel plans are on hold until further notice. This means that all business meetings outside of your local area must be cancelled or postponed, with no exceptions.” When you appeal to your manager, she advises you to put your energy into figuring out how to achieve these same goals remotely. “After all,” she says, “Our competition won’t be taking a break. Neither can we.”
If you or someone you know is facing a similar situation, Jesse Bibbee of Gazelle Interactive joined me to create this checklist of steps that we have found to be essential, as a start:
- First, don’t panic. You will figure out how to do this, especially if you seek out people who have experience designing and running remote meetings and events. Reach out to meeting participants for their ideas and assistance. Brainstorm ideas and divvy up tasks. Make a list of everyone who can play a role and help out, both internally and externally.
- Design the basic meeting structure, quickly, and then flesh it out. For example, how many virtual meetings of what duration spread over what period of time will you need to accomplish the same goals you had hoped to achieve in approximately 12 hours of your in-person meeting? You might, for example, settle on four two-hour meetings, spread over three days. Not all 25 participants must attend each meeting. Consider how much and what kind of work can be done between meetings, either independently, in small discussion groups, or a combination. Set up a central place where people can post, access and comment on “homework” prior to the next meeting, so you can allocate all meeting time to interactive conversations.
- Create detailed agendas for each real-time virtual meeting, linking objectives and intended outcomes to conversations needed to achieve them. Instead of merely listing a topic, use action verbs so people can come well prepared. For example, instead of: “Pricing,” try: “Agree on minimum and maximum acceptable pricing at time of launch for each of our five major regions.” Be realistic about how much you can get done in each meeting. We recommend virtual meetings run two hours max. Keep in mind: Not all objectives need to be met through real-time meetings. Open up asynchronous (any time) meeting spaces where people can ask and answer questions, add ideas, brainstorm options, prioritize, etc. Build in time for thoughtful reflection and paraphrasing, especially when working with cross-cultural teams.
- Select the right participants for each meeting. Avoid the temptation to “just include everyone” in every conversation. Managing verbal interactions with 25 people in a virtual setting can be almost impossible, especially when the topics are likely to be complex or contentious. Instead, select only those people who need to participate in a particular real-time conversation, and include others in different ways, such as in a shared asynchronous meeting area or in a different conversation. Limit meetings where in-depth conversations are needed to no more than 6-8 participants, as a rule. If you must include all or most participants in each meeting, enable people to participate in multiple ways, such as via chat, polling, hands-up, or typing into a share space.
- Establish, communicate and reinforce agreed-upon team norms early on. Such norms, (a.k.a. operating principles), should include meeting behavior and practices, the use of other communication channels, progress reporting, etc. For virtual meetings, norms might include expectations around prework and preparation, punctuality, attendance, level of participation required, and how certain technologies will be used, such as video, use of mute, need to test technology beforehand, etc.
- Divide and conquer. In addition to asking a team to help with the design of the overall meeting architecture, seek assistance in other areas, too. For planning, you’ll want help creating the detailed agendas for each meeting, which will include identifying the needed prework, establishing participant and presenter roles, pre-meeting communications, and deciding which technology will be needed. For the real-time meeting, you may want to assign roles such as facilitator, timekeeper, scribe, tech support assistant, and action master. In between meetings, you’ll want someone to make sure that pertinent notes are accessible, assigned “homework” is completed and posted on time, and that actions are completed. These roles, which can vary by meeting or might be constant from meeting to meeting, should play to peoples’ strengths.
- Select technology that can support your meeting goals. First, take stock of available technology and tools. For example, does everyone have access to video? A shared online meeting app? Audioconferencing capability? Sufficient bandwidth? For those must participate at odd hours from different timezones, are these tools also available from where they will be participating from, which might be their homes for many? Will you need to integrate other technologies you may not have now, such as for polling, sticky notes, dot-voting, etc.? Whatever set of tools you use, make sure all feel comfortable using them well ahead of your meeting. Have a back-up plan in case technology doesn’t work as planned.
- Get the audio right above all. Even if you have the greatest online meeting tools, if people can’t be heard, or can’t hear, then the whole meeting can fall apart. Do a sound check for every possible variation imaginable. If a few people will be participating in different conference rooms around the world, test how well people can hear and be heard. Some speakerphones and conference rooms may distort sound, in which case you may need for everyone to participate from an acoustically private area with a headset. Depending on the combination of meeting and conferencing tools you plan to use, it might be best for everyone to dial in or for everyone to use VOIP, as sometimes the mixing of the two can cause problems. During the meeting, check periodically to ensure that everyone can hear all voices, regardless of location. Build in time for paraphrasing and summarizing questions and responses if needed.
- Connect with video. Apart from the cases where certain systems or locations might make the use of video difficult or impossible, we believe that the use of video is critical for a few reasons. By seeing each other’s facial expressions and gestures, we have a better idea how people are feeling or what they may be thinking, even when they’re silent. Seeing faces and gestures also helps impart understanding when people don’t share the same native language. Video helps hold people accountable for full participation, as it’s obvious when someone is distracted. Perhaps most important, video can help team members feel as though they’re actually sitting across from each other, in a virtual space. Ask local participants to book a conference room that has video capability if possible. Otherwise, ask people to join using a device that has video capability, either built in or an external webcam. For some, this might require a modest investment, which the meeting sponsor should probably be prepared to fund if needed.
- Embed opportunities for active engagement throughout every virtual meeting. Minimize time spent in passive participation (such as reviewing content that could have been posted in advance), and maximize the number and frequency of participant interactions. Take advantage of peoples’ inherent desire to multitask by building in opportunities to multitask “on task” throughout every meeting. Examples: Soliciting quick verbal responses, polling, dot-voting, use of virtual post-its, hands-up, chat, asking people to type in responses, writing an idea on a piece of paper, etc. Plan on an interaction of some kind at least every 5-7 minutes.
- Ask someone to host at each office location where more than two people will be joining. This way, you can have quick team huddles at each location, equivalent to breakout groups, with a report-out by team, which can be done either verbally or by typing into your shared online meeting area. The host can also read the room and report the sense of the room, such as the prevailing moods (enthusiasm, ennui, frustration, etc.) or indicate when people seem confused, feel they’re not being listened to, or want a chance to speak. This host can shift from meeting to meeting.
Make no mistake: Being suddenly forced into converting an extended onsite meeting or training program of any kind into a virtual space is not for the faint of heart. It requires a whole new way of thinking about the kind of conversations that need to take place (and where, when, and by whom) to achieve your intended outcomes. It also means thinking through how best to blend a whole array of asynch and synchronous communications and collaboration options in a way that can make for the most efficient, productive and satisfying conversations. Making such a “conversion” can be arduous and time-consuming the first few times, but with practice and reflection, it may become second nature before too long.