The Art of Running Online Meetings

Are you suddenly leading a remote team?

Today is Thursday, March 19th, 2020 – and the topic I had planned for my monthly blog post somehow seems less relevant and important than it did a few days ago when I started writing it. Here in Ontario, and around the world, we’re learning about the importance of Social Distancing to slow the spread of disease, and vast numbers of people are currently working from home.

This has raised a host of issues around the best ways to manage remote teams. One key to success lies in learning how to run meetings online so that your teams stay connected and are able to communicate well, and to continue to be as productive as possible.

While many people have become comfortable using platforms such as Webex, Zoom and GoToMeeting, there are many others who find them hard to manage. And there’s a big difference between knowing how to use online meeting technology, and actually using it effectively.

I’ve noticed at least five challenges that come up regularly in online meetings.

  1. Failing to prepare for the meeting: Just like in-person meetings, online meetings need a plan. While meeting organizers typically provide an agenda and a link, all too often they miss out on the other essentials – making sure that all attendees know how to use the technology. I came across a great post today on LinkedIn – “Conference Call Bingo” that listed 25 common issues ranging from loud feedback, background noises, connection issues, and the inevitable “Can you hear me?” and “Hi, who just joined?”. If online meetings are a new thing for your team, invest the time to help people learn the technology. Some will need individual help while others take to it easily and naturally. For larger meetings, I recommend designating a meeting facilitator who is available to problem-solve technical issues during the meeting.
  2. Focusing on the topic and forgetting about the people: There are two important parts to every meeting, whether in-person or virtual: the task at hand and the people involved. When you don’t see your colleagues face-to-face, some of you may overlook the need to maintain human connections. Especially if your team members are not used to working remotely, they may be feeling isolated. So make time in the meeting for social chit-chat – and encourage people to connect socially outside of the meeting too (whether virtually in the current situation, or face-to-face in more normal times). I loved what one newly working-from-home tech company did this week – they gathered the team together at the end of the day for virtual after-work drinks. 
  3. Conversations dominated by one or two people: Even if you are all on video (which I encourage) it’s easy to fall into this trap. In a face-to-face meeting, you can easily see and hear when people are talking all at once – but on a virtual call, people can talk over each other without realizing it. The meeting leader needs to keep a close eye on interactions to make sure everyone’s voice gets heard. This is another reason to have a designated meeting facilitator, who monitors participation and watches for cues from attendees.
  4. Forgetting to use visual aids: Too many people just use the audio in virtual meetings. While sometimes this is necessary due to connectivity issues, wherever possible I recommend using the features of your online platform. Screen sharing, whiteboards, drawing tools, to name but a few, all these can make your meetings more interesting and engaging so that you continue to get the productivity that you need. And a word about using video – not everyone is comfortable being on camera. So I suggest taking it one step at a time. Even though you’ll get a much more interactive experience if everyone is on camera, some team members may already be stressed by using unfamiliar technology, so give them some time to adjust. Given time and practice, I find most people start to feel more comfortable appearing on screen with their colleagues.  
  5. Meetings that run on too long: It’s hard staying focused on a screen for long periods of time. Eyestrain, neck and back pain, and just general restlessness kick in. So ideally, virtual meetings should be shorter than face-to-face meetings.  You may need to schedule additional follow-up meetings – perhaps with smaller groups or individuals. Or split the meeting in two, with a 20 minute stretch break in the middle.

I’ve created the infographic below, with five tips that address these challenges. If you enjoyed this article and you’d like a downloadable copy please email me:

Also – I’m available to help you run your online meetings – for a limited time, I’m offering Online Meeting Facilitation services – contact me for details!

Infographic - 5 tips for running great online meetings