Going Back Online: How Leaders Can Make The Most Of Virtual Meetings
By Kara Dennison
Date Published: Jan 12, 2022
It’s been nearly two years since the first case of Coronavirus was reported in the United States, and what was once believed to be a temporary situation, working from home, virtual meetings, and virtual learning, has become a long term solution. There’s little to say that hasn’t already been said about both the pro’s and con’s of virtual work, but as we brace ourselves for the wildly transmissible Omicron variant, it looks like virtual life is here to stay, for now.
For workers and leaders, it might mean re-evaluating the way you approach online meetings in order to maintain engagement and productivity. A recent survey published by TELUS International reports that workers struggle to find the important work/life balance that supports mental health, and that most have had disruptions and sleep patterns as a result. This is really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the concerns that leaders should have when managing their work-from-home teams.
How can you continue to lead successful online meetings? How can you ensure that your meetings remain effective? And how can you better support your company as you prepare to go back online?
Reconfigure your Agenda
Everyone is used to being sent the meeting agenda in advance, typically a Word document or simple email. This strategy is, of course, helpful in making sure that everyone knows what will be brought to the table. But what are the actual points you’d like to offer that will keep team members in active thought with you? You might start by having your own self-reflection session and think about the ideas you’d like to raise, along with the challenges that your team needs help with. One of the most important things to keep in practice, too, is identifying accomplishments. Keep score of who deserves a mention or shout out, and be as specific as possible. Rather than have a bullet-pointed list of discussion topics for your agenda, keep the words “ideas” and “questions” in mind. Questions, especially, help keep your team in discussion. Being transparent about the purpose of your meeting will also guarantee forward-moving strategies. For instance, if you start the meeting with, “Let’s explore… Let’s address…” your listeners are more likely to zone out immediately if instead you approached your meeting with, “This definable item needs reviewing.” So, rather than be a meeting leader in which you lecture and provide information, you’re reconfiguring your agenda so that meetings actually become a valuable tool of conversation.
What Dialogue Really Means
The ideal meeting for any manager is one in which a conversation is taking place. You want your colleagues and team members to have an effective dialogue to make progress. That means that you, the meeting leader, should be practicing meaningful listening as opposed to passive listening. Too often, leaders already have a desire or a solution in mind, and what they want is for their team to come to that same conclusion on their own so that they feel they have more control or say on an issue than in reality.Whether you know it or not, those meeting participants can read your body language, even over Zoom. When someone is speaking, are you looking into the camera or at the gallery? What does your body language say about your own engagement with other speakers? Oftentimes, leaders and team members alike use the time when someone else is speaking, to plan what they themselves will say next. This, again, is one way in which people aren’t really listening or being open to creative ideas, but trying to convince the team to come to the conclusion they already have in mind. Additionally, if you’re not actually following the dialogue that’s taking place, you run the risk of misunderstanding and causing frustration.When you have people working for you, they want to be heard fully. It’s too easy to believe that interrupting someone to say, “I agree, but…,” or even finishing their sentences will make someone feel supported. There’s nothing more isolating than being stuck behind a camera at home and trying to feel heard and supportive. Make sure that you’re letting everyone finish their thoughts, and ask the same of others, as well as resisting the urge to change minds or debate.
Finding the Right Questions
Despite your best efforts, online meetings may still find lulls and awkward silences. Depending on the time of day, and especially because you’re at home and online, you’re likely to find sleepy gazes. Everyone is human and even when the meeting is supposed to be helpful, there are going to be people waiting for it to be over. The way that you attempt to make a meeting an opportunity of inquiry can make all the difference. It’s easy to become complacent when you’ve been leading meetings and asking questions for years on end. When you want to figure out the essential problem in a challenging situation, you might be tempted to ask different versions of What’s going on? What’s the issue? What happened? While direct, this is almost too confrontational and bound to put people on the defensive. Additionally, this line of questioning focuses on problems of negativity rather than opportunity. You might find better solutions by reframing questions so that you’re asking your team what’s working, or what outcomes do you want for next time.As mentioned earlier, recognition is key, but not in finding out who was behind the flaws and failures. When something goes awry, don’t look for who made the mistake and what that person can do to fix it. In the interest of staying positive and opportunistic, you may want to ask people who they think would be most valuable in helping them with a task. Ask how you, yourself, can be a resource to your team members. Ask how you can help, or what other resources might be needed to achieve the goal.
Using Time Together Efficiently
What a lot of managers typically want to avoid is leaving a meeting and realizing they’ve forgotten to mention something. For that reason, meeting leaders tend to create their own detours when talking. You might be discussing the Communications department and remember you wanted to ask your Social Media Manager about a previous or future post. While it’s important to cross all your T’s and dot all your I’s, you should be mindful of everyone else’s time. Your listeners might be frustrated after detours, interruptions, and divergences from the topic at hand.
Obviously, virtual meetings are hard for everyone, especially when, you guessed it, this meeting could have been an email. It’s completely acceptable to bring up something else, but touch upon it briefly. If someone is taking meeting minutes, you may want to ask him or her to make a brief note or reminder to touch on something at a later date so that no one forgets. If there are tangents, keep them as brief as possible. That means being a mindful facilitator when you witness someone else veering off track. “That’s a great point,” you might encourage that person. “Let’s make sure to put that on a future agenda,” or, “Let’s be sure to touch base individually about that.”
You can also keep a time limit on meetings. If you say that a meeting will last half an hour or an hour, stay true to that and don’t break your word. That way, you have an easy out when the topic is veering off course. You can remind your colleagues you only have about 10 minutes left and you need to touch on a crucial point of discussion, the reason everyone was there in the first place.
Providing Care During and After Meetings
Since people are working from home and have their own struggles with the pandemic, you want to make sure that meetings aren’t just places to get more work done. Try incorporating quick check-ins at the beginning or toward the end of meetings. Ask people what they’re doing for self-care and keep an eye out for overworked or burnt out team members. Make it a priority to tell your team that they should not be doing work outside of the hours of their workday. How late are you, as a leader, sending emails? Make it a goal for yourself and the rest of your team or company to agree not to “talk shop” outside of work hours unless it’s a true emergency, and work to define what that situation might look like so that no one takes advantage.Consider investing in videos, webinars, and other resources that focus on self-care. Virtual workshops and classes are available for the leaders who want to ensure their business is prioritizing the well-being of the people who make things happen.
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