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Getting the Most Out of Virtual Meetings

Updated: Apr 3, 2020

Before social distancing, expansive work-from-home policies and self-imposed quarantines, most of us were familiar with the differing concerns for phone and web-based work group meetings. Now, however, we all have to be a little bit kinder, calmer, and more patient. Enjoy the banter with your colleague’s three-year-old about your barking dog. Casual exchanges like these are inevitable now, and they go a long way to ease tension and promote empathy.

There is another significant difference between in-person and electronic communication that many of our clients are noticing more in recent weeks. It has to do with the group dynamic. No matter how advanced your technology, it’s difficult to replicate the natural ebb and flow of an in-person meeting. The primary thing that’s missing? Eye contact.

For those who are leading meetings, that means it’s harder to prompt participation and move smoothly through a topic of discussion among the group. We rely subtly, but heavily, on mutual eye contact to encourage a colleague to contribute, to let a colleague know they’re up next, or to communicate that it’s time to move on. At virtual meetings, we cannot scan the room the way we do at the office. There’s no opportunity for the quick glances and the slight nods that add so much to our conversations.

If you are part of a group that already meets remotely on a regular basis, you likely have noticed this issue and worked to overcome it. Our clients describe it as something that’s always been problematic but now feels particularly urgent due to the uptick in virtual meetings.

So how can we make our virtual meetings feel more like the ones in the conference room? Here are a couple ideas:

1. Meeting leaders should articulate what they are looking for in terms of contribution, as well as what they perceive. It’s worth taking a minute to talk about how you are talking about things:

  • I’d like to hear from each member of the project team on this issue.

  • Let’s begin with input from Jennifer, and then move on to Phil and then Lauren.

  • It’s hard for me to know where folks are on this issue, so let’s see a show of hands.

  • I’m going to ask anyone who hasn’t yet spoken this morning to contribute to this discussion.

  • There are several more people who want to weigh in here—I see you and I apologize, because we have to move on.

2. Meeting attendees should reflect on their level of participation. Of course, everyone should be listening and probably taking notes too. But there’s more.

  • If you tend to speak up often in meetings, you may want to take a moment to ensure you are not encroaching on your colleagues’ opportunities to contribute.

  • If you are the type of person who often refrains from comment, consider adding something of value for your colleagues rather than waiting for the leader of the meeting to call for your comment.

Let’s be clear: engaging with colleagues via Zoom or WebEx simply does not feel like an in-person meeting. It’s not (yet) possible to have eye contact between and among all meeting participants. But we can improve our communication and our sense of connectedness at virtual group meetings by paying closer attention to one another and to ourselves—even when each of us is sitting at our own kitchen table.

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