You’ve been in that meeting. Usually it’s a remote meeting, but not always. The presenter or facilitator has just finished a segment, and they say, “Any questions or comments? Questions? No? Okay, let’s move on,” and the meeting sweeps on before you manage to get your question out.
Or maybe you’ve been that presenter. You want to answer
people’s questions, so you say, “Any questions or comments?” Then the silence
stretches on for a year or two and you nervously continue: “Anyone? No? Okay,
let’s move on,” all the while wishing that someone had asked a question or
shared a remark.
Interestingly, whenever one of those happens in a meeting, the other one is usually happening too. That year-long pause for the facilitator or presenter is really only a couple of seconds long. However, that person is experiencing something called podium time, or the terrifying skewing of any period of silence so that it seems to go on forever no matter how short it actually is. (Another quality of podium time is that the time available for any given agenda item passes at an accelerated rate, but that’s a topic for another post.)
We have a fear of radio silence, and as the person in
charge, we feel it’s our job to prevent it. But I want to encourage you to
think of silence as your friend, if what you want is to get people to ask
questions or share their comments. It’s hard to do. Here’s how I taught myself
to embrace the silence and make space for people to talk.
1. Leave enough space for people to respond. It takes someone a few seconds to mentally frame a question or remark, and another few seconds to decide to speak. In a remote session, it takes a few more seconds after that to decide that no one else is going to start talking so it’s safe to speak up. If you don’t give people all those seconds, nothing will happen.
I do it by keeping a beverage handy. After I ask for questions and comments, I pick up my beverage — slowly — and take a sip. I might take a second sip. Then I slowly set the beverage back down. Almost every time, someone is speaking by the time I’ve placed it back on my desk.
This is especially useful if you’re on video, because
everyone can then see you are committed to your beverage and you aren’t going
to be talking for a few seconds while you sip.
2. Ask for
participation in an inviting way. There’s a world of difference between
these two openers:
“What questions do you have?”
The first one, “Any questions?” is okay, but not great. It
carries a tiny implication that you don’t actually expect anyone to ask
anything. While we’re used to hearing it, it’s not the most inviting way to ask
for remarks. It says, “I have to stop in case anyone is confused, but otherwise
I’d like to keep going.”
The second one, on the other hand, says, “I imagine you must have questions, and I’m looking forward to hearing what they are.” It’s an inviting way to make space.
Likewise, when asking people to participate in a
conversation, some ways of framing the invitation are better than others. This
is useful when you’re trying to encourage a group discussion about something.
Consider these two phrases:
“Anyone have any comments about this?”
“What would you like to say about this?”
Again, the first one is a little dismissive. There’s a slight implication that you’ll pause, but only if anyone really wants to say something. The second one indicates that you expect people to have something to say, and you’re ready to listen. It’s especially effective combined with the beverage trick, which makes it crystal clear that you’re not moving on for a while.
3. Ask people to stay off of mute. There are two reasons I prefer small groups to remain un-muted. First, it’s a hurdle to participation. A small one, sure, but it’s there, and I want people to be able to act on their impulse to speak. Second, it allows the chuckles and the gasps and the other small sounds to come through, which really brings a group alive.
The exception is when there is sudden or temporary background noise. People obviously can and should mute if they need to sneeze, cough, or speak to someone near them; or if there is intrusive environmental noise like construction sounds, dogs barking, and so on.
If the session is a one-way presentation given to many people, the norms are different and I am more likely ask people to mute by default. But for teamwork, groupwork, and small workshops or classes, keeping everyone’s microphone hot can increase participation.
4. Learn to love the silence. This isn’t easy, but it’s essential. That silence after you invite participation is actually your friend. It’s easy to imagine that everyone is wishing you’d just move on, already — and in all likelihood, someone in the group is probably feeling that way, which is fine. But it’s also likely that other people do want to ask or say something, and it’s important to give them the space.
When you allow the silence to exist, you create a vacancy that others can lean into and fill. If you welcome the silence and sit in it calmly, it will be an inviting silence: a step back so that others can step forward.
Your meeting room is all prepared. Your templates, markers, and sticky notes are at hand. But you and your client are both (very properly) practicing social distancing. So you have a face-to-face process for [strategy, visioning, brainstorming, decision-making, you name it], and you suddenly need to deliver this session remotely. You don’t even know where to start. Great! Let’s do this.
This is a bare-bones crash course in how to translate your face-to-face offering to a virtual one. We’ll cover:
Your mental model
Converting your existing agenda
Matching processes with tools
Common problems you may encounter
It can be a lot more complex than this, but this is a good starting point if you’ve never done it before. Throughout, I’ve named tools that I personally prefer, but you can choose others that do the same thing. Let’s go.
First, stop panicking. This is do-able, and you can do it. Also, your participants really need you to hold the container for them while they work, and you can’t do that effectively while you are panicking. So leave the panic at the door.
Second, accept that something will go wrong, and when it does, embrace it. I’ve done remote sessions for years and I still open each one with the thought, “Hmm, I wonder what will go wrong today?” I phrase it a little differently, though. I think to myself, “Hmm, I wonder what I will learn today?” Everything that goes wrong is a gift, because it teaches you something you didn’t know. It’s okay. Remain calm, explain what’s happening, and work the problem. It’ll be fine.
Third, let go of the fear that your virtual session will by definition be worse than your face-to-face one would have been. That isn’t necessarily true, especially for some kinds of work which are actually easier to do online. Accept that it will be a different experience, not necessarily a worse one, and aim to provide the best experience that you can.
Your Mental Model
This part is for those who have almost no experience in
virtual settings, so you can wrap your mind around how it’s set up. Skip this
section if you’ve participated in a bunch of remote sessions before. Otherwise,
You’ll have a meeting room, just like you do any other time. People will connect to the meeting room and remain in it for the duration of the session. The tool I use to create the meeting room is Zoom. Everyone connects to the same Zoom link and can use a phone or their computer to hear what’s going on. They can see each other (if they’re using video cameras) and anything that I’m sharing on my screen too. Only the host (me, or you in your case) needs a Zoom account.
You’ll have supporting tools, like you do in any other session. Instead of sticky notes, paper charts, and paper templates, you’ll use digital tools so your participants can engage in the hands-on activities you want them to do. They will connect to these tools using a web browser, while they are still connected to the meeting in Zoom. You give the link to the supporting tool or tools (go easy — multiple tools get confusing really fast), and everyone connects to it. I use tools like MURAL for sticky notes and visual templates, Trello for kanban boards, and Google Docs for shared editing.
Pro tip: Usually, people are either looking at Zoom or they are looking at the shared tool, so if you are going to be working in a shared tool for a while, have people turn off their video camera in Zoom. Even when they are in Zoom breakout groups while using a shared tool, their focus will be on the tool, not on Zoom. Turning off the video camera can make the audio clearer and the tools load faster for people with limited bandwidth.
If you do graphic capture, you’ll also have a tablet (iPad or similar) that you can write on. You’ll share this screen in the Zoom session while you’re capturing. I use Concepts as my drawing app, but I recommend others for first-timers.
Converting Your Existing Agenda
The basic crash-course process for this consists of five steps:
Take out 25% of your activities (or make your session 50% longer). You can’t get as much done in the same amount of time, especially when you’re new at this. Transitions will eat up a lot more time than you expect. See this post for more details, including when to add breaks.
Identify the process you are using at each stage in your agenda, then select a tool that matches it and supports its desired outcome(s). Use as few tools as possible, even if it means using the same tool for two or more different activities. See the table below.
Create any templates or other materials you need so that they are ready in the selected tools. Include instructions right in the tool whenever possible, so that they can refer back to them if they get confused.
Visualize the transitions you will be asking participants to make between tools. How will you help them make the switch and get oriented? How will you teach them the basics of the tool so they are able to do what you ask them to do? How will you support them when they get stuck? Answer these questions for yourself, and you will be better able to support them through the session. Draw a diagram of the transitions between tools for your own reference. Make notes on your copy of the agenda to remind you what to say and when to say it.
Practice with each tool beforehand. Make mistakes, so that when participants make the same mistake, you can help them out. Do everything you are asking them to do. Find out where you need to give extra instructions to prevent mishaps.
Everyone is trying to learn this very fast right now. Several of the tools I use either have fantastic online tutorials (I’m looking at you, Zoom) or have staff who can help guide you through the basics, or both. Sign up for a demo webinar (thank you, MURAL) if they are on offer. Google the name of your tool plus “tutorial” or “demo” to find what’s available.
Matching Processes with Tools
Here is a list of common processes that you might need to use, and tools that support them. It’s obviously not an exhaustive list, but these are some of the most common things I do in virtual sessions. Again, I’ve listed my favorite tools; there are many others available.
Process You Want to Do (links in this column go to how-to articles)
Tools That Support It (links in this column go to the tool’s website)
Problem: People behind firewalls can’t access certain tools.
Solution: Have them do a pre-meeting tech check. Some tools have a test link (for instance, Zoom’s is here). For others, like MURAL or Google Docs, set up an open-access test document and send the link to your participants ahead of time.
Problem: People get lost switching between tools.
Solution: Visualize how this will work before you start. Give clear, explicit instructions, both verbally and written down in the tool they will use. Spend an extra minute making sure everyone is with you before you start. Have a colleague or volunteer present who can help stragglers figure out how to get where you are.
Problem: Not everyone has a video camera.
Solution: Ask the group what they prefer to do in this case: turn off all cameras, or have people use them if they are available. Keep in mind that the people who show up on video will have more perceived power and will have a different experience than those who don’t. Personally, I tend to be an all-or-nothing facilitator when it comes to video, but it’s up to you and your group.
Problem: Someone can’t connect to one of the tools.
Solution: If you have a tech helper, ask them to work with the person. If it just can’t be resolved, pair that person up with a buddy who is responsible for making sure that person’s ideas and input get added to the shared document. Share your screen through Zoom so they can watch what’s happening in the tool, even if they can’t get there themselves.
Caution: This is the only time you should screen share a tool that people are actively using. Otherwise, some folks will get lost between the real tool and your screen share, and they are likely to get confused at some point.
Problem: Someone’s audio or video suddenly stops working when it had been working before.
Solution: Ask them to leave the meeting and re-join. If that doesn’t work, ask them to leave the meeting, reboot their computer, and then re-join. Usually that fixes it.
Problem: There’s a ton of background noise from someone’s microphone that’s making it hard for others to hear.
Solution: In working sessions, I prefer to have everyone stay off mute; the conversation flows more naturally that way. However, sometimes there is a lot of noise in one location. Look on the participant list in Zoom to see whose microphone icon is filling up with green, and politely ask that person to mute themselves unless they need to say something until the noise has stopped.
Caution: It’s difficult to switch back to Zoom to mute and unmute while working in one of the web-based tools if you’re not used to it. Give people extra time to do this. They can return to Zoom by selecting its icon (blue with a white video symbol) from their task tray (PC) or dock (Mac).
I hope this crash course helps you find a starting point. As you do this more, you’ll get more comfortable with it. Remember that people are generally supportive when you invite them along on a learning journey like this. And good luck!
Using a sticky note tool for brainstorming in remote meetings is a wonderful method to gather a lot of different ideas quickly. But once those ideas are up on the shared board, the task of sorting through them and choosing which options to pursue can be daunting. Here’s a method for tackling all that information and turning it into a manageable dataset, and a list of some of the pros and cons of doing it this way.
Step 1: Get the ideas out.
Gather your remote team and get them into the same sticky note board using whatever tool you prefer. (My example here was done in Mural.) Pose a good question and ask them to write one idea per sticky note. They can place ideas anywhere on the board. To make later steps easier, ask them all to use the same color note; yellow, for instance. Anything but red, green, or blue. (A nice feature of Mural is that it’s easy to turn a bunch of notes all the same color in one click, even after they’ve been created.)
Step 2: Get the ideas organized. No judgment!
As a group, spend some time clustering the notes and removing or consolidating duplicates. At this stage, you’re just looking for things that are alike. You’re not evaluating anything. You can do this any way you like; if you have a high-energy group, ask them to silently cluster the notes all at the same time, and watch them fly around the board.
If your group is larger, or if you have some folks who are unfamiliar with the tool you’re using, silent clusters can be a little alarming and you might want to take a slower pass as a whole group, or assign sections of the board to breakout groups and then come together to finalize the clusters.
Make sure the clusters are clear and that all the notes in each cluster belong in that group. Naming each cluster as you go is helpful, too.
Step 3: In, Out, or Discuss?
Make sure your guiding question is clear, and change it if you need to. The question must help participants decide whether ideas are in or out of scope. For example, in the fictitious brainstorm shown in my screenshots, the original question was, “What are the toughest problems with remote facilitation?” At this stage, though, I would need to amend the question to add, “… and which problems do we want to prioritize solving for our team?” There needs to be some reason for people to decide whether to keep or discard each idea, so make sure your question is pertinent. This second question makes the end goal clear: We are selecting priorities for action.
Now work through one cluster at a time. Set this up by saying something like, “We’re going to do a quick first pass on the ideas in each cluster. I’ll read out a note, and you tell me if it’s definitely IN, definitely OUT, or needs more discussion.”
Then further explain the labels:
In: An idea the
group definitely wants to accept or adopt. It’s a no-brainer, a table-stakes
item, something you’re already working on, or just plain required.
Out: An idea that doesn’t require any further consideration. It’s out of scope, technically impossible, too expensive (time or money), duplicates another idea already under consideration, or was meant as a joke.
Anything else, including things that some people think are “in” and others
think are “out.”
Work through each cluster note by note. If the group agrees
unanimously that an idea is IN, turn the note green. If they agree unanimously
that it’s OUT, turn it red. Otherwise, turn it blue.
As you read each note, people may only say “In,” “Green,” “Out,” “Red,” “Discuss,” or “Blue.” Again, if opinions on a given note are divided, it’s blue. Even if one person thinks something different from everyone else, turn it blue.
Work through all the clusters. When you’re done, all the notes should be either red, green, or blue.
Asynchronous or silent option: If this is too time-consuming or tedious-sounding for your group, you can use another method. Open up the board to voting, and ask each person to vote only on those ideas they think should be IN. If there’s a note that someone thinks should be discussed, they can turn it blue. If a note is OUT, leave it alone. Take a sweep through at the end. Any notes that have the same number of votes as people become green. Any notes that have no votes become red. Notes that are blue stay blue, and notes that have some votes but not the total possible number of votes also become blue. This can be done in between meetings to free up meeting time for discussion.
Note that some sticky note boards don’t have a vote option, and some have the option but don’t let you limit how many votes a person can put on a single idea. You have to invoke the honor system, but people usually play fair.
Step 4: Deal with the Blues.
The group can now ignore the red notes; they don’t matter.
The green ones can float to the top or side (or leave them where they are) —
they will move forward into the next phase, but you don’t need to talk about
For each blue note:
Call the group’s attention to the note so they are all looking at the same thing. Ask, “What do we need to talk about here?” Facilitate the conversation, helping them work through the issues. At the end, the note should either be turned red or turned green. It’s perfectly okay to revise the note before changing the color, but it needs to be red or green at the end.
When you’re done, everything on the board should either be red or green (or a cluster name). Copy the green notes into a new workspace.
Step 5: Work with the Greens.
Working with the duplicated green notes, you can re-cluster (if needed — I usually don’t), dot vote, place the notes on a hi-low grid or a risk wall or something similar, or use the method(s) of your choice to decide which ideas to implement or adopt. Every idea has been considered, but no time has been wasted on ideas that don’t merit (or don’t need) discussion.
This method takes an overwhelming number of choices and turns it into a manageable number of choices pretty quickly.
As the group moves through the process, they feel a great sense of speed and progress rather than feeling bogged down or stuck.
It can bring in different voices, because people often have strong opinions about some of the notes and less strong opinions about others. They tend to speak up when they care about an idea.
This can be a tough exercise for people who are color blind. See if your sticky note tool allows you to highlight notes in another way, such as changing the shape (star? stop sign? triangle?) or adding a sticker (check mark? X mark? question mark?).
Be careful about getting bogged down in conversation as you turn notes blue. Cut off blossoming discussions and let the group know you’ll get back to it once the notes are sorted out.
It’s possible for a vocal subset of the group to take over, causing others to check out. Manage this by asking for different voices to speak up, asking more vocal people to step back, or assigning a different champion to each cluster. Using the asynchronous or silent voting option can help combat this problem.
If you’re working with real sticky notes in a co-located meeting, you can still use this method. Grab markers in green, red, and blue. Add a big green checkmark to the “in” sticky notes. Make a big red “x” on the “out” sticky notes. Write a blue question mark on the “discuss” notes. Just make your marks in the edges of the notes, not over the words, so that people can read the original notes later. To change a blue note to a green or red one, cross out the question mark and add the appropriate green or red marking.
This is a question I get asked a lot: How do you ‘read the room’ when you’re meeting virtually? In other words, how can you tell whether people are tracking or checked out, where the group energy is, and when it’s time for a break or some other shift? My answer: it’s not actually all that different from reading the room in face-to-face settings, although we tend to think it is.
It’s stressful for a skilled in-room facilitator to imagine
working without the body language cues that are so familiar and so revealing, I
know. But I think we make this harder than it is. There’s an expectation that because
we lose body language, a virtual meeting won’t be as good as being in the room
together and that it’s going to be an inferior experience.
But it doesn’t have to be. Start with an engaging agenda,
where people have things to do that will achieve outcomes they care about. Let
them create, write, draw, discuss, decide. Give them tools to support doing
that work at a distance. Ask good, thought-provoking questions. Then get out of
To read the room, look for the same things that you look for
in a face-to-face gathering. The only difference is that instead of ‘body
language,’ you’re tuning in more to tone of voice, evidence of activity, and
the clues that you can get from the collaborative tools you’ve selected.
Are people working? Are they digging in to the things they
need to talk about or build? Keep tabs on how many different people are
participating — just a few, or most, or pretty much everyone? If there’s
silence, is it paired with intense creation (generating sticky notes, writing
in a document, whatever) or is it paired with a lack of activity? If it’s the
former, there’s no problem; let them work.
On the other hand, if there’s a lot of silence and nothing
seems to be happening, that’s a cue that something maybe wrong. If that’s what
I notice, I will usually make a neutral observation about it and then simply
ask what’s up. That might look like this:
“I’m noticing that it’s been quiet for a couple of minutes and I’m not seeing anything show up on the shared tool we’re using. Is something not working well for you that we can maybe change?” I have no way of knowing why people aren’t participating unless I ask them. If I’ve created the right container, there’s enough safety that people can speak up and tell me what’s going on for them. I can then make adjustments as needed to re-engage the group, take a break, or help them tease out whatever issue is causing the block.
Here’s a sampling of responses I’ve gotten to that question
in the past, to give you an idea of what you might hear:
What are we supposed to be doing, again? (My instructions weren’t clear)
We can’t open/find the collaborative tool (Again, this is on me to get them where they need to be)
We can’t answer this question because we don’t have enough information (Time to reframe the question)
This isn’t the right thing for us to be talking about right now (Let’s find out what the right thing is, and talk about that)
We don’t see how this activity will get us to our outcome (I can briefly explain how I think it will and ask for suggestions that would make it work better for them)
All of us have just gotten an emergency text and we’re looking at our email because there’s a crisis that just came up for our team (Okay, let’s give you space to work through that)
There’s usually a very good reason people aren’t participating, and it’s almost always resolvable. But you won’t know until you ask — which is just as true in a face-to-face meeting as it is in a virtual one. We’re simply used to leaning more on what we see than on what we hear to make that determination.
Just remember, silence can be your friend in a virtual setting. It can feel really uncomfortable because you can’t see what people are doing, but it can be a strong signal for change in a group that doesn’t like to speak up or criticize. Be open and inviting so that the group feels they can trust you to fix whatever needs to be fixed, and you’ll find that reading the virtual room isn’t difficult, it’s just different.
Photo (woman biting pencil while sitting on chair in front of computer during daytime) by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash
How do I manage a quick check in during a Zoom meeting when some people are co-located in one (physical) room, some are in their offices, and some are on the phone? And I have a paper list of names, but not sure who’s actually attending? We’ve met everyone and they all know each other, but I want their voices in the virtual room.
Blended meetings are tough. It’s a lot easier to pay attention to someone right next to you than to a voice on the phone. Setting the tone with an inclusive check in is a great way to bring the remote people into the room—or bring the in-room people into the virtual setting, depending on your point of view.
Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash
Check In Ideas
Ahead of time, ask an in-room partner to bring in a bunch of interesting, small objects. Have each in-room person select an object. Ask each remote person to look around their space and select an interesting object. For the check-in, each person shows their object to the camera or describes it aloud and says why it connects with them at this moment.
Have each person describe the local weather where they are and then share their internal weather state (stormy, calm, sunny, frozen…). The in-room group only needs to describe the outside weather once for everyone there, and then each person can share their individual internal state.
Ask each person to use a marker to draw a circle on a scrap of paper, then fill it in with eyes, nose, and mouth to create a simple drawing of their mood. Under the circle, have them write their name. Each person holds up the drawing to the camera, says who they are, and says something brief about their mood drawing.
Beyond the Check In
It’s also essential to make sure that the remote folks are never overlooked throughout the course of the meeting, so anything you can do to give the in-room people a way to imagine something real about the remote people’s surroundings will help.
This is one of my favorite ways to bring remote people into a room where several others are gathered. I’m assuming that the facilitator is in the room with some participants and other people are connected from their individual locations, but this works if the facilitator is remote and has an in-room partner, too.
Bring a stack of table tent cards to the meeting and set them out for the in-room people to write their names on.
Recruit an assistant in the room to be your virtual liaison. As people are getting settled, have your assistant get the remote people’s names on additional cards. Make sure that each remote person is represented on a separate tent card.
Set the remote people’s tent cards in a ring in the center of the table, or place them between other people’s chairs, so they are present at the table.
When you go around for check ins or other round-robin responses, include the remote people by reading their names from the cards.
For groups that meet this way routinely, you could assign a remote card to each in-room person and have them be accountability buddies with their remote counterpart. Buddies are responsible for ensuring their remote person gets copies of documents during or after the meeting (texting images of visual captures at critical points or getting the remote buddy’s ideas onto sticky notes, for example).
If I’m remote and there are a bunch of remote individuals plus a room full of people attending the meeting, I might rename the ‘room’ in my list of participants to include the names of everyone present there. For example:
‘Meeting Room 101’ shows up in my software’s participant list. Bob, Doris, Sara, and Michael are present in the room. I rename the ‘participant’ to ‘Bob, Doris, Sara, Michael’ instead of ‘Meeting Room 101.’
Obviously, this has limitations if the number of co-located people is large. In that case, I try to get someone in the room to tell me who is there and keep me informed as people arrive and leave, and I use an old-fashioned list on paper.
What are your favorite ways to be inclusive in blended meetings?
In today’s FVC (Facilitating Virtual Collaboration) workshop, the topic came up about how facilitators can engage participants in a remote meeting so that they don’t check email, tune out, stop listening, and fail to … well… participate. My unusual and occasionally unpopular advice: It’s not entirely your problem.
One of the most common mistakes people make when planning virtual meetings is allocating time incorrectly. Hint: the problem is not usually that meetings end early.
Time by Alex Tian (cc by-nd)
To help you avoid this error, here is a handy formula you can use to calculate how long something will take in a virtual meeting.
How long would this conversation with this group of people take in a face-to-face meeting? Write it down. We’ll call that number n.
Add modifiers to n as follows:
If there is no facilitator, double n before continuing. Then hire or assign a facilitator.
If there are more than 10 people involved (not counting the facilitator):
For 11-15 people, add 5 minutes to n.
For 15-20 people, add 10 minutes to n.
For 21-30 people, add 15 minutes to n.
For more than 30 people, design pre-work to take care of as much as you can before the meeting, then add 20 minutes to n.
Will you be switching tools during the meeting? For instance, going from screen-sharing to a collaborative sticky note board, Google doc, or similar?
If so, add 5 minutes for every time you switch to a new tool.
If the additional tool is new to at least half the group, add another 5 minutes.
If the additional tool requires participants to log in, add another 2 minutes.
If the additional tool requires a download or plug-in, add another 5 minutes.
If you don’t display clear written instructions about how to access and use the tool, add 5 minutes.
Will you be using breakout rooms in this meeting? Add 5 minutes for each time you go into breakouts.
Will the group need to make a major decision during this conversation?
For groups up to 15, add 10 minutes to propose the decision and check for agreement.
For groups of 16-20, add 15 minutes to propose the decision and check for agreement.
For groups over 20, add 15 minutes to propose the decision and check for agreement, and expect a lot of follow-up questions after the meeting.
If the group is very divided about the content of the decision, add another 5-10 minutes to the decision time.
Will you be keeping a Parking Lot, and do you expect more than two Parking Lot issues to come up? If so, add 5-10 minutes to resolve the Parking Lot issues.
Look at the total you have so far. For every 60 minutes, add 5 minutes for stretch breaks. If you’re over two hours total, add another 10 minutes for a sanity break in the middle.
Remember to add 10 minutes up front for people to connect to the meeting and get their audio and video sorted out.
Remember to add 5 minutes at the end of the meeting to review decisions and action steps.
As an example, let’s look at a group of 14 people who need to brainstorm ideas about their next product launch, select two, and assign research leads to each idea. It would take them 45 minutes to get this done in one focused face-to-face meeting with a facilitator, so n is 45.
Add 5 minutes for the number of people (14): 50 minutes
We’ll use screen sharing and Boardthing (a sticky note tool), so we add 5 minutes: 55 minutes
Boardthing doesn’t require an account or a download, so we don’t need to add any time for that.
Naturally we will create clear, visual instructions for Boardthing and show them before we switch as well as in Boardthing itself, so we don’t have to add 5 minutes for not doing that.
We will be using breakout groups once, so we add 5 minutes: 60 minutes
The group will need to make a major decision, so we add 10 minutes: 70 minutes
The group isn’t particularly deeply divided, so we don’t need to add time for that.
We don’t expect a long Parking Lot, so we don’t need to add time for that.
We add a 5-minute stretch break: 75 minutes
We add 10 minutes at the start for getting settled: 85 minutes
We add 5 minutes at the end to review decisions and actions: 90 minutes
In order to accomplish our objectives in a virtual meeting, we need to set aside 90 minutes, including a 5-minute stretch break.
By now you’re probably wondering whether this is meant to be satire. Nope. I’m serious. This is how long it takes to do real work when you’re not face-to-face. If you plan for it and people are prepared in advance, the meeting will run much smoother. People will feel great about achieving their objectives in the time they set aside. And hey, if you’re wrong, you can always end the meeting early.
Last week, my colleague Malgosia Kostecka and I co-facilitated a challenging four-hour remote meeting of 33 attendees in 22 locations involving complex work: developing a mission statement and the initial five-year vision for a new organization. This meeting kicked off a five-month process to explore different models for how the organization might be structured. Over the summer, sub-groups will design possible models and prepare to present them to the whole group. The process will conclude in October with the group’s first face-to-face meeting, where the final mission, vision, and five-year strategy will be set. These will then be used in securing approval to launch the organization.
For this kickoff, we used Zoom, Boardthing, and Slack as our workspaces. I’m happy to report that it went well. Astonishingly well, actually, given that I always assume something will go horribly wrong! We barely needed Plans B and C and didn’t reach Plans D or E at all. Here’s how it worked.
Pre-Meeting Preparation Facilitators:
We worked closely with the meeting sponsors to identify outcomes and understand who would be in the meeting.
We set up Slack for the whole team, since they will be doing ongoing work throughout the summer. The ongoing setup includes channels for smaller working groups, plus one for questions, general information, and workgroup chairs. Special temporary channels were also set up for the meeting (see Plan C, below).
We set up a Zoom room for the main meeting space.
We created a Boardthing board for collecting and sorting vision ideas. Advance setup included creating a list of instructions, uploading a template image for sorting the ideas, and preparing an agreement scale in case we needed it.
We prepared 14 digital templates covering each part of the meeting from the Do-Now to Closing Thoughts. Not all were used, but they were ready!
We created a spreadsheet to track who had signed in to Slack, who had done the tech check, who was to be at the one co-located venue, and who would be in each breakout discussion group during the meeting. We took into account the 11 people who would be connecting from a single location when planning breakout groups.
We prepared a visual roadmap of the entire process, from this kickoff meeting throughout the summer and fall to the final group meeting scheduled in October.
We prepared the agenda (a detailed facilitators’ version and a more general participants’ version).
We prepared a text document with participant names and email addresses, key web links that would need to be copied and pasted, and a few technical support statements that we would likely need to paste multiple times.
Prior to our involvement, participants went through a selection process based on interest, expertise, and availability. There were also initial discussions about the process and its outcomes.
We asked participants to sign in to the Slack team space prior to the meeting and to have Slack open during the meeting itself.
They were also encouraged to attend a brief tech check to make sure they could access Zoom.
As mentioned above, we used Zoom, Boardthing, and Slack; additionally, I used Autodesk Sketchbook, a spreadsheet, and a text editor. We used a countdown timer to time breaks.
Agenda & Activities
The planned timing is on the agenda image here. The actual timing is noted in parentheses next to each activity below.
Our agenda. Organization and other names have been removed.
Do-Now & Orientation (15 minutes)
The do-now was designed to help folks start thinking about the meeting content and give them something to do while everyone else got connected. Everyone was to type into a special Slack channel, answering the question: Why is this organization important to you personally? [Wondering whats a do-now is? Here’s a PDF that explains.]
Once everyone was settled and had had a chance to work on the do-now, the sponsors opened the meeting by setting the context for the work this team will be doing, why do it now, and why the team was comprised of these particular people.
I introduced myself briefly when I took over, and ran through the outcomes, agenda, roles and rules as shown above. I left space for additional rules but the group didn’t add any.
I mentioned the backchannels (Slack and the chat feature of Zoom) and encouraged participants to speak up in those channels if they were having trouble. Malgosia was monitoring both channels throughout the meeting.
We asked people to turn off their video cameras while they were in the full-group session and said they were welcome to use them in the breakouts later.
Introductions (30 minutes)
Since this group is not an intact team but a group of colleagues from different organizations, we invested some time in team introductions. Using a prepared template that showed six ‘tables’ — one for each of the working groups that will meet over the summer — we went around the virtual room.
Malgosia and I modeled what we were looking for with our own introductions first.
Each person’s name was already written in, along with his or her organization. When it came time to speak, each person said who they were and where they worked and also shared one hope or expectation for the process. I added each person’s hope/expectation to the template as they spoke, using Sketchbook and my Wacom Cintiq pen display tablet (it’s like the 27HD but mine is a 24HD).
Project Roadmap (10 minutes)
We placed the project roadmap on the screen and walked through it to be sure the five-month process was clear.
Facilitators and meeting sponsors/workgroup chairs answered questions as they arose.
After that, we took a five-minute stretch break. I placed a countdown timer on the shared screen to time five minutes.
New Org.’s Mission (55 minutes)
After the break, we shifted to developing a draft mission statement. We started by reviewing mission statements from four or five well-known organizations (selected in advance and written on a template).
Next, we explained the process we were about to use, as well as the backup plan should our initial plan fail (see Backup Plans, below). We answered questions (all this took a little less than 10 minutes) and then got started.
First, each person wrote down an answer to the question: What is this organization’s reason for being? This was done individually on whatever piece of paper was handy. (5 minutes)
Next, we grouped everyone into trios using the Zoom breakout rooms. In each group, the three people shared what each had written and generated one statement for the trio — either choosing one of the three, or writing a new one. (10 minutes)
Whenever they worked in breakouts, we checked in with each group periodically to make sure that everything was going well.
Next, we grouped up three trios together to make a group of nine, and they repeated the process: listen to each trio’s statement, and come up with one statement for your group of nine. (15 minutes)
This resulted in three statements. We came back to a whole-group discussion, and each group read their statement. We captured it on a template using Sketchbook and screen sharing, and then briefly discussed the three statements. We noted issues and key questions that would need to be resolved in the work over the summer. (10 minutes)
We ended that segment with three possible mission statements, agreeing to finalize the new organization’s mission in October.
At this point we were halfway through the four-hour time, and we took a 20-minute break to stretch, wolf down food, adjust any technical glitches, and so on. Once again I shared the countdown timer.
Vision Images (10 minutes)
After the break, we briefly reviewed the agenda to check in with the process and our progress.
Then we shifted to working on the vision. We opened with a guided imagery activity, set five years in the future. We set the context by saying that five years had passed and the organization was very successful. Then, everyone listened and imagined, but did not answer or speak, as we asked the following questions: What activities are happening throughout the year? Who is involved? What are the media saying? What publications and resources exist that didn’t before? How is your work different now?
Everyone was then given five minutes to jot down some ideas that had come to them during the visioning.
New Org.’s Vision (65 minutes)
Using a template prepared in advance (a Mandala with the imagery questions written in the segment circles), we asked the group to share thoughts that they had had. We worked through each of the questions and captured ideas as they were voiced. (25 minutes)
When that was complete, we saved it and uploaded it to Slack right away so that everyone could use it during the next activity.
Once again, before launching into the activity, we showed a template with the steps written out, reviewed them, and answered questions. We explained and gave examples of what we were looking for: specific vision themes, or what the organization will be, do, or have in five years’ time. (about 5 minutes)
Once everyone was ready, we pasted the Boardthing link into the Zoom chat and into Slack and asked everyone to open it.
While they were doing that, we placed them into breakout groups of about six people (the 11 co-located people formed two groups where they were).
Each group was responsible for generating 3-5 cards in Boardthing. Each card included one key theme for the vision, either pulled from the previous conversations or generated now. (25 minutes)
While they worked, we checked in on each breakout to make sure that everything was going well.
After that time, we gave everyone else a 5-minute stretch break (using the timer). Meanwhile, Malgosia and I took an initial pass on the cards, grouping them into rough clusters and proposing cluster names. When the group returned, we had six or seven theme categories and three or four cards that we weren’t able to place in groups.
Refining the Vision (15 minutes)
After the break, we reviewed the clusters and asked for corrections or changes. We refined the cluster names and added the loose cards to clusters with the group’s guidance.
We copied the seven cluster heading cards and placed them into the vision template in Boardthing.
The group discussed and refined the vision elements further, adding nuances and making distinctions, until they were happy with the draft vision.
We did a brief and informal check for alignment, and declared victory!
Next Steps & Closing (7 minutes)
We briefly brought back the process roadmap and reviewed it again, answering new questions.
The sponsors outlined next steps, thanked everyone for their involvement, and closed the meeting — on time. Well, almost. We were two minutes over.
After the meeting, we created a PDF file containing all the meeting charts, including screenshots from and a link to the Boardthing board, sent it to the sponsors, and uploaded it to the team’s Slack space. Now we are in the process of planning and scheduling the series of smaller remote meetings for each of the six working groups that will take place over the summer.
When I create a backup plan, I pick the thing that is most likely to go wrong, imagine what will happen if it does, and come up with a workaround. I keep doing this until the only remaining workaround is for everyone to talk normally on the phone while I take notes on paper. The backup plans for this meeting centered on people not having access to Zoom, or the Zoom breakout groups not working, since those were the trickiest parts of the meeting.
Plan A: The meeting as designed and described above, and basically what we did.
Plan B: Assuming people couldn’t see the screen but could connect to Zoom via the phone, they would be paired up with a ‘screen buddy’ who could help them create Boardthing cards. I also read everything that was on the templates and described each new one briefly as I brought it up.
Plan C: Plan C covered us if the breakout groups in Zoom failed. In every meeting, there are always a few people who can’t get into the breakout rooms, and I have yet to figure out why. If it’s just a few, then I leave them in the main room and they become their own breakout group. If it’s a lot, then we are into Plan C. To prepare for Plan C, we created temporary channels in Slack for each breakout group and invited those people to each channel. The instructions to the group were that if the Zoom breakout wasn’t working, they were to have their discussions via text in the Slack channels instead. We only needed to do this with one group once.
Plan D: Plan D assumed failure of Boardthing, or failure of people to get into Boardthing. In this case, I would have brought it up and shared my screen and we would have talked through the process, perhaps collecting ideas in Slack and having Malgosia read them to me to type in. Luckily, we didn’t need to do this.
Plan E was the last-ditch backup, where we do the whole thing in full-group discussion while I share my screen and do graphic recording.
What I Would Do Differently
I learned a LOT about Zoom breakout rooms in this meeting. One thing I should have taken advantage of more is the ability to set breakout groups up in advance and then re-use them. If I had done that, it would have greatly simplified (and speeded up) the process of getting people into breakout rooms. Instead, I created different groupings on the fly based on lists in our spreadsheets, which got a little complicated and took some time to set up. Astute readers will notice that in steps 4 and 6 in particular, we lost a few minutes of work time getting people into the breakout rooms.
On the whole, though, I’m happy with how it went, and I’ve heard very positive feedback from the participants and sponsors as well.
Need a Good Remote Meeting?
Do you need to get work done with a remote group? I’d love to help. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a time to talk about what you need.
The first and second posts in this series covered rules for orienting to purpose, connecting people, drawing out information, and getting closure on commitments — the first four stages of The Grove Facilitation Model. This post, the last in the series, deals with Videoconferencing Rules of Order for the final three stages: supporting action, monitoring progress, and leveraging learning. A future post will go into more detail about the Model itself. For now, if it’s unfamiliar, just think of it as a set of lenses that a facilitator can use to plan and handle group processes.
Tickcounter’s Web-based Timer
When the videoconference is humming along and people are embedded in the work of the meeting itself, it seems like the safest thing to do is to sit back and not mess with it. But there are still some small things you can do to make it easier for everyone to work together via video.
Build in stretch breaks. It’s more fatiguing to sit in a video call than to sit in a face-to-face meeting of the same length. For every hour of meeting, build in a five-minute stretch break, with longer breaks after two hours. Set a countdown timer on a shared screen to help people return on time, and discourage people from skipping their break. (Here’s a timer for PowerPoint — I haven’t tried it, though — and here’s a web-based one that I do use.)
Give participants something to focus on besides each other. Share a screen showing a visual map of the work process or other materials that are not text-heavy. Bring in a digital graphic recorder to capture the meeting in real time on a shared screen. Create a simple template in PowerPoint and complete it while the group talks. Having a visual representation to discuss and refer to helps to keep the conversation on track. People find a bit of variety stimulating and engaging, so don’t use the same technique every time.
Give participants something to do. Use other tools in combination with video. Set up a shared spreadsheet where participants can take a few moments to reflect and type answers to relevant questions, or give their opinions of different options. Once everyone has had a chance to reflect and respond, use the document as a springboard for discussion. Or get everyone into a shared sticky-note board and have them create and interact directly with digital sticky notes.
When the group is working, the facilitator can keep the meeting flowing with light touches as they would do in a face-to-face meeting.
Keep an eye on body language, but not the way you’re used to doing it. On most video conferences, you can only see people from the shoulders up. It’s easy to miss signals that would be obvious in a face-to-face meeting. Watch for signs of fatigue or distraction: looking down often, repeatedly or persistently looking away from the computer, frequent nodding without contributing, leaning the head back onto the top of the chair and looking at the ceiling, fidgeting. These can all signal that patience has run out and it’s time for a quick stretch break. Also watch for quiet people trying to break in to the conversation, and help make room for them. They may suddenly look alert, sit up straighter, or start to open their mouth and then close it again if there isn’t space to talk. Call on them by name and ask if they wanted to say something.
Narrate your actions when you do something that appears to be a distraction. If you need to pull up a document, for instance, or look for a relevant email pertinent to the task at hand, say so. “I’m going to pull up the email that has our agreements from last time. It will only take a moment and I’m not reading any new messages right now.” Otherwise, your obvious shift in focus will be taken as an invitation for everyone to check their messages and the meeting will lose momentum.
Bring the agenda back on screen each time an item is completed. In face-to-face meetings, we tend to keep the agenda posted all the time and refer to it throughout the process to keep people oriented and on track. With videoconferences, it’s easy to lose sight of progress because the agenda is displayed once at the start of the meeting and then never again. Instead, share it on the screen, annotating and updating it if possible, each time you shift from one topic to another. Even if you’ve sent agendas to everyone beforehand, it’s helpful to do a quick group check in now and then.
The activities that fall under the category of Leveraging Learning are often dismissed as ‘extras,’ things that are nice to have but not necessary in our time-pressured workdays. However, they do not need to take a lot of time and the payoff in participant satisfaction, productivity, and engagement is huge. Spare a few minutes for practices like these that get everyone involved in the group’s choices and success.
Take a moment at the end of the meeting for “likes and wishes.” Invite each participant in turn to share one thing they liked about the way the meeting worked, and one thing they wish for next time. You can leave it open in terms of scope or frame it so that people are reflecting on the technical aspects of the engagement. In settings where people are not inclined to speak openly about what they would like to change, set up an anonymous way to contribute, such as a shared sticky-note board or shared document. Use the feedback to adjust future video meetings.
Take screen shots at various points in the meeting. Combine them with images of charts created by digital graphic recording and links to documents jointly edited during the meeting. Share this output with participants via email soon after the meeting as a visual record of their virtual time together.
Host occasional pop-up sessions dedicated to reviewing the technology you use for video, shared editing, and other meeting functions. Invite interested participants to prepare short presentations of new tools that show promise, or ask volunteers to try out specific tools and report the results. Keep your group’s tech fresh by sharing the responsibility for finding, testing, and proposing new tools.
Although synchronous meetings are only a small part of remote work, they provide opportunities to build relationships and cement commitments among distributed colleagues. Using these guidelines will help you make the most of your team’s remote gatherings, bring team members closer together, and increase their effectiveness as a distributed team.
Getting people comfortable in a virtual meeting can be a challenge, especially if you plan to use some of the more advanced features of your web conferencing tools. Even if that’s not in your agenda, it’s helpful to have folks take a minute to check in once the group has assembled. You’re familiar, I’m sure, with the awkward-silence-and-simultaneous-speaking method of going around the virtual room. How about trying a visual alternative in your next meeting? This one was shared with me by a student in one of my digital facilitation workshops.
The check-in grid is a quick, easy and fun way to avoid the awkward stumbling while still giving everyone a chance to have his or her voice heard. It also lets folks experience the group whiteboard feature of a web conferencing tool during a safe and low-stakes activity, so that later, when you ask them to dot vote or contribute to a group visual, they aren’t totally lost.
You’ll need to enable the collaborative whiteboard feature in your web conferencing tool. Some of them require you to do this when you set the meeting up, and others let you activate it once the meeting has begun. (See below for alternative ideas if your system just doesn’t have this feature.)
Start by drawing a grid on the collaborative whiteboard that has at least enough squares for each person to have one (including yourself). You can do this in advance of the meeting, or while people are gathering in the call, or right after you call the meeting to order when everyone is present.
Draw a simple grid.
Next, set the stage for participation by saying that you’d like to have the group do a visual check-in. When you give the signal, everyone will pick an empty square and use the drawing tools to draw a simple face that reflects how they are feeling right now. Alternatively, you could frame the instructions in one of these other ways:
Draw a simple face that shows…
• …how you are feeling about our progress so far.
• …how you are feeling right now about the issue we have come together to discuss (name the issue so it’s clear).
• …how your weekend went.
And so on. Explain that there will be a little pandemonium for a moment as people sort out which square to use. Point out that there are enough for everyone, so if two people start to use one square, one of them should just choose a different one instead.
Show people where the drawing tools are and how they work, if they don’t already know. You can invite everyone to make a test mark outside the grid if they want to practice.
When everyone is ready, tell them to go ahead. Let them sort out the squares themselves – it’s a mess at first, but it will work out. It’s okay if they talk. Wait until it looks like most people have chosen before drawing your own image in an unused square.
Makes you want to know what’s up with the cat person, doesn’t it?
When everyone has finished, start at the top left and go along the rows. Ask each artist to identify him or herself and say something about why they chose to draw what they did. Acknowledge each person’s contribution.
There you go! You’ve given everyone a chance to speak and share something about themselves, and you’ve established a speaking order that you can use throughout the meeting to help avoid talking over one another.
Once everyone is done drawing but before you go around for the verbal check-in, take a screen shot or download the image, open it in your drawing program, share your screen, and graphically record everyone’s remarks around the outside of the grid. Only do this if you can manage it very smoothly and quickly, or you will lose the good energy built up by the drawing.
No collaborative whiteboard? No problem! Alternative #1: Ask everyone to draw a quick face on a scrap of paper, take a photo with their phone, and either upload it to the web conferencing tool (if that’s easy) or email it to you right away. Flip through the uploaded drawings in the web conference, or share your screen and open them one by one on your computer. Have each person explain as above.
Alternative #2: There are a lot of free shared whiteboarding tools that you can use for your meeting. Flockdraw is one. You just create a whiteboard and share the link, and everyone can draw together using its incredibly simple interface. There are many other options too — just keep searching until you find one that you like.
A co-conspirator and I created this in about fifteen seconds on our first Flockdraw visit.
Alternative #3: Instead of drawing a face, everyone can use the whiteboard type tool to write one word that describes how they are doing (or answers whatever question you have asked them).