What we learned from training 800+ people on great remote meetings
May 15, 2020
In the first few weeks of the pandemic, some of my colleagues and I from Greaterthan facilitated 90-minute online trainings in how to run great remote meetings for over 800+ people all over the world. Here are some insights on the biggest challenges we have heard people are wrestling with, and a few of our favorite tips and tricks to address them.
The top two challenges people shared with us over and over again were:
How do we create engagement in our remote meetings?
The same people always talk, and there are always people who are quiet. How do we distribute participation?
In some ways, these two challenges have always existed, whether we’re having in-person meetings or virtual ones. But somehow being thrust into working from home overnight has made these challenges even more confronting.
You might have come across articles about “Zoom fatigue” and why online meetings are so tiring —for example, because our brains have to work harder to process non-verbal cues, and it’s tiring to look at screens all day, especially when we have back-to-back online meetings with few or no breaks in between. So we can be a bit self-compassionate that this is tough for all of us.
The upside is: we now have an opportunity to hack meetings and make them more meaningful and productive. Meetings have been pissing us off long before COVID-19, so it’s time to innovate!
Here are our four favourite tips for having great remote meetings:
1. Use Liberating Structures
These are absolute game changers. Liberating Structures are “micro structures” you can use to distribute participation and purposefully engage people using interaction scripts and time constraints. Start your remote meeting with a Liberating Structure like Impromptu Networking to get people chatting straight away in pairs or trios in breakout rooms (Zoom works best for these), sending the message that this is a participatory experience and not a webinar! If you can’t do breakout rooms, get people interacting with a check in round, either sharing verbally or via the chat function. (It’s worth joining the Liberating Structures Slack community for tips as well as a highly active community of practitioners who are all exploring ways to adapt LS for the virtual realm.)
2. Distribute roles and responsibilities
For example, instead of one person being responsible for the agenda, we love a tool called Wise Agenda designed by our friend Samantha Slade, author of “Going Horizontal.” Have people pre-populate it as a shared document ahead of the meeting, clarifying the type of agenda item (Announcement? Proposal? Working together on something in the moment?), the topic, who is leading it, and how much time you need. Alternatively, time box 5-10 minutes at the start of the meeting for people to add their agenda items and decide together which ones to tackle first.
3. Keep the group engaged by mixing up participation formats
Research has shown that our attention spans, especially in remote meetings, are around 10 minutes. After that, people drift off, check their other browser tabs and so on. Sharing your screen and talking to a slideshow for 30 minutes is likely to send people to sleep. So every 10 minutes or so, consider how you could engage participants or check in with them in some way. And looking at the flow of your meeting, how could you mix up participation formats so it’s not just presenting or open discussion in one big group? For example, use a Liberating Structure, get participants to type something in the chat, have them collaborate on a shared doc or tool (e.g. Google docs or Mural)…
4. Embrace analogue technologies
It might sound counterintuitive, but to bring humanity back into the mix, use some low-tech tools like getting people to use hand signals (here’s a great guide to some examples — my personal favourite is “sparkle fingers”); inviting people to bring pen and paper and create moments of silent reflection time; planning for moments of silence or taking three deep breaths together; playing music in calls during intervals like breaks or to help reflection or creativity…
Want to learn more?
We’re offering three online interactive courses on the Better Work Together Academy to support people to design and facilitate better remote meetings and virtual workshops:
Great Remote Meetings — a 90-minute highly practical session on the foundations of running a great remote meeting including a few key Liberating Structures, Zoom features, and some core collaborative online tools.
Design and Facilitate Online Workshops — a 4-week online course where you can practice visual techniques to design online workshops that are engaging and co-creative, learning and applying some key facilitation practices.
There are also options if you’re a business and would like to enroll multiple participants. Contact us for VAT invoices, group discounts, and inquires for in-house courses. We also have scholarships and discounts for people with smaller budgets.
A few more useful resources on remote meetings and remote work:
And if you’re interested in a deeper, more academic study into fostering positive relational dynamics in distributed/remote teams, I recommend this paper by Michael Y. Lee — why creating safe spaces and interaction scripts makes a difference