Tips for Leading Virtual Meetings

MR900430487[1]The trend to working from home is growing, and along with that comes the increase in virtual meetings. At the same time, companies may not be doing enough to give leaders the skills they need to manage a remote team and facilitate these types of meetings. A recent study by Towers Watson said that remote workers want integrity, coaching and clear communication from their managers. Furthermore, the 2013 study said, companies where leaders had training on communicating with dispersed teams are more likely to have an engaged workforce. In this issue, I focus on how team meetings can be more effective when you use facilitation skills – and how that is done differently when you’re not in-person.

  •  Set expectations for participation before the meeting. Let people know how the meeting will be run and how they should participate. When designing your Agenda for remote meetings, along with the task and the time allocation, add a description of the process. You can create categories to describe the group processes most used by your team. Over time, when people see the Agenda and the labels, they know exactly what to expect and they begin to self-facilitate. Be sure to identify who the “lead” is. Here are some labels and what they might mean:

Information Sharing: Factual, technical or functional information, which cannot be shared before the meeting or needs to be updated.

Explanation:  Contextual information-sharing. Someone describes or interprets, in the appropriate level of detail, facts or situations. This might be to elaborate on a pre-read report, a decision that has been handed-down, or on a meeting that only one person attended.

Problem Identification: Bringing multiple perspectives together to look at a situation or issue and determine what the issues are.

Generative Discussion: Sharing viewpoints with the goal of generating a solution or new ideas.

Planning: Scheduling or creating task lists and assignments together.

Validation or Evaluation: Testing decisions or reviewing the past for learning and adjustments.

Collaboration: A discussion aimed at uncovering ways to inter-link activities or to ask for and offer support to group members.

  • Intervene often, to make group dynamics visible. Facilitation simply means making the work of the group easier. This requires planned and spontaneous interventions. The trick with knowing when to intervene in a virtual meeting is that you don’t have the benefit of seeing body language clues. Cameras, while they help, cannot capture the subtle energy (breathing patterns) you can feel from others sitting nearby. Therefore, the remote leader needs to intervene regularly and often. Start each topic off by describing the outcome or intent of the item. State participation expectations. Clearly indicate when the objective has been met, or why it is time to halt regardless. Keep track of who is speaking and how often they speak. If someone is silent, call on them directly every once-in-a-while so others don’t forget that they are in the meeting. As facilitator you can keep order by “lining people up” to contribute, which also avoids awkwardness of jostling for space. Ask directly who will have something to say and then tell them the order they should contribute. Of course, only the facilitator (or lead of that item) can interrupt the speaker.


  • Ask people to be explicit. There are many aspects to bringing the invisible to light during a virtual meeting. A good ground rule is that everyone who speaks must say who is speaking (This is Jill…) at the start of their sentence. Do not assume that your unique voice will identify you. If someone just begins to speak, interrupt them by asking: “Who is this please?” until it becomes a meeting habit. It also helps everyone on the call, and is more productive, if people are transparent about their intentions and favoured outcomes. For example, “This is Jill speaking. I would like to ask a question about what we’ve just heard, and I hope to hear from B and K on it.” If someone just begins to launch into words, interrupt them to ask what they are doing (can they state their intention first). When you hear someone speaking, and they sound a certain way, check that your interpretation matches what they are saying. For example, “I hear what you are saying, and I also think I hear frustration in your voice. Is that true?” In this way, you are keeping tabs on the emotional aspects of the meeting and inviting people to bring their feelings to the table, since you can’t “see on their faces” the deeper meaning of their words.


  •  Help people to communicate well. In virtual meetings, the pain of thoughtless or meandering dialogue seems more intense than in person. To be fair, speakers can’t see their listeners, so they also can’t pick up clues on when to stop or when to reframe or clarify. You as the facilitator have to act as the spokesperson for the group’s listeners. You need to be direct while being respectful. That means interrupting a speaker who is rambling; working to crystallize an incoherent message and providing a summary of a longer treatise. Interrupt by using the speakers’ name, and explain what you think is needed. “R, I want to stop you for a minute and make sure we understand what you are saying here.” If you are not able to summarize what the speaker has shared, call directly on someone else (who might also know the subject well) to validate or re-state. Make it okay for people to ask for clarity and for a person to repeat themselves. In these days of political correctness, some people are afraid to say they cannot understand others’ accents or analogies – and misunderstandings abound. There may be people on the team who need additional training in verbal communication skills, and in interpersonal skills such as influence and empathy.


For an interesting read on group dynamics, see the Harvard Business Review article: “The New Science of Great Teams.”

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