One of my colleagues posted a meme the other day calling the coronavirus the “Zoombie apocalypse” after the group videoconference app that has been the basis of a lot of meetings since people started working from home to slow the spread of the disease.
On the one hand, apps such as Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangouts have made it fairly easy for people to engage from a distance with each person in their own space. On the other hand, meetings online can be pretty chaotic, especially if someone forgets to mute themselves. Here are a few things you should do to make them better:
Nominate a facilitator
Every meeting needs to have a facilitator. When you run a meeting normally, you may have to keep everyone on track with the agenda, but you don’t have to orchestrate the meeting so finely. For instance, there aren’t likely to be a lot of technical glitches. People who have something to say will show through their body language that they would like the floor. Conversation happens. There are lots of subtle social cues that we use to determine how people in the room are feeling.
If you take on the responsibility to be the facilitator, then please (please, please) familiarize yourself with the program beforehand. If anyone needs to share a presentation or share their desktop, make sure you know how that works and try out the steps. The first few times you do it, keep a checklist in front of you to make sure that you don’t miss any steps and that you can walk another meeting participant through the procedure if necessary.
Call on people
With an online meeting, it is hard to gauge people’s feelings or to determine who wants to speak. In addition, some people may fade into the background of the meeting, because it is easier to disengage from a screen than from a roomful of people. That means that you need to be more proactive in calling on people at the meeting to keep it running in an orderly fashion.
Encourage people to virtually “raise their hand” or even make a physical sign they can hold up when they have something to say about an issue. Keep a list handy of people who want to speak and call on them. That will minimize the number of people who talk over each other.
Hear from everyone
To make sure nobody gets left out, have a list of everyone in the meeting—particularly if there are more people than you can really track on your computer screen. Mark off when people have spoken in the meeting and make note of anyone who hasn’t said anything. Consider calling out those people by name to see if they have anything to add to ensure you’re not missing out on valuable contributions.
Facilitators also need to provide periodic reminders to everyone in the group to mute if they’re not speaking and to unmute when they want to start. Eventually, this may become habit, but there are so many distractions in the home environment, with kids wandering into the room and pets going berserk, that it’s frustrating to have meetings interrupted by random noise.
Keep it moving
Finally, keep your online meetings short. One advantage of online meetings is that nobody needs to travel to get to them. There isn’t much wasted effort for people to be present. As a result, there’s no need to cram in every last bit of discussion. It is hard for people to really pay attention to a screen for too long, so aim to get your meeting done in 20-30 minutes. You’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish.