When you are used to meeting in person, it is easy to see the disadvantages of online meetings. You are missing out on a lot of body language and other non-verbal cues. Yet the sudden shift to everything online since March has demonstrated many of the advantages of online meetings.
Not only do your participants save time and money on travel, your organization saves money. You do not need to rent a meeting space and serve the group food. You will need to pay for an online meeting hosting service such as Zoom or Adobe Connect as well as perhaps an online collaboration tool such as Mural or Miro. These costs, however, will be substantially less than what you would have paid for in food, AV rental, printing and other costs of the meeting.
Using technology to your advantage
There are lots of ways that the technology itself can help you run an effective meeting.
Want to learn more about how to effectively facilitate online meetings? Join my four-week group coaching program. A new cohort starts in September.
Build rapport with people online is one of the things people often mention as a challenge in online meetings. Yet with some intention it is possible.
Connection before content
A good practice (whether in person or online) is to be sure to take some time at the beginning of the meeting to connect on a personal level before you jump into the meeting agenda. This could include a check in question such as an ice-breaker. Some people cringe when you mention icebreaker. Yet the question does not have to be “what Harry Potter character are you?” or [fill in the blank with a question you got asked at beginning of a meeting that had nothing to do with the issues at hand]. It can be work-related. Especially with groups who do not know each other making the question relatively safe is often a good place to start. What is your super-power? What is the latest app you discovered and love? What are you hoping we achieve today? If the group is large and you are afraid intro’s and icebreakers will take up a chunk of the meeting time, split people into smaller groups (2-4) and have them introduce themselves in their small group.
If the group is going to be working together for a while, help them have a conversation about how they want to work together. What helps them work effectively in a group? What might get in the way working together online and remotely? How might they address those challenges? It may take a few rounds of brainstorming and refinement to come to a set of agreements that work for everyone. Yet having this list of agreements will help if the group runs into challenges.
Rapport and trust will be lost if a person in the group does not feel like their voice is being heard. They may feel you are rushing through items without sufficient time for discussion. A good practice as a meeting leader is to pose a question or discussion topic and then take a drink of water. It takes a little bit longer on line for people to jump into the conversation. They may hesitate wondering whether someone else is going to talk and not wanting to interrupt anyone. Taking that drink will prevent you from continuing to talk and gives your meeting participants time to gather their thoughts and respond.
Do you really know whether everyone is with you and in agreement? Check in more frequently with the group to make sure:
Don’t assume silence means agreement. This blog post goes into more detail on checking in.
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One of the things that facilitators worry a lot when shifting from facilitating in the room to facilitating on line is not being able to “read the room.”
But what if they've been “reading the room” inaccurately?
Sometimes people's body language is super obvious yet most of the time in the workplace it tends to be more subtle. Facilitators may have been engaging in mind reading when they think they are reading the “vibe” in the room yet they really did not know what the participants in the group were thinking and feeling.
"Reading the room" online
What if facilitating online actually meant you paid more attention to “reading the room”?
How might you track it?
One of the tips for facilitating online is to check in more frequently with the group that you're working with.
Here are four ways to think about monitoring progress.
The first is to make sure that you're establishing connections and setting expectations at the beginning of your meeting. What is some pre work that people could engage in so that they could do some thinking beforehand? How might you spend a few minutes to help people get to know each other a little better? How might you use a tool like OARR - Outcomes agenda roles and rules --to orient people as you start out?
Signaling your turns
The second category is making sure that you're helping people track your progress in your process. You might use polling to assess your engagement, understanding and effectiveness. You might do a quick “POP” check in on purpose, outcomes and process. You need to ”signal your turns” so that you are clear about when you're moving from one agenda item to another. Take a pause to make sure everyone is with you especially if you are moving from using one technology tool to another. You can also use visual tools to help you track progress
Are we in agreement?
A third category is checking for understanding or checking for consensus. You'll likely want to do this more often in an online meeting than you would in person. This means that you need to allow more time to achieve the outcomes then you might have normally budgeted in an in-person meeting. It's slowing down and questioning your assumptions. Taking the time to make your thought process more explicit. Some tools that you might use included a quick check in what's called a “fist to 5.” You ask people to make a show of hands/fingers where they are. You designate what the fist means and what 5 fingers mean. Let's say 5 fingers means high agreement or understanding. This can be used in lots different ways. Another is the gradients of agreement which helps breakdown what consensus looks like. I've described using this tool another post.
Carol, how are you doing?
The fourth way to approach monitoring group progress online is to check in with individuals. In some ways online platforms makes this easier than in person. When I am in front of a large room of people it's unlikely that I'm going to be able to see all their name tags. Nut on a Zoom call I can see at least a first name or some kind of identifier to ask people individually how they're doing. You will want to have some discussion around group norms about whether it’s ok to ask people who haven't talked much to chime in and share. This may depend on the where your group is in terms of its evolution and development.
with you whose job it is to pay attention to and monitor the group. You might have a co-host who's monitoring reactions and gallery view while you're focused on facilitating the meeting. You will want to come to agreement beforehand that they can interrupt you and ask questions of the group. Most important (this certainly is true in an in person as well but even more so online), do not assume that silence means consent. Or assume it means discontent.
Need to learn more about how to work with groups effectively online? Check out my program.
Groups often fear working on a consensus basis because they are afraid of the time it will take to make a decision. They are afraid of being caught in a spiral of discussion, more discussion and yet more discussion and no resolution. They may be afraid of this because they may assume that everyone has to be 100% behind a decision for the group to move ahead.
When a group is considering an issue, ideally there is a discussion that considers a wide range of options. Then the discussion comes to a clear end point with a decision. Once a decision is made the group moves to action. This image illustrates this ideal.
Americans tend to be quite action oriented and in our culture we can get impatient easily, wanting to jump to a decision. And thus more frequently it feels like this:
Part of the group thinks a decision has been made and others thinks the item is still up for discussion. And still others may not be clear what decision is on the table.
Once the group is clear about what they are deciding, a useful tool for testing the level of agreement is the consensus continuum.
Applying the continuum
I was part of a board that used this continuum when it was deliberating about a very challenging situation. There was no good solution to the high stakes problem we were facing. There were only several bad choices to choose from. Which bad choice was better than the other? We deliberated for a long time. Deliberation happened over multiple meetings, over multiple weeks. Ultimately we were able to make a decision that everyone in the group could live with even if it was not their preferred option by using this tool.
How many people you need to have in the 1-3 zone will depend on how high stakes a decision it is. Using this as a check in can move along even decisions that may seem like they are low stakes but are taking a long time. You may find it is higher stakes for some in the group.
Making time for process
Groups often want to jump to action and resist taking time on ‘process’ issues. Being clear about how the group makes decisions is a core process issue that rarely gets discussed. Taking the time can actually save the group both time and angst in the long run.
Have a group that needs help with how they are working together? Reach out for a coaching session.
A Buddhist monk, a leftist guerrilla warrior and a technology executive walk into a bar called Changes. “Ah the nature of change,” the monk says, “the world is always in flux, permanence is an illusion and attachment to permanence is the cause of suffering.” The leftist guerrilla replies, “But Mao said there must be a great leap forward.” The tech executive says, “Fast Company says change is happening faster than ever and we must always be the next big thing.” The bartender shrugs her shoulders and asks how each of them is planning to pay for their beers. “Everyone with ATM money again?” she says, “Go somewhere else to make your change.”
Can you manage change?
Sorry for the poor attempt at humor. People talk about change management and say that that is what they do. But can you really manage change? I believe you can be intentional about moving toward change. Yet saying you are managing change gives an illusion of control that I do not think is real in dynamic human systems. Organizations are human systems and are describes as “intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organizing, [and] meaning-seeking” as Meg Wheatley described. While you can force change on people, I do not believe you can force people to change.
There typically is a spark that initiates the change. This could come from outside the organization – a crisis, a major shift in the market, a new mandate or regulation. Or it could come from inside the organization in the form of a vision championed by either formal leaders or through a bottom up effort of informal leaders.
Focusing the effort
When done well, the organization will take advantage of the spark by being intentional in focusing the change effort. Is the organization ready to change and makes the best of the challenge or opportunity? How will leaders choose to invest the time, energy and resources into envisioning and implementing change? What new structures need to be created to support the desired change going forward?
Creating organizational change intentionally means taking time to thoughtfully design and engage in meaningful dialogue. Does the past need to be mourned before a new beginning can be imagined? Is the environment safe enough for people to bring their whole selves to the endeavor? If not, what will increase those conditions of safety?
Systems of support
Once the change is implemented –whether it is new goals and aspirations envisioned in a strategic plan or implementing a new technology system or building a new program – ensuring you have systems in place to support the new change and allow it to take hold is key. Identifying, harnessing and sharing stories of success can be a powerful way to help the change stick.
What change are you trying to make in 2020? Let's talk about them
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.