On Virtual Meetings

I’m trying to brainstorm all the things I know about good online meetings now that a bunch of folks are having them who aren’t used to them. (Editing as I think of things.)

A note: my company has a culture of using voice-only conference calls. If you use video as well, some of these may not apply as much.

  • Have a “leader.” Consensus is great, but one person needs to be empowered to say “okay, this is great discussion, but we do need to move on to the next item.”
  • There is a mic sweet spot where it’s easy to hear you but – crucially – does not transmit your breathing. If you can, try out a call with a buddy who will tell you if your breathing is audible
  • Make sure you repeat things back frequently. It’s like active listening ramped way up. So if someone says “I’ll get that to you this week,” then you (if you’re the leader) say “okay, Tom’s got that for later this week. Let’s move on to…”
  • Pause a whole lot longer than you think you need to. “Okay, does anyone have any questions?” followed by three deep breaths. I know the tension grows If no one says anything, but really, you need to give it that long.
  • Similarly, take one deep breath after someone stops talking before you talk. Since there may not be any visual clues, it’s hard to tell if they’re actually done, or just pausing. If you talk over someone, a quick “oh sorry” and then STOP TALKING. (If you’re leading, take a note and if Tom starts to ramble, break in: “Let’s pause this for a second. Sally, it sounds like you wanted to add something?”)
  • If you can’t get a word in edgewise, say “I’d like to add to that when Tom’s done.” If you’re leading the call, make sure to clear the way for that person to talk next.
  • People are definitely not listening to you – use keywords to get their attention – preferably more than once – like their name. “Okay, let’s move on to documentation next, which Tom has been working on.” (Pause here to let Tom realize oh crap, they just said my name, I should listen.) “Tom, do you think you’re still on track to finish that by the 20th?”
  • Be patient with people who are multitasking or get distracted. It IS going to happen, so it doesn’t help to get frustrated. Just repeat what you said and move on. (And for goodness’ sake, do NOT say anything like “it’s critical that people are paying attention.” They’re adults and KNOW that. But 1) it’s hard and 2) they may have three other things that are “critical” at the exact same time.)
  • Pay attention to your list of participants, and if someone isn’t speaking up who would normally or who should be, take note of that. Some people just won’t talk as readily on a call. “Sue, I think you gave Tom the data. Any concerns about the issue with table formatting he just discussed?”
  • Send out (or have whoever is taking notes send out) notes as close to immediately after the meeting as possible. People WILL NOT remember what they discussed later. Make it “tangible” (or at least searchable).
  • If you are leading the call, do not hesitate to redirect or steer the conversation. That’s your job. “Hey, Pat, that’s definitely a concern we want to address, thank you for bringing that up. I want to respect everyone’s time, though, so let’s finish the design review. We’ll get back to that or I’ll set up some time so we can talk more in depth.”
  • Use fewer pronouns than you would face-to-face. Remember: people are not listening to you; they’re listening for key words. “Yep, he said that last week” is not as effective as “Henry said last week that it would roll out at the end of the month. Henry, unless you have an update on that, we’re still moving forward.”
  • If YOU are the one multitasking and miss something, just own up to it; don’t try to pretend you heard what was said. “Sorry, I was dealing with another issue. What did you need to me check on?” It’s going to happen to everyone at some point, so just work with it as best you can.
  • Don’t put people on the call that don’t need to be there. It’s even harder to pay attention if nothing being talked about requires your input. DO send the notes out more widely, so people who don’t need to be on the call but do need to know what was decided on the call have the information they need.
  • DO let folks just chit chat for the first few minutes. It’s lonely out there right now. How long is up to you and how long the meeting is scheduled for. Remember: people are not listening to you and are absolutely multitasking through the chit chat. When you’re ready to start, tell them: “okay, I think we have everyone, let’s go ahead and get started.”
  • Know your own biases. Are women, trans, and nb people on your call being allowed to talk? Are POC? Are you only letting people from one department have their say? Only executives? Only people you’re friends with? Not everyone needs or should be participating equally or in the same way, but everyone should have the opportunity to.
  • Expect that everyone will be about 2 minutes late to the call. Why? Because a lot of them will be dropping off a previous call to attend your call. Why two minutes? I have no idea. But expect to start a couple of minutes late. (Don’t shame or call out the people who join late, just provide a little context for where you are on the agenda and keep going.)

If it sounds like leading meetings requires a lot of attention and people skills from the person leading them, that’s because it does.