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Effective Meetings in a Virtual Environment: Part 2-How to Engage Participants

Creating effective meetings that produce actionable results relies on participants who are engaged in the meeting, the process, and the outcome. Our team at Research Integrations has been operating in a virtual environment for quite some time now. We found that in virtual meetings, using effective engagement techniques is crucial because meeting members may be more easily distracted or disinterested. A virtual environment is tricky because it doesn’t hold us accountable to another person in the same way a person-to-person meeting does.

Utilizing the techniques I’ve outlined below will hopefully assist in leading your meeting members to have ownership of the action plan you’re developing together. Once this occurs, group members are more likely to take on responsibilities and even work on them outside of meeting time. Don’t forget the importance of choosing a virtual meeting tool that accommodates your needs. My previous post may be of assistance to you http://www.researchintegrations.com/?p=369&option=com_wordpress&Itemid=134

8 Engagement techniques for a virtual environment

Getting Personal

Your worst enemy in a virtual environment is that the medium seems impersonal, even when using video feed. One way to overcome this is to spend a moment encouraging sharing of personal stories or small talk. Spending time with casual conversation builds comfort and interaction skills in the medium. It also develops an understanding of personalities and how to interact with each other. Remember, if your team is like ours at Research Integrations, many of your team members may not have ever met in person and office small talk doesn’t happen in virtual teams. In truth, small talk is a way we get to know and trust each other. So spending a little time here in the meeting improves the virtual team’s ability to communicate and create action plans.

During this time, notice people who never speak. They may not be engaged and may even feel irrelevant. It’s worth reaching out to these people. Each member needs to feel important to the discussion. Maybe those who are unengaged need help getting cozy with the medium. Also, if only a few people share most of the time, you may be losing your audience engagement. Keep watch during the rest of your meeting to gauge if this is a meeting participation issue.

Honor Time

Participating in your meeting is a time investment. Effective meetings begin and end on time. When participants can trust that the amount of time allotted to your meeting will remain true, they are free to focus. Honoring everyone’s time actually reiterates that the meeting you are holding is important and worth the investment of time and thought.

Use an Agenda

An agenda supports engagement in meetings by guiding discussions. This tool also allows participants to anticipate and prepare for comments and responses. Be sure to supply this ahead of time, as this also allows time to print for those who want a hard copy. Also consider using an online shared document as the agenda. This allows for easy sharing. You can also visually document meeting minutes for all participants as your meeting progresses.

Visually Document Meeting Progress

Capture ideas from the group in a visual manner. This will help participants feel at ease and able to trust the process you have laid out for them in the agenda. It helps keep the meeting on track. It also assures everyone feels heard, reducing interruptions and providing an environment where participants can trust that their input matters. As a reminder, be sure to capture action items and include them on the next agenda

Notice Quiet Folks

Make sure all participants are heard. Notice the personality of the participants. Some will offer information when asked; others have such personality that they can override all others. Take the time to directly ask for feedback. Don’t be shy about directing outspoken participants to listen to the more reserved. A simple way to do this is by the following: “OK, thanks, Bonnie. Joe, what are your ideas?”

Consider the Benefits of Breakout Groups

Breaking into small groups often provides better results. A smaller group is more conversational; many ideas flow freer in this setting. This method often brings out voices from the group that may otherwise be quiet. Be sure to have a spokesperson document and report back to the full group.

Since certain virtual tools may limit the ability to work in small groups during the actual meeting, consider having a shorter main meeting time. Then, take the time to regroup into smaller virtual meetings. While the logistics of this may feel time consuming, it’s not much different than physically regrouping by moving chairs and tables. It does require planning ahead of time to determine who will lead the small groups. They will need to be set up to administer and run a virtual meeting tool during the time of the smaller breakout meetings.

The participants may feel inconvenienced by this at first. It’s your role to normalize this activity. Approach this with an easy tone and create a smooth transition. Notify participants ahead of time and outline the steps needed to access the breakout meeting.

Handling Off Topic Ideas

Off topic ideas often come up, which can hinder participation. While these ideas are still important to capture, the Parking Lot is a great technique for keeping these ideas from becoming a distraction. Place ideas here for follow up during a future meeting. This allows each participant to feel heard. Using this tool to keep on track actually encourages participation, as members trust that they are heard, keeping them from derailing the meeting process. It also keeps off topic ideas from gaining unnecessary momentum during the meeting.

It’s good for your Parking Lot documentation to be visible to all. This can be done through screensharing a Word document or using collaborative documents, available to be viewed by all during the meeting. Don’t forget to place these topics on future agendas, following up or reporting on them as needed.

While the details of the Parking Lot technique are beyond the scope of this post, here is a document outlining the technique: http://www.chacocanyon.com/pointlookout/070912.shtml

Adjustment Period

Remember, it takes time adjust to new processes and environments. Take time to prepare your meeting tools, and then don’t forget to use them during the meeting. Success may not happen the first time out of the gate.  In the beginning, it may be helpful to keep personal reminders in your own agenda to use these tools.

I’m very interested to hear about some successful engagement tools you have used. Feel free to use the comment space below. Look for my next post in the series: “Effective Meetings in a Virtual Environment: How to Minimize Distractions.”

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