The growing prevalence of online meetings to conduct important work while practicing physical distancing and reducing logistical challenges associated with the pandemic has led to the coining of terms like “screen fatigue” and “virtual meeting burnout.” Of course, there are issues and items that need the collective attention and engagement of groups and teams within our organizations, so avoiding online meetings is not necessarily the answer. Still, the feelings are real. The good news is that there are steps we can take to make online meetings more productive, efficient, and satisfying.
As you prepare for and conduct online meetings, here are five strategies that can make a positive difference:
- Establish meeting norms in advance. Such things as muting microphones when others are speaking, not talking over each other, avoiding multitasking, and posting questions and comments in chat boxes or other appropriate places for later attention are some examples. Of course, we need to provide reminders and encourage compliance when norms are ignored.
- Develop short, focused agendas. Online meetings can feel more exhausting than in-person meetings as participants have to pay closer attention to observe non-verbal messages, may feel isolated from other attendees, and have difficulty remaining attentive as they experience distractions in their physical space. Short, focused agendas can encourage participants to stay engaged. Efficient introductions and engaging ice breakers at the beginning of the agenda can build comfort and connections and create readiness for discussion and other forms of meeting participation.
- Provide time for reflection and responses. During face-to-face meetings it can be easy to read the readiness of participants to make a comment or present a question. Online meetings typically make this task more difficult. Consequently, we might be tempted to move on rather than wait for responses or be tempted to cut off discussion too early. Also, slight time delays in the technology can lead us to inadvertently talk over someone else. Slowing the meeting pace and allowing time for more deliberative discussion can make an important difference.
- Monitor and manage time. When meetings begin to wander, so does attention. When discussions feel as though they are dragging out, frustration can quickly build. Consider setting and minding timelines for discussion to support focus and keep the meeting moving forward.
- Summarize key decisions and follow–up. Of course, summaries and follow-up clarification are important components of any meeting. However, in online environments it is even easier to lose track of what tasks will be performed, who will be responsible, and when they will be completed. The end of the meeting can also be a good time to clear up any confusion, answer any remaining questions, and evaluate the quality of the meeting.
Conducting efficient, productive meetings is rarely an easy task. Yet, with thoughtful planning, careful structuring, and attention to a few key facilitation tasks, online meetings can be satisfying and even energizing.