Culture, Technology

What I’ve learned from running over 100 virtual meetings during the pandemic

10 people in a working video call
Illustration by Joona Aalto
April 26, 2021

Read time 9 min

The writer Jarkko Kailanto is Reaktor’s Head Coach. A version of this blog was originally published in his personal blog coachjarkko.com in March 2021.

If the modern workday filled with virtual meetings leaves you feeling exhausted, you’re not alone. With work from home stretching on, we’ve all become familiar with video call fatigue. At the same time, online calls and virtual facilitation aren’t going anywhere. How do we make online coworking better? How to run meetings that are engaging, efficient, and enjoyable?

Virtual meetings have their unique challenges. During the pandemic, I’ve run over a 100 of them. In this blog post, I’ll tell you what they’ve taught me.

Here are the biggest challenges in online meetings and how you can overcome them:

  1. Time limits interaction. Start your meetings with a check-in and close with a check-out.
  2. Narrow bandwidth makes everything slower. Allocate a bit more time for everything, and trust that in virtual meetings, less is more. Document offline.
  3. It’s hard to stay focused. Make an agenda and share the focus. Keep things human by taking breaks, doing exercises, and simply by using names.
  4. Connection is lost in the virtual translation. Make your groups small, engage everyone, and keep the video on.

Virtual meetings are not the same as face-to-face

Now, I’m all too familiar with the virtual exhaustion myself. Since March 2020, I’ve given more than 60 virtual training sessions. I’ve also facilitated a similar number of online sessions with groups of various sizes. My Monday to Friday is full of calendar invites.

Because the pandemic forced us to move from offices to conference calls and video meetings so quickly, we didn’t really have time to adapt to this new way of working. And that’s the root of the issue: There are very specific ways in which virtual meetings differ from face-to-face meetings.

The challenge: Time limits your interaction with a strict start and strict finish

With a tight schedule, you usually have no extra time in the beginning of a virtual meeting. As the clock ticks close to finish, you’re already thinking about the next call you need to hop on to. This means that you never know the state of mind others are in. Is your boss stressed and in a hurry? Did your colleague have time for lunch? Is this the first call of their day or is this the fifth? Did someone just have a 15 minute yelling contest with their kid?

While we as humans always have a need to connect, often there’s either no time to bond in an online meeting or the bonding time is cut very short. There’s little room for true discussion or no space left to come to a real agreement and settle on the final details of what follows next, because everyone appears from and vanishes to the virtual void.

What I do is I always make sure everyone in the call connects in the beginning, and always go for a clear close. A great simple check-in in smaller meetings is for example asking everybody to share what’s going on for them right now. This gives time to settle into the meeting and to connect to others on human level. For larger groups, for example short pair discussions give a similar impact of settling in and connecting. Questions you should answer that make a great close are: What did you get out of this meeting? What action needs to happen next? Who’s going to do what? When do we as a group reconvene around this topic again? Who’s going to call the group together?

This way, you don’t have to awkwardly ask for anyone to “stay for a few more minutes”, or even worse, be left wondering if anyone is going to really do anything. This is because your meeting already made sure everyone knows what’s going to happen next.

  • A solution: Explicitly allocate time for check-ins and check-outs in the beginning and in the end of every meeting. 

“60 to 70% of the content you could cover in an office meeting is the right amount of content for a virtual meeting.”

The challenge: Narrow bandwidth in the virtual world makes us slower

In virtual meetings, natural cooperation between a group of people is way more difficult. We lose all the body language, reading facial expressions is more difficult, small cues about who is going to speak next are lost, we get more exhausted just because of staring at the screen, we lose the feeling of being physically together. All this means that what you can do with a team in 1 hour online is not what you can do with the same team in the same time frame face-to-face. In my experience, about 60 to 70% of the content you could cover in an office meeting is the right amount of content for a virtual meeting. I’ve learned to accept that we simply get a bit less done virtually in the same window and therefore, the expectation bar needs to be set lower.

Haste usually isn’t an ingredient of greatness, either. When people have time to think, ideas and decisions improve. Accept the fact that virtual meetings often need a bit more time.

Instead of cramming everything in and cutting corners in the way you cover each topic, try to reduce the agenda. This makes sure you can actually truly handle and go through each properly. 

Make digital coworking tools work for you here: sending some pre-work for participants to read, keeping visible minutes of the meeting, clear calendar invites with notes about what is the purpose of the meeting, as well as shared idea boards and other online sharing tools help you keep track of everything between meetings and focus the actual meeting on conversation.

  • A solution: Keep the list of topics to cover concise and devote just a bit more time for covering them.

The challenge: It’s all too easy to lose focus and all too hard to stay on track

Why you are having a meeting is a question you should always know the answer to. Disaster awaits if anyone is left wondering whether a call could’ve been an email. Groups work best when they have a shared focus. Setting an agenda beforehand, having a clear goal and roles help you stay on track. When everyone knows where you’re trying to go, you can move towards the goal and know exactly when you get there.

Even then, about 10 minutes of an online group conversation seems to be enough to distract individuals. If you’re not the one talking or the one actively participating, everything but that meeting competes for your attention. Distraction is humane and could be anything from your work-from-home partners to your emails and notifications.

To keep everyone on point, you could try captivating your group for example by using their names to directly ask for input. As another tool to help people to contribute, I try to do rounds and ask for everyone’s opinion whenever possible. 

Smaller group discussions of 2 to 4 people are more activating than larger ones, which is why I prefer small groups. You could try breaking the lot to smaller working groups and pairing people up.

Being clear about what is the purpose of the meeting, what we are doing right now to achieve that goal, and just having enough of good old breaks are also great for keeping energy levels up and the creativity flowing. I aim at having at least one ten minute break per hour.

  • A solution: Set a goal for every single meeting you host. Ask for one if you’re taking part. 
  • A solution: Facilitate. Facilitator is the one who plans a structure for the meeting. This enables you to actually reach the goal and makes sure everyone stays on course during.

“Why you are having a meeting is a question you should always know the answer to.”

The challenge: The personal connection is lost in the online

It may be tempting to take your meetings without video, but it does help with the personal connection. I’d recommend you keep the camera on and use video as much as you can. There’s room for empathy here though: Video might be the very thing adding to your fatigue, and research suggests it might be a good idea to hide self-view from your screen and allow yourself “audio only” breaks.

It’s good to remember connection isn’t only visual. Try to spare time to connect with small talk. Talk around other topics besides the very task at hand. ‘How are you doing’ is a simple question with a big impact. Weekend plans are another great bridge-building topic! Smaller groups work for your advantage here too: It’s a safer space to share and to use everybody’s time efficiently. Sometimes it’s good to just meet without any agenda at all, to make space for the casual conversation we tend to have at team rooms or coffee breaks with our colleagues at the office. I have seen teams that have started to have weekly time slot assigned precisely for that.

  • A solution: People feel motivated when they are in control and can decide for themselves. Allow your team and colleagues to take initiative. Make sure everyone can have an input!

With just a bit more thought, you get the most out of virtual meetings

Now, you may have noticed that many of the points I’ve made in this blog are actually true for face-to-face meetings as well. That’s because the purpose of meeting virtually is ultimately the same as meeting in real life – to get something done together. The way to achieve that is to improve virtual meetings by facilitation and coming up with ways we work better together online, not just to replicate what we do face to face. 

Online meetings aren’t completely new nor different, they just require a bit more facilitation from us. It’s about finding the sweet spot between what technology enables us to do and how we as humans operate. If you and your organization follow these simple tips to fight the impact of each challenge, you’re set to hold better, more enjoyable virtual meetings.

What next?

If you’d like to learn more, check out the trainings we offer or contact me! Or, read on how Reaktor’s team adjusted to working fully remote or how Reaktor used emotions to craft an effective online learning experience that came to be known as the global educational phenomenon, the Elements of AI.

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