From Triage to Routine – Ten Tips for Better Online Meetings

This post was shared by ITL Facilitation co-director Maya Bernstein.

Many of us made a wild, frantic leap from our familiar, in-person  meeting models to a totally new, untested, all-virtual model of gathering and working together. We’ve “zoomed” into this involuntarily, and the unspoken hope is that this situation will end as soon as possible and we will “go back to normal.”

I don’t think we are “going back” any time soon, and, our current reality is going to shape and transform our immediate and long-term future. Part of our incredible challenge now is to shape and form that future with imagination, creativity, and humor, even in the face of fear, uncertainty, and loss.

Though it may seem relatively insignificant, the way that we meet and work virtually is crucial. Our best thinking happens when we bring diverse people together. That is inevitably going to be happening primarily online in the coming months, and will impact our assumptions and practices about how we work in the future. As we transition into week after week, month after month, of coming together online, we must bring more mindfulness and rigor to the way in which we convert in-person meeting experiences to effective online gatherings.

These tips are meant to serve as a guide and reminder for anyone gathering and facilitating learning and meeting in the endless maze of virtual rooms we are all currently haunting:

  1. Acknowledge the loss. It is critical to name that we are in a frightening, upsetting, uncertain situation. That is the reason we are all gathering virtually instead of in person. If we do not name or hold the loss, it will hold us. In moments of extreme change, we must let go of certain things that we have held dear. It will be important for your participants to spend time talking about what you must let go of, or at least put on hold, in order to continue on in today’s reality.
  2. Design for the Heart – We tend to focus our learning on heads and hands. Here’s what the participants need to know  – these skills, these concepts. Here’s what we’re going to have them do – make this, sell that. But we are all sitting in a storm. The bravest amongst us is terrified. We don’t know what tomorrow, next week, next month, or even next year will hold. Make time and space to name this, to talk about it, to share feelings. This isn’t “tangential” to the meeting; it is at the core of it. The work of holding and naming and shepherding people through this turbulent time is a crucial part of a facilitator’s current job.
  3. KISS – Keep it short, stupid. We all run out of steam more quickly in virtual environments, and we weren’t in such great attention-span shape before this all started. Don’t talk at participants for more than 10 -15 minutes without engaging them in some way. Keep meetings shorter, if you can. Less is more.
  4. Purpose – Be very, very clear on purpose. Name it. Here’s what we’re going to accomplish in the next little bit together. This is what we’re going to do in our meeting today. Name it and keep to it.
  5. Engagement is Key – It is much harder to keep everyone engaged in a virtual environment. Duh. It’s hard enough in person. My advice, perhaps counter-intuitive, is to direct the multi-tasking, since they will be multi-tasking anyway.
    1. Doodle – require that participants doodle through the meeting. Doodling has actually been found to relieve stress and increase attention. At the end of the session, ask everyone to share their doodles. You can even give doodle awards…
    2. Graphic facilitation is a unique and cultivated skill, but anyone can do it crudely. Ask participants to take notes that include sketches, abstract drawings, different colors – some way of capturing the arc of the meeting in a visual way. Again, share out at the end.
    3. Good old fidget toys. Ask them to keep their hands occupied – play with play dough or silly putty; squeeze a stress ball; spin a fidget spinner; build with lego, etc. It’s actually quite soothing.
  6. Back to that Attention Span – icebreakers, brain teasers, and movement activities are wonderful ways of hitting “reset” and renewing energy. Some of my favorites:
    1. Crazy 8s – ask everyone to stand up and shake their right hand, left hand, right foot, and left foot, in that order, first 8 times, then 7, then 6, down to one, shouting the numbers out loud as they go.
    2. This is Not a Pen – each person holds up a pen. Take turns – you can play one or two rounds – saying: “This is not a pen, it’s a…” and imagining it to be something different – “a rocket ship for termites; my magic wand; a toothbrush…etc.” Everyone gets to participate; everyone is forced to be just a bit creative and playful. Then get back to business as usual.
    3. 30 Circles – ask participants to print this out in advance – have them turn each circle into a different object in 3 minutes. Then share!
    4. Brain Teasers – quick, how does 5 + 5 + 5 = 50? Lots more where that came from.
    5. Breathe/Meditate – You can change the energy of the space just by asking participants to stand up, or close their eyes, and do a short breathing or visualization. The “reset” will be helpful for you too. This can also become part of a regular opening or closing.
    6. Windows – Think of this as a virtual (healthy) cigarette break. Ask participants to walk away from their screens. To consciously leave the meeting, and go to a window. Instruct them to stand by the window with full awareness. What do they see? What do they hear? Ask them to take three deep breaths and return; share either in the chat or invite a few participants to share what they noticed and how they feel.
  7. Ritual – in times of uncertainty, rituals, established, meaningful, predictable patterns, are even more comforting and important than they usually are. Think about ways to meaningfully and predictably begin and end each meeting. And then invite participants to lead these rituals, once they have become established.
  8. Embrace your inner performer – Practice singing in the shower. Practice your most extreme facial expressions. Get silly. You’re on camera. All the time. You need to exude even more energy than you normally would. Think like an actor – think about your “set” – what is your background like, what does the space around you convey? Think about your “costume”  – what are you wearing? How does it connect with what you’re discussing that day? What kind of energy does it inspire? What is your “script?” You need to be tighter and better-scripted online. And finally, don’t do it alone. Bring in “guest teachers,” celebrities, movie clips, home videos, photographs, songs, works of art, poetry; think about a ratio of at least 15% of entertainment to 85% content.
  9. Embrace your Authority – In times of stress, people tend to become more dependent on authority. We need direction, protection, and order because we feel directionless, unsafe, and the world has descended into chaos. As facilitators, we must play an important authority role for our participants. The more clear you are on the structure of the meeting, the start and end time, the topics you will be discussing, the work that needs to get done, the more your participants will relax and settle into the task. The reins need to be tight now; make sure you prepare appropriately and methodically.
  10. Distribute Leadership – That said, there is a danger of people becoming too dependent on authority figures at this time. We regress when we are frightened, and we want to be taken care of. Part of your responsibility is to simultaneously hold and direct people, while also challenging them to play an active role, to trust themselves, to help do the work. Don’t hold them too much. One way to ensure this in meetings is to distribute the leadership. Request that participants lead different parts of the meeting. Set that up in advance and work with individuals or small teams so that they are prepared.

None of us is ever fully prepared for, or wants, involuntary, difficult change. We are in a situation we hope will soon pass, but we also know that this pandemic will have a long tail, and that we will be altered inevitably as a result. Even as we mourn what was, we have the opportunity to adapt, gain new tools and techniques to inspire people, and to gather them so they can contribute in meaningful ways to the world around us.

Maya Bernstein co-directs the Executive Facilitation Certificate program at Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership; is a co-founder of UpStart Lab, which supports innovation in nonprofit organizations; and teaches leadership in the U.S and abroad.

Another version of this piece was posted here:

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