Category: Running Productive Meetings

How Leaders Can Facilitate Engagement During Virtual Team Meetings

Woman in a virtual meeting When was the last time you were part of a virtual meeting? If you asked me that five years ago I would have had to stop and think. Today, the answer is easy, I’m either leading or participating in a virtual meeting almost every day of the week. The recent pandemic has definitely had an impact on the number of virtual meetings being held and we all may be experiencing a bit of “zoom fatigue.” 

This trend towards virtual meetings isn’t like to change anytime soon, even when social distancing becomes a thing of the past. In fact, researchers at estimate that we will see 25-30% of the workforce working at home multiple days a week by the end of 2021. The advantages of virtual meetings are that they allow you to develop broader connections, especially within Communities of Practice. Yet, we’ve all experienced some of the disadvantages. For many of us, it feels far easier and more natural to engage with others when you’re at an in-person meeting.

There are practices that leaders can use to promote deeper engagement during virtual meetings. In fact, you might be surprised that some of the results end up exceeding your expectations!

Here are three key practices that will make a difference in the level of engagement your participants will experience:

  1. Focus on outcomes. This is important for every meeting, but when it’s virtual it’s even more important because it can be all too easy to disengage. As a leader, you want every participant in the meeting to feel connected to the outcome. It’s best if they understand the big picture, beyond their area of personal responsibility, so they’re fully engaged in finding the solution.

Make sure to communicate, in advance, the anticipated outcomes, or focus, of the meeting. This can be done by preparing and sharing an agenda for the meeting in advance. You can also co-create outcomes at the beginning of the meeting. The first ten minutes or so of a meeting will often be about the question: Why does this matter? If this hasn’t been clarified by the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, things can quickly break down.

  1. Facilitate dynamic personal engagement. As the facilitator of the meeting you need to avoid the pitfall of hogging the spotlight! This means encouraging communication between team members. If every question or comment is always addressed to you as the leader, you’re not really functioning as a team. Instead, allow for, and intentionally include, opportunities for people to speak with one another.

How can you do this when you’re meeting virtually? I’ve seen it done in various ways effectively. In some team meetings, we go into smaller breakout rooms within the virtual meeting for 15-20 minutes to brainstorm and discuss strategies. Then we come back and report our findings to the entire group. I’ve also had meetings where the facilitator will take a short break and set it up for participants to text each other in dyads or triads to help seed the conversation and maintain engagement.

  1. Keep fine-tuning your efforts. Here’s the most important key to encouraging deeper engagement. Leave a few minutes (I recommend ten) at the end of the meeting to discuss what’s working and what’s not. We are shifting into this new norm together. 

While some groups have more experience than others, let’s not take the old model and wedge it into this new experience. Take this as an opportunity to explore, invent, and discover new ways of engaging that can sustain us whether we work in separate locations or have the opportunity to work in co-locations.

This level of engagement is going to require more effort from you as the team leader. However, the reason for meeting together is to build and tap into the collective wisdom of the group. This cannot be accomplished if your participants are distracted and disengaged. You’ll find that as they engage more fully, you’ll be making better joint decisions that your entire team is excited to implement.

I would appreciate hearing from you about the quality of your virtual team meetings. What’s working well and where are you still struggling?  Please contact me or connect with me via LinkedIn.

How to Establish Guidelines for Virtual Community of Practice Meetings

A woman interacting with a virtual community of practiceMore than ever, the world needs to explore new solutions. Practices that worked well before in business, health care, education, government, may not be working so well now. Which is why we need functioning Communities of Practice (CoPs). A Community of Practice is a space for ideas, the generation of possibilities, and permission to explore out-of-the-box solutions. 

Technology has opened up the possibility of “long-distance” Communities of Practice. There are new CoPs starting virtually, while others are adapting their communities for virtual meetings. It’s exciting to see, all over the world, new Communities of Practice are being created to meet the changing needs of our society. 

In my last post, I discussed how CoPs can continue to have productive meetings during the quarantine. However, I’m finding there are new challenges that need to be addressed. The key to successful meetings is the same as it’s always been: appropriate guidelines or norms. Why is there most likely a need for revised guidelines now? 

I’ll give you an example. In the past months, I’ve been a part of multiple calls during which there were distracting background noises. In some cases, it was hard to hear or concentrate on what the person was saying, and as a result, I became fatigued, distracted, and frustrated. I’m not saying this to make anyone feel guilty about a similar situation, there was simply no guideline in place to deal with this situation. 

With this in mind, let’s go over how to revise your guidelines with a specific focus on virtual meetings. 

1. Technology

Video conference technology is new to many of us, and that’s why it so vital to establish some ground rules. For example, will you be allowing and/or supporting the use of webcams, screen sharing, and breakout rooms? 

With all the added distractions of online meetings, the meeting facilitator has to make sure to keep everyone focused on the job at hand. As the facilitator, the more familiar and comfortable you are with the technology, the easier it will be for you to facilitate a community online. If you’re new to the program you’re using, it may be a good idea to have a trial run with an assistant or colleague before you host your next meeting.

2. Establish a Structure

It’s vital to clarify how to interact in this virtual environment, otherwise, meetings can feel aimless. At the very beginning of the meeting, establish or reiterate your guidelines. You could post a slide with instructions and expectations or spend some time at the first meeting to come up with them as a group. I find that the expectations of a CoP meeting often center around what, how, and when participants should communicate during the CoP meeting, as well as how they should contact each other afterward. 

At the beginning of each meeting, it’s also a good idea to review the overall goals for the virtual CoP meeting and share a short agenda with the group. Many times it can be as simple as proposing a problem or opportunity to help focus your discussion. 

3. Encourage Positive Interaction

Make sure to encourage positive interactions in your CoP (and include them in your guidelines). People are under a lot of stress right now and might be showing signs of fatigue and a shorter fuse! Be specific in your guidelines in encouraging questions, ideas, feedback, and constructive criticism, while discouraging personal attacks, tangents, as well as violations of community trust and privacy. 

In a safe environment, where there are clear norms guiding the interaction, community members will be much more likely to open up about personal struggles or accomplishments. In a healthy virtual CoP, members share strategies, reinforce the bonds they established in person, and connect with others who share similar challenges and can provide creative solutions.

A thriving virtual CoP is exactly what we need in these difficult times. I would love to hear about how your involvement in a virtual Community of Practice is making a difference for you and your communities. Please contact me or connect with me via LinkedIn.

How to Create an Effective Agenda for Your Next Community of Practice Meeting

Agendas in Communities of PracticeOne mainstay of Communities of Practice (CoPs) is that they are a collective; the focus on Community is intentional. This is one of the things that distinguishes CoPs from other business teams and why they’re my preferred model of collaboration. The meeting agenda exemplifies how a Community of Practice functions differently.

When it comes to meeting agendas no one person is solely responsible for owning or controlling the agenda. The agenda is a co-constructed and collaborative affair. When a meeting agenda is handled this way, everyone takes responsibility for the meeting outcomes. 

But of course, problems can arise when there are conflicts of interest, confusion about the meeting topic, length, etc. This leads us to the question: How can Communities of Practice create quality agendas and have productive meetings, despite the challenges that come when working with a diverse group of people? 

I’ve outlined four questions you should answer as you create an effective agenda for your next CoP meeting:

Who will be the meeting facilitator? 

One provision to ensure that you’re all on “the same page” (agenda) is to have a designated facilitator. This person is the one that will get everyone involved in the creation of the agenda for the next meeting. With online tools, it’s very easy to collaborate on a meeting agenda but the facilitator will be the one who ultimately ensures that it gets done.

I’ve noticed that experienced CoPs will rotate the job of the facilitator. That way, no one person is responsible for creating and presenting the agenda. In addition to creating the agenda, a facilitator in a CoP meeting will want to make sure each member has a chance to speak, that meetings stay on track, and meeting goals are accomplished. 

In a successful CoP meeting, all responsibilities are divided among several individuals, the facilitator is not necessarily the team leader. For example, the role of knowledge management focuses on organizing and posting community documents—such as agendas.

(Note: Add some fun to your agendas to help build community! I remember one community meeting where my colleague’s spouse arrived with their toddler who was wearing a sandwich board with the agenda. Extreme creativity points! Fun and team building all in one. This illustrates an important point, getting the group engaged sometimes takes some creativity. If you see that certain members aren’t engaged in the meeting, try to get them involved. Remember the reason why they’re there!) 

What is the purpose of your meeting?

Have you ever been at a meeting when it feels like you’re going round and round in circles and never getting anywhere? Most likely, the problem was your meeting didn’t have a purpose. When your meeting has a clear purpose, that’s outlined in the agenda, it will focus all of your community members and give your meeting direction. 

The first ten minutes or so of a meeting will often be about the question: Why does this matter? If no one in the group can answer that question, you might as well leave because the meeting is unlikely to be productive.

It’s much better to give this serious thought prior to the meeting. As you prepare the agenda, you’ll want to determine if the purpose is dealing with a short-term tactical problem or if it is more of a long-term strategic issue. Will your participants need to be prepared to brainstorm solutions or just listen? If this hasn’t been clarified by the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, things can quickly break down.

Why is each of you needed at this particular meeting?

We’re all busy and it can be difficult to schedule-out time for team meetings. Spend your time wisely! Most CoP meeting time should be spent discussing and making decisions on issues that affect the whole community and issues the whole community can take part in solving. 

You may want your agenda to specifically mention the reasons why each person should be present. Also, write out the agenda topics as questions that the team needs to answer, as opposed to statements. This will stimulate people to want to attend so their voice is heard.

If the meeting exists simply to disseminate information, put it in writing and send it out for others to read. One way informational meetings are an absolute waste of time. If you find that people aren’t reading the information, that’s a deeper issue of engagement and a true CoP might be just the solution to share more information and responsibilities and increase engagement.

How long should this meeting be?

If the meeting is too long, the interest of the group will wane. Conversely, if the meeting is too short, you could risk ending without a resolution of any kind, which will only stagnate future action. A meeting is correctly ended when all participants leave with clarity and commitment. 

As you prepare the agenda, try to schedule the right amount of time by estimating how much time each topic will take. The facilitator may need to involve others in determining how much time each item will take. Finally, make sure to distribute the meeting agenda with enough time for everyone to prepare as this will speed the meeting along. When an agenda item takes longer than estimated, engage the group in a quick agreement to either extend the time allotted for the item, and thereby reduce the amount of time for another topic, or move the item to ad hoc work, individual follow-up, or a subsequent meeting.

Done right, your next CoP meeting can be constructive, and interesting, for all involved. The best CoPs are by the people, for the people. 

Are you intrigued by the benefits of a Community of Practice? I can support you to create a self-facilitating Community of Practice that is built, owned, and managed by your team. Contact me to learn more or download my special report Leading a Purpose-Driven Team.

Louise J Santiago, PhD
Executive Coach and Organizational Consultant

Where Leadership is Intentional Work

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