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  • Writer's pictureJessica Wernli

Virtual meetings: 6 ways to maximize engagement during a time of social distancing

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

As someone who facilitates groups for a living, I enjoy interaction and connection. I typically prefer in-person meetings and face-to-face exchanges. I need to see facial expressions, read body language and feel energy.

So, as the COVID-19 pandemic grows I find myself getting disappointed as things start to shut down and groups are being discouraged from meeting. You may be feeling the complete opposite – seeing this as an opportunity to work from home and not be bothered with people or pants for that matter. And you may be excited by the fact that this is forcing us into a massive work-from-home experiment. Don’t get me wrong, a part of me feels the same way – who doesn’t want an excuse to work from the comfort of their couch in pajamas all day (for those who are privileged to do so)?

But quarantine or not, many of us still have things that we need to get done – together. While I still prefer IRL interactions (and hope that our society doesn’t try replace them completely even if this virtual experiment ends up a huge success), this situation we’ve found ourselves in is a reminder that face-to-face is not the only way to connect.

Hosting meetings and other events in the time of COVID-19 is going to force us to get creative. And since the surge in virtual convening will likely outlast this pandemic, it’s even more important that you think about and invest in effective virtual facilitation.

Implementing these 6 simple tips will help keep the attention of the people you are working with so that the quality of your collaborative work doesn’t diminish.

1. Encourage people to turn on their webcams

One way to increase engagement and decrease distractions is to request in advance that people use their webcams during the call.

I realize that there’s an unspoken rule about virtual meetings being a place where you only have to half-engage. People think, if I turn off my webcam and mute myself, I can chill on the sofa in my pajamas eating popcorn and partly listen/partly watch Netflix at a low volume. People may decide that it’s a good time to multi-task and do laundry or the dishes, or pay the bills. People may think, I’ll unmute once or twice to let them know I’m here and give the impression I’m paying attention. Just to be clear, people is me.

But you may desire more than a half-engaged group of people to tackle an issue or make an important decision. And we’ve all been on that call before where no one is really invested. It’s very dull and hardly productive.

Most of us work-from-home folks are looking forward to lounging in comfy clothes and not washing our hair. But if you give advance notice asking people to have their cameras on for the meeting if possible, most people are ok with pulling themselves together enough to be presentable for an hour or so, at least from the waist up!

A facilitator for an online training I am participating in asked folks to turn on their webcams at least for introductions. That could work too. Conference calls with everyone’s camera turned off can feel very impersonal, especially if you aren’t that familiar with the other folks participating. So even just a brief “face-to-face” introduction can be helpful.



2. Don’t drive and conference

Similarly, request in advance that people join the virtual convening from a place where they can fully engage. Preferably not driving or in a crowded (which they shouldn’t be anyway) or loud space. No one enjoys that awkward angle of your arm and chin from the phone below on your lap or console as you try to drive and conference.

Even for kings and queens of multi-tasking, conferencing while distracted is not ideal. Often there are documents being referenced that can’t/shouldn’t be viewed while driving, and forget about taking notes. While people can mute themselves when they have a lot of background noise, once they unmute to speak it’s hard to hear them. You don’t want participants hesitating to unmute themselves to contribute to the conversation because of the loud noises in the background. Some of this may be unavoidable (people have young kids at home, etc.), but making the request ahead of time allows folks to plan ahead and limit potential distractions. It also sets the tone that while this meeting is virtual, you still expect everyone to be fully “present”.

3. Use the chat box

The mute button is a facilitator’s best friend during a virtual meeting. In fact, it’s everyone’s friend. Allowing people to mute themselves, and even being able to mute the group, helps make sure that the speaker isn’t interrupted and minimizes background noise. So, to increase interaction, make use of the group chat box. Most conferencing platforms have one.

In your virtual meeting, you can:

  • Use the chat box for introductions. Ask people to type their name, title and a fun fact about themselves.

  • Have people type their questions in the chat box.

  • Use it for “parking lot” items. Often, topics are brought up during meetings that are not on the agenda and therefore don’t have time to be discussed at length. I typically post a large piece of flip-chart paper on the wall and write down these topics as they arise so they don’t get forgotten, but also don’t get us off track and derail the meeting. You can do the same thing with a chat box. When someone brings up something that is not on the agenda, write it in the chat box. At the end of the meeting the group can make a plan for when/how parking lot items will be revisited.

  • Do the closing evaluation in the chat box. At the end of in-person meetings I facilitate, I always ask the group what worked well, and what could be improved. You could ask people to respond to these questions in the chat box and then call on a few people to expand on their response.

Using the chat box doesn’t mean that everyone is on mute the entire time and doesn’t get a chance to speak, it simply adds another way for the group to interact with one another.

Note: You don’t want to use the chat box for things that will require a response longer than 1-2 sentences. Multiple people typing paragraphs into the chat box can be overwhelming and distracting.

4. Incorporate Ice breakers

It may be difficult to imagine breaking the ice and incorporating fun into a virtual meeting, but it can be done! Meeting over webcam doesn’t have to be boring. Here are some examples of simple virtual ice breakers:

  • Ask participants to change their display name to something fun/creative for the meeting. Display names are typically visible on the thumbnail that shows each person’s camera whether they turned it on or not. Ask people to pair their name with an adjective that describes them and starts with the same letter of their first name. For example, mine could be “Jammin’ Jessica” because I like music. Or, you could have them display their name and Myers-Briggs personality type. For example, “Leah, INFJ”. During introductions, participants can explain their display name.

  • Ask some ice-breaker questions like “is Chicago-style pizza the best pizza?” and have people respond with a thumbs up or down.

  • Have people showcase and talk about an item from their home that is meaningful in some way or that represents something important about them.




5. Give other people a role

Another strategy that effective facilitators often use to engage people during in-person meetings is giving other people roles on the agenda. This can work virtually too. For example, you may want different people to lead various parts of the agenda. You could also have one person responsible for keeping time to ensure the agenda moves along and the group doesn’t get stuck on one subject for too long. You could designate a note taker or have someone keep track of the “parking lot” items (mentioned above). Giving roles to other people in the group is a great way to engage them and help them to feel some ownership/responsibility within the meeting. Also, who wants to sit on a video conference and listen to one person speak for 60+ minutes?

6. Last but not least – Only meet when needed

This is something people should do whether meeting virtually or not. Ask yourself, can this be done via email? Is this an important issue or topic? If the meeting is not action-oriented or decision-making – oriented but instead a list of updates, it might not be worth anyone’s time – regardless of whether they are participating from the comfort of their own home or not.

This period of social distancing doesn’t have to lower the quality of our engagement as we work together. Try these out in your next meeting and let me know how it goes!


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