6 ways to facilitate meaningful online meetings

Written by 
Hailey Temple
February 6, 2020
6 ways to facilitate meaningful online meetings
Written by 
Hailey Temple
February 6, 2020

Meetings are evolving. Remote and flexible work are growing global movements, which means online meetings are a necessary part of our work. However, we prefer face-to-face meetings to build trust and align teams. When I attended and spoke at the 2020 Control the Room Summit to a room of facilitators, most grimaced when I mentioned online meetings. However, all of those facilitators also received requests to host online meetings.

Control the Room 2020
Control the Room 2020 attendees collaborating face to face. How do we bring this energy online? Picture by Voltage Control

Throughout a day of inspiring talks and work sessions, I was determined to show facilitators one thing. If meetings are evolving, then we must also evolve - our mindset and our methods. Just as I challenged them, here's how I challenge you to evolve your meeting facilitation for an online group.

6 Tips for facilitating online meetings

1. Define why you're really meeting online

Like facilitators need to evolve, this question also needs an evolution. When someone requests an online meeting, you need to ask, “why do we gather online?”

Why online? Maybe it’s the only option after a company travel freeze. Because an executive had to be on another continent during the team workshop. Because there aren’t enough conference rooms in the office.

Take a moment to think back to a recent online meetings where you participated or facilitated. Did you know why you were really meeting online? It isn’t always implied, right?

Whatever the reason, use that purpose to design an experience that considers the feelings, environment, and mindset of people in that meeting. The sooner you know the answer, the better prepared you are to design an online experience that makes an impact.

2. Keep meetings short and simple

When we have in-person meetings, the mechanics are fairly simple - Sit. Stand. Write. Peel the sticky note. Online meetings introduce a complicated layer of technology that could act as a barrier - but they do not have to feel this way. Facilitators can help everyone build a solid foundation and confidence to work in an online space.

Give participants only need-to-know information to get the next task done. When someone is using Mural for the first time, I only need them to know how to move around and how to add a sticky note. Ignore the rest. Focus on the meeting goal.

Plan ahead so your meetings don't have to be any longer than necessary.

Set up a “digital desk” that the participant can call his or her own place to think and create. A large Mural canvas can feel intimidating for someone new to online meetings. Create a "home base" for this person to work by adding their name, photo, and some sticky notes for this person to contribute to the canvas.

In online meetings, less is more.

3. Make time for play

When we have face-to-face meetings, we need activities and breaks to make personal connections beyond the work. How do we design playtime into meetings today? That’s right - warm ups!

Warm-ups are perfect for online meetings too… plus, are a secret weapon for online facilitators. Warm-ups are your playful way to get the group comfortable working in the software and working together.

Summit attendees building trust through play — an essential online meetings, too. Image by Voltage Control.

Mural company meetings involve up to 1,000 employees from around the world. All of our meetings are over webcam, so we always see lots of floating heads.

We needed to get the team connected, focused, and ready to work in Mural. So, we did a warm up where people had to contribute to a conversation about feet instead of heads.

👉 Learn more about how Mural aces our all-hands meetings with effective agenda planning.

Online warmups and energizers are a great way to break the ice in an any meeting.

People struggled at first, the activity gave the team a chance to learn different aspects of the software. It was much better for them to struggle with the software here rather than during a critical decision-making activity.

👉 Try one of our many online warmups and energizers to get your next meeting going quickly.

Remember, low-risk activities like this one boost confidence for people in online meetings.

4. Use the time between meetings

Working with a distributed team does not have to include painful meeting hours. Instead, it can be your productivity hack.

My teammates and I needed to plan an event together. We are in different locations and time zones, and scheduling is a challenge. We met online for an hour and discussed critical decision points - why are we hosting this event? How will the event help us accomplish our company goals?

About ten minutes before the meeting ended, I introduced their “homework” - a concept poster that would make the team really consider the event vision. I showed them a step-by-step guide and we walked through it together. Everyone was clear on their assignment and knew it had to be ready for the next meeting.

Between meetings, we exchanged questions and ideas over Slack.

The next week, we met online so that each teammate could share the mock-ups while other teammates offered feedback and questions. We finished the meeting with a shared vision for our event and outlined next steps to make it happen.

Asynchronous work allows for more productive meetings.

Let me break this down. We have two types of work — real-time and asynchronous work. All of us are working toward the same goal, but working on different schedules to produce and deliver results.

This play between real-time and asynchronous collaboration gives distributed people the freedom to work when they feel most creative. It also reduces the amount of meetings on our calendars.

How can we use the time between? As facilitators, we can design real-time meetings with content where critical conversations and decisions happen. Then, we can use asynchronous work to give people time to reflect and create on their own schedules.

5. Work visually

Visuals clarify concepts and tell stories. Here’s why we need to work visually from the start to end of online meetings.

Mural collaboration expert Mark Tippin, taking visual notes during summit while participants play. Picture by Voltage Control

People have short attention spans — especially online. Visuals captivate people in the meeting. A canvas like this one below tells a story. Let your meeting visuals do the talking and guiding for your participants.

Visuals show rather than tell. I use GIFs share instructions about a method in my online meetings. This saves time explaining mechanics of a tool.

jobs to be done
Make your meetings standout visually for more high-impact discussions and brainstorms.

Visuals are device agnostic. We need to consider people joining on any device: how will they contribute and consume information? A strong visual exercise, like the Lightning Decision Jam, is clear and easy to understand on any device.

6. Keep cameras on

Make online meetings actually face-to-face meetings as often as possible. Imagine having a workshop or meeting in a dressing room: you’re trying to facilitate a group, but you cannot see their expressions, their body language, or if they're paying attention. That's how an online meeting feels without video cameras turned on.

I get objections to this point all of the time. "I'm not prepared to be on camera," or "my office is a mess." Give participants plenty of advance notice in your meeting invitation about expectations for the meeting — including cameras on.

There are lots of ways to use video to make connections and make it full of purpose. Robert Skrobe hosts the Global Virtual Design Sprint, a worldwide movement to define and solve challenges in less than a week. He makes the video experience a chance to come together and share a cup of coffee or tea. He also gets feedback over video by having participants write about their experience on a piece of paper and sharing their input through video.

Make online meetings more connected by creating chances for "face time."

The bottom line

These concepts aren’t too foreign, right? It is an evolution of the practices we use to bring people together in face-to-face meetings, adapted for a growing online meeting world. Remember our question — why are we really meeting online? Think about how you will respond in your next online meeting.

About the authors

About the authors

Hailey Temple

Hailey Temple

Hailey is a Services Lead at MURAL. She's a creative problem solver who is passionate about making collaboration happen anywhere.