By Jennifer Davis, Sayge Coach

Our world has rapidly shifted to the opposite of business as usual, which includes conducting our conversations, meetings, and trainings virtually. For those who are not used to leading or participating in virtual meetings, here are 12 tips for connecting with your teams to make the most of your time together while simultaneously supporting your people and business.

Meeting Pre-Work: (1) Give humans time to connect, (2) Devise a Team Agreement (TA), and (3) Practice compassion and feedback.

Meeting Basics: (4) Show your faces, people, (5) Test your technology, and (6) Schedule shorter meeting and give breaks.

Meeting Content: (7) Set an impeccable agenda and assign pre-work, (8) Tell people what you want, and (9) Assign roles and responsibilities.

Meeting Caregiving: (10) Start with an ice breaker, (11) Be inclusive, and (12) Check the emotional temperature.

For detail about each tip, see below.

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Meeting Pre-Work

The most important tips have little to do with meeting content. Prioritizing the emotional needs of your team and setting ground rules will make everything else go more smoothly, which will lead to increased productivity. Data has shown that in addition to coming from our heads, we must also come from and appeal to our employees’ hearts.

(1) Give humans time to connect.

What is temporarily lost is our ability to pass a coworker in the hall and chat before or after a meeting. In this new normal, it’s important that we feel a sense of connection as we navigate this uncertainty. Schedule meetings to end five minutes early and/or set up regular “water cooler” or “coffee talk” virtual spaces where people can drop in, even if it’s for just a few minutes to speak to a colleague about their day. Encourage and remind them about the importance of human connection.

(2) Devise a Team Agreement (TA).

Whether you call it a team, shared or social agreement, contract, or anything else that suits your fancy, a team that meets regularly should take time to align on virtual meeting norms. Even though “meeting to discuss meeting norms” may not seem like an efficient use of time, it’s a great step to consciously redesign team culture.

TA topics could include: asking what kinds of values you want to live by, how you want to behave when disagreements arise, directly asking team members what they need to make this meeting format work. The TA should also include more practical items such as agreements around accountability, punctuality and multi-tasking. The TA is a living, evolving agreement and once established, provides a great document to reference. In a world that feels overwhelming, this process can provide needed structure that will allow people to relax and focus.

(3) Practice compassion and feedback.

As this format is new to many, be patient with yourself and your team as you figure it out together. Those of us who are used to being “experts” can use it as an opportunity to practice letting go of perfection and control. As you settle into the new normal, remember to encourage giving and receiving feedback on how these meetings are going. Many individuals and work cultures tend to be conflict avoidant. Making feedback a quick post-meeting touch point can help develop this much-needed leadership skill. It’s important to focus on the impact of a certain behavior and what you might prefer instead. Blaming isn’t productive, especially in the virtual context.

Meeting Basics

Before we get to meeting content, it’s essential to address technical issues. The goal is to create a space where people can easily connect in a way that allows them to feel respected and appreciated.

(4) Show your faces, people.

Although audio options can be included, and the internet’s capacity sometimes requires voice only, encourage participants to use video. Lights, camera, action! Facial and body expressions add a lot to what is “in the room,” and these nuances are often lost when we can’t see faces. Give people permission to show up however they are, casual attire-friendly, with tolerance for the possibility of a stray dog or wandering child. Another excellent opportunity to recognize that we are all human and in this messy soup together. Unless there is ambient noise or it’s a huge group, unmute the team so reactions can be more free flowing.

(5) Test your technology.

Make sure that you test the zoom room, the white board feature, the breakout rooms, and whatever else you need for the meeting. Familiarize yourself with Zoom here, and practice setting up a meeting or break out rooms with a colleague prior to a big meeting or launch. Samba Live is another video platform that is user friendly for meetings and webinars.

(6) Schedule shorter meetings and give breaks.

It’s difficult to sit in front of a screen for long periods of time without getting stiff or antsy. People are dealing with small children and other responsibilities at home. If you truly want them to be present in meetings, they’ll need time to move around and take care of other things. Plan for shorter, more efficient meetings and be sensitive for the need for breaks every 90 minutes or 2 hours at the most. Individuals should feel free to exit temporarily if they are needed elsewhere.

Meeting Content

Great news for those who have been frustrated for years (or decades) about meetings that are too many, inefficient, too long, or otherwise not a great use of time. What can you do to get the biggest bang for your buck, and perhaps even have fun in the process?

(7) Set an impeccable agenda and assign pre-work.

Now is the perfect time to ask yourself “WHAT do I want to achieve in this meeting?” “Do I really NEED this meeting?” and “WHO do I really need in this meeting?” Do not use meetings for simple updates or long presentations. Practice delegation and increasing trust. Send out lengthy updates or documents before the meeting if possible and use time together for questions, clarifications, key decisions, (healthy) debate. State your agenda clearly both before and at the beginning of the meeting.

(8) Tell people what you want.

Building on the meeting productivity theme, ensure that people know exactly what you want from them before the meeting. If you don’t want them to chime in on a decision that was already made, let them know. If you do want them to debate, tell them. Different people have different needs as they communicate to their teams–let them be known upfront. Again, another development area that will serve us elsewhere in our lives.

(9) Assign roles and responsibilities.

Shorter time frames and an inability to be together physically make it even more important to create designated roles to ensure productivity and efficiency. Harvard Business Review once suggested assigning a “Yoda” in each meeting, whose job was to keep the conversation candid and call out disrespect. Assign someone to yell “Elephant in the room!” if there’s a need to call out what nobody is saying, or someone to wave a stuffed rabbit if the conversation is going down a rabbit hole. Or how about someone to hold up a stop sign for the meeting attendee who could have stopped making their point a few sentences earlier? You can also have a keeper of the parking lot for topics that are important but can be discussed later. Get creative. Once you permission people to inhabit these roles, increased candor and directness will result. More traditional roles such as time keeper can be assigned as well.

Meeting Caregiving

Now more than ever, we know that relationship and acknowledgment of the human experience are critical leadership skills. It’s even more important in virtual meetings that we read the emotional field from the moment they arrive until the moment they leave. Our heightened Emotional Intelligence radar will make people feel connected, included and valued.

(10) Start with an ice breaker.

It is tempting, especially under stress, to jump into meeting content. Resist! The truth is, many people will be feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or otherwise distracted, so it pays to lead a short activity that allows them to become present. There are endless ice breaker ideas online, but even if you take 30 seconds per person to check in, it’s better than nothing. Have everyone take 3 deep breaths and share one word about their day. Ask them to draw and hold up an emoji of their current mood. Or ask them each to share (1) one sentence about what is top of mind for them right now and (2) what emotion they’re feeling about it, and then (3) have them do a gesture (such as a slow exhale) to release that emotion so they can be present to the meeting. Model the ice breaker first to provide clarity and add safety. It’s a good excuse to tap into your intuition, step out of your box and do things differently.

(11) Be inclusive.

Every voice is a voice of the team, and it can be especially challenging for more introverted people to speak up in virtual forums. While you don’t always need to hear from every person (unless it’s a very small group), be sure to hear from various points of view in order to preserve diversity of ideas, opinions, and stakeholders. Be aware of rank, gender, or any other type of privilege as well, call on people, and ask to hear from those who have not yet spoken.

(12) Check the emotional temperature.

In addition to “feeling the room” at the beginning of the meeting, check in periodically to see how people are doing. If the atmosphere seems tense or stormy, call it out in a neutral way and ask the group what’s happening. If you see someone looking upset or rolling their eyes, notice and decide whether it’s worth asking them about it in the meeting or afterwards. There will be plenty of emotion in the space, and ignoring it may seem easier in the moment, but won’t do you or your team any favors. Naming what is happening automatically increases the emotional intelligence of the group by allowing the team to gain self-awareness.

Now go forth and lead–virtually–with confidence and compassion. And before you know it, this virtual meeting practice will expand your overall leadership skills like nobody’s business, since all these tools apply to great leadership for in-person meetings as well. Lucky you!

This article was originally posted on March 29, 2020.