Planning Effective Online Meetings

As professional facilitators, we have been thinking a lot about how to bring the important elements of in-person meetings online. While we expect the same outcomes when meeting online or in person, we know that the meeting is fundamentally different when we are working together without sitting together.  Instead of simply repurposing our in-person plans for use online, we are leveraging the strengths of being online to generate participation, reflection, and connection among group members.

Planning is the first step for effective meetings. Below are some key elements we think about when planning for facilitating online meetings and workshops. If you spend time defining the purpose of the meeting and determining the right meeting structure, you will be well on your way to leading an online meeting that is useful, productive, and, dare we say, fun! 

Defining the Purpose of the Meeting

For all meetings, it is best to define the purpose, or goals, of a meeting before bringing everyone together. We think about two types of goals when facilitating: the meeting outcome and the experiential goal

The meeting outcome, or purpose of the meeting, is the reason you are bringing the group together. What must be discussed, decided, or completed by the end of the meeting? Often, the meeting outcome is a product: a draft plan or outline, a set of action steps for team members, a policy statement, etc. Write this goal down and share it with the participants. We often write the meeting outcome as a question. Similar to our Big Questions for evaluation, a meeting’s big question will help you and the participants be prepared for and stay focused throughout the meeting. 

The experiential goal is the type of experience you want participants to have as they work towards the meeting outcome. This can be anything from a sense of connection and relationship-building among team members to having hope for and commitment to the work of the group. This goal is often overlooked, particularly in teams that meet often or have informal communication patterns, like talking between desks or when passing in the hallway. As we all figure out how to best work together while apart, we must become more attentive to what kinds of interpersonal and social practices we are advancing. 

Defining these goals doesn’t have to be complicated. Here is an example from a recent online meeting Sarah led as a kick-off to a project focused on board development and planning: 

  • Meeting outcomes (from my notes): 
    • Organizational leaders will understand the goals and scope of the project.
    • Leaders will have a shared understanding of the board’s historical role and how that role is no longer fully serving them. 
  • Big Questions (shared with the group):
    • What do you want to see in place in 5 years for the board?
    • What have been our successes and challenges as a board in the past 2 years?
  • Experiential Goals (from my notes): 
    • Leaders wrap their heads around the context of the group’s work.
    • Leaders feel confident about working together through this project.

Determining the Structure of the Meeting

Once you have set your meeting and experiential goals, identify a meeting structure that will achieve those goals. Moving to virtual meetings may require you to reconsider all aspects of a typical meeting. Here is a list of structural elements we think about before facilitating meetings.  

  1. Activity: What will participants do? E.g. listening, watching, discussing, commenting. (Pro Tip: For a work meeting, spend more time discussing and commenting and less time listening and watching)
  2. Schedule: How will the meeting flow? E.g. What is the order of topics or activities? When does the group need breaks? When should an activity switch to keep people engaged? (Pro Tip: take a 5-minute break every 40-50 minutes) This schedule becomes our agenda as we continue through the planning process.
  3. Materials: What materials do participants need to complete the work of the meeting? E.g. documents, articles, personal notes, scratch paper. (Pro Tip: Just because the meeting is online doesn’t mean everything needs to happen onscreen. Sending documents ahead allows participants to print and follow along at their own pace.)
  4. Tools: What tools do we need to do our work? E.g. Zoom, Google Docs, chat, screen-share, whiteboard. (Pro Tip: Select the tools that support your goals, rather than fitting your meeting to a tool or system.)

We have created a series of questions that might help you think about the structural elements necessary for an effective meeting. Use these with meeting participants to plan meetings, or use them as reflection elements to plan on your own. Download the questions here »

Spending time before a meeting defining your purpose and determining the meeting structure will ensure you are developing meetings based on an outcome and using other’s time to truly work together. In future posts, we will discuss the next few steps of getting to and through an effective online meeting – preparing for it and then leading it! 

We would love to help you think through your next meeting! Connect with us if you want a planning partner.

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