10 Ways to Make the Most Out of Online Meetings
As the world hunkers down for the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19), we can expect more and more meetings to be run online. If you have to run online meetings, here are some tips to help you make sure you get the most out of those meetings.

Use multiple computers to help establish your presence.  
When running meetings, the individual running the meeting needs to bring energy to the meeting. They have to be fully present. But this can be hard to do in online meetings and this can result in meetings that are very low energy. To address this issue, you, the person leading the online meeting, should have multiple computers set up and logged into the meeting. Only one speaker and mic should be on, the rest should be on mute to avoid sound feedback, but the cameras and the screens should be on. By doing this you will have multiple cameras on you from different angles. This will allow you to be more present in the virtual meeting and thus increase the energy level. At the same time, by having multiple computers you will have multiple screens. One screen can be used to “share screen,” while the others can be pinned to the video feeds of different key people. In this way, the leader can better read the room and the body language of others. One last added benefit of using multiple computers, which is obvious, is that if you have I.T. issues with one computer you will be able to jump to another computer without missing a beat.

Set up the virtual room and establish and maintain meeting rules
In order to run efficient and effective meetings we need clear rules of conduct that all participants understand. This is even more important when running online meetings. While we know that rules are needed, the type of rules and how they are enforced may change from one culture or organizational climate to the next. That is why we recommend that every organization create its own rules. Here are some sample rules that are especially important for online meetings:
  • At the start of the meeting, set up the virtual space. This is done by simply asking all participants to take out a sheet of paper, creating a horseshoe shape, and then defining who sits (virtually) where. Once the virtual room has been created, a sequence of who speaks when can be established. So, when someone is done speaking, and multiple people want to respond, there is an established sequence of who speaks when. When someone is done speaking they pass the right to speak to the next person on their right, in the virtual space, who wants to speak. 
  • Other rules like asking people to stay on mute when not speaking, keeping their cameras on at all times, no side conversations, establishing pre-determined breaks and end times, the use of the chat function to ask for the right to speak, are all sample rules you may want to create, depending on the culture of your organization. Just note that you may have to train your participants how to use many of the features in the software you use for your online meetings if they are not already familiar with it.

No more than three people per computer terminal.  
A typical mistake when running online meetings is the mixing of online meetings and in person meetings. This happens when many of the meeting participants are in the same building but only a few are not. When this happens, we are tempted to have all of the participants, who are in the same building, sit in a single meeting room and then have the others join online. But in doing this we mix online meetings with in-person meetings. This can create all kinds of issues. For example, those who attend online will not be able to see all of the participants in the meeting room as not all of them can sit in the video frame. Those online participants will also have trouble hearing those that are far from the mic. Thus, if you are going to hold your meeting online, hold it online. This means that even if many of the participants are in the same building, have them join the meeting from different rooms and different computers with no more than three participants per computer. By limiting the number of participants per computer to three you make sure that everyone can be seen in the frame of that computer camera and each participant is able to sit close enough to the computer mic to be heard by all of the other online participants.

Test the system well before the meeting start time.  
We all know that I.T. issues can drain energy from any online meeting. If there are problems with the system and people are not able to join the meeting your meeting will start late, if at all, and this will frustrate the participants. Thus, if you are leading an online meeting, log in at least 10 minutes early, and have others log in before the meeting as well. This can be done by scheduling the start time of your meeting for 9:05am but asking people to log in at 9am, for example.

Start the meeting with a “defreeze.”  
When working online, not only do you risk I.T. issues but much of the personal interactions that takes place before the meeting and during breaks are lost. These informal offline conversations are an important part of any meeting as they create those personal connections which help any organization run smoothly. To make up for this lack of personal interaction it is recommended that you start each meeting with a “defreeze.” A “defreeze” is when you simply have every participant answer a few questions, that are not related to the subject being discussed, at the start of each meeting. For example, the questions could include, “what is your name? what do you do? What is the most interesting thing that has happened to you in the last 3 months? How do you feel today? How is your computer working? Can you see OK? Can you hear OK?” By asking these questions you: 
  • Provide a forum where those personal interactions can take place in a structured manner;
  • You give everyone a chance to speak, which will make them more likely to speak up in the meeting when needed; 
  • It gives them a chance to test their computer system to see if their mic and speaker are working properly;
  • And it also provides a buffer at the start of your meeting for late comers, or people with I.T. issues, to join the meeting late without missing critical content.

Align with key meeting participants before and during the meeting. 
The best practice for any meeting, online or in-person, is to align with key meeting participants on the agenda before the start of the meeting. While this is very important for in-person meetings, it is doubly important for online meetings. When leading in person meetings, we are able to read the room by watching body language, speaking with people during the breaks and by just feeling the vibe. When meeting online, reading the room becomes infinitely more difficult. That is why we should take the time to speak with key participants to understand their needs, fears and general management style. By doing this you not only increase your ability to read the virtual meeting space, but it will also allow you to gain some allies among the meeting participants to help make sure your meeting is a success. Additionally, during the actual online meeting, it is a best practice for the person running the meeting, to call key individuals, over a private phone line, during breaks, to check in and see how things are going. Again, this is done to help the person running the meeting read the room and address any blind spots before they undermine the entire meeting.

Be fully prepared and use the shared screen function.  
If you are running a meeting you should always be fully prepared, but this is even more important when running online meetings. Thus, make sure you have established clear expectations with the participants on what the meeting is going to be about. Make sure you have a clear agenda that you want to have discussed and aligned with the other key meeting participants. Ensure you know what you want to discuss, what questions you want to ask, information you want to present and generally  what part(s) of the decision making and implementation process you want to cover.  Then create a presentation (eg, PowerPoint) that walks participants through that agenda. Make sure your presentation is well structured, clear and concise. Then, when running the meeting, share your screen with the presentation and simply go through your slides. This will help the other participants follow along and thus make sure you get the most out of your online meeting. 

Keep the meeting small.  
Online meetings will be more difficult to manage than in-person meetings. So, keep that in mind when deciding on who should attend a meeting. As a rule, the less people attending a meeting the easier it is to manage. Thus, if possible, try to keep your online meetings smaller than your in-person meetings.

Allow for more time.  
As a rule of thumb expect online meetings to take 30% longer than in person meetings. Take this into account and set expectations and schedules accordingly.

Avoid dead air. 
Dead air is a term used in TV and radio, and refers to silence. Now, there is a time and place for silence in a meeting, like when we ask people to reflect and brain storm on a subject individually. That is not dead air. In the meeting context, dead air is when nothing is happening, no guidance is given, and people are left wondering why their time is being wasted. Remember that “idle hands are the devils play things.” If nothing is happening in your meeting many of your participants will leave the meeting. Maybe not physically, but mentally. They will simply start checking their email or start working on other things. Others, who are more committed to the subject of the meeting may see this “dead air” as a vacuum of leadership. This may cause them to step up and take control of the meeting. This will undermine your leadership and waste time as they take you away from your prepared agenda. So, avoid dead air. How? By making sure you are well prepared.  Make sure you know what you want to talk about. Make sure everyone knows how to mute and unmute themselves. And if there is an I.T. issue, move on or take a break. But don’t allow for the dead air. Nothing is more frustrating, and nothing drains energy from a meeting faster.

Written by Senior Adizes Associate, Shoham Adizes, co-author of the book Empowering Meetings, A how to guide for any organization
Empowering Meetings: A How-To Guide for Any Organization
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