How to get more from your virtual meetings

We’ve all had to get used to more virtual meetings this year. Done well they can be a key plank in effective flexible working

empty office


“You’re on mute!” has a strong claim to the be the business phrase of 2020.

Before this year virtual meetings often felt like a last resort. They were the option if folk had to talk from different time zones or in case of emergency. Face-to-face meetings were king and phone calls were queen.

That’s all changed. And most of us have had to adapt quickly to Zoom, MS Teams, Skype and the rest. It’s all been a bit haphazard though. 

A new book brings together the research on virtual meetings. Virtual Facilitation: Create More Engagement and Impact,  looks at how to make virtual meetings more engaging, efficient and pleasant. 

Move to virtual meetings

The move to virtual meetings is, of course, not just about Covid. Globalisation, concerns about sustainability and climate change, the drive to cut costs, the need to bring in experts in faster and cheaper ways and greater flexible working are long-standing factors.

Among the problems with online meetings is the lack of body language signals, which make it difficult to read what people are saying, the difficulty of building a joint culture when everyone is working remotely and potential technical problems.

The authors say that, when planning a meeting, it is important to think about some key factors;

  • What’s the purpose? And mention make that clear during the meeting
  • Who is taking part? 
  • The platform being used
  • The process. For instance, could it be a walk and talk meeting? 
  • Any partners or experts.

Ground rules

It is vital to set the ground rules at the start of meetings, including expectations that people will lend their full attention. At the opening of the meeting, it is vital to connect to people on the call, for instance, by asking them what they expect from the meeting, why they are there or where they are calling from.

To maintain attention during the meeting requires breaking the meeting down and providing micro-interactions, for instance, break-out rooms which can build the sense of intimacy; polls to provoke interaction; coffee breaks; the use of chat so people can ask questions; quizzes; the use of shared documents; ‘energisers’ to make sure people are not sitting down for the whole session. These can provide social connection and a sense of fun; and moments of quiet reflection.

Attention spans

Research shows attention spans are lower in virtual meetings than physical ones so engagement is key – one-way participation doesn’t work. At the end of the meeting, it is also important to look back at what was discussed and to end on a high, for instance, asking people for their key takeaways, summarising what has been learnt or doing a quiz.

The book says that virtual meetings require much more preparation than physical meetings and more time on the follow-up. That is because of the need for more slides and visualisation and more time for questions to create clarity.  Planning needs to go into who will speak and when. The book estimates that 60% of virtual meeting time needs to be taken up with planning, compared to 30% for physical meetings.

The meetings themselves tend to be shorter because there is less flexibility given it is difficult to change slides and because people in virtual meetings tend to speak less.


*Virtual Facilitation: Create More Engagement and Impact is written by facilitation experts Henrik Horn Andersen, Iben Nelson and Kåre Ronex.

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