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How to overcome common virtual meeting challenges

We recently had an opportunity to lead a couple of webinars on how to Prepare, Run, and Participate in an Effective Virtual Meeting. Virtual meetings are now part of our new normal and many of us have quickly adapted to them. We also learned that there are still some challenges, but methods exist to overcome them. You can check out a recording of one of the webinars here.

We received a lot of great questions during and after the sessions. We thought it would be helpful to share some of the recurring questions and answers on how to run an effective virtual meeting.

What do I do when there is a dominant person in a virtual meeting, participating much more than others?

This is such a common scenario! Considering why this might be the case will dictate if and how you decide to intervene. Does this person have more expertise than others and is she/he better equipped to contribute? Does this person tend to over-contribute because she/he is an extrovert? If it is helpful to hear from others, here are some strategies to help guide the conversation:

  • Try to have a one-on-one conversation with the person before the meeting to understand his/her perspective and give this person a chance to voice their thoughts. If appropriate, ask the person to take no more than 3 minutes to summarize their key points that you discussed in your one-on-one during the meeting. Creating time-bound expectations is key!
  • If you’re not able to have a one-on-one conversation before the meeting and the person begins to take too much time, interrupt them by name and ask to take the topic offline for further discussion at a specific time. (e.g., “Great points, Logan. It would be helpful to hear more about this when we have more time. Could we speak later today about it?”) Or, if the topic warrants it, ask the group if a dedicated time just for that particular topic is needed. Agree, and then, move on.
  • When someone dominates, note their point, and then immediately invite someone else to comment on the topic (e.g., “Great point, Sam. What do you think, Chris?”).
  • The meeting facilitator should communicate clear ground rules and seek consensus on them at the beginning of a meeting. Ground rules set the meeting tone and ensure that participants share expectations for behaviors during the meeting. They should be simple and easy (no more than 3-5 rules) and include “Step Up, Step Back.” If you tend to sit in the background, then step up and contribute. If you tend participate often, take a step back and create room for others to speak up.

How do I enable my meetings to start and end on time?

So often we see meetings get started late or run over. Here are some strategies for the facilitator to help keep the meeting on time:

  • Make sure you (as the facilitator) are online and prepared to start on time.
  • Build time into the agenda at the beginning for “water cooler” conversations. While many of us are working remotely, we need an outlet for these informal conversations. Acknowledging and making time for this will support a more realistic agenda.
  • Send out an agenda with timeframes and make sure they’re up on the screen. Use this as a tool to stay on task by saying something like, “Our agenda says we should be on X topic. This is a good conversation, and some good points, Joe [interrupt them by name], but we need to move on to cover everything and still be respectful of everyone’s time.”

How do I help enable the people in the meeting to stay on task?

  • Be very clear about the purpose at the beginning of the meeting and what you hope to accomplish in it. Anything that doesn’t work towards fulfilling the purpose or desired outcomes should go in a “parking lot,” where topics are captured that either cannot be fully covered or are off topic and be discussed at another time.
  • Try to keep the meeting to 5-7 people, and no more than 10-12 people. There are very few meetings that require more than this number of people. Each person should be someone who can contribute information or help to make decisions.
  • The facilitator is responsible for moving the discussion along. While it’s important to provide time for debate so that participants are actively involved in decision-making, the facilitator is equally responsible for stepping in and moving the discussion along. If the participants outrank the facilitator, still be brave enough to guide, but let the team make a conscious choice to keep talking or move on.
  • Frame the importance of the decision and timeline to limit discussion. You can also have a person with rank help move the discussion along.

How do I keep people engaged during a virtual meeting?

  • Invite people who have a vested interest in the purpose. Make sure they understand why they are invited, and what you expect from them. People are likely to prepare more and show up with interest if they know how they can contribute, and with the knowledge that their opinion is sought after and needed.
  • Create some buzz. People want to engage and talk about interesting subject matter. Many meetings have meaningful content, but the way they are titled or structured is quite tepid. It’s hard to get excited about the “Monthly Business Review.” Consider renaming it to something more controversial like “What projects to postpone due to COVID-19.” Likewise, incorporate provocative topics and discussions in your agenda. For example, appointing someone to play devil’s advocate usually livens things up.
  • Break out into small team discussions. Applications such as Zoom allow virtual meetings to break into smaller team discussions. This allows more personal engagement and an opportunity for everyone to engage.
  • Have some variety in the environment. You can encourage colleagues to take meetings while walking, change the room they sit in, or just simply stand. Adding some fun elements to the start of the meeting can spark some creative energy too, like having everyone introduce their pets or wear memorable t-shirts.

Why do you recommend staying off mute during a virtual meeting?

  • It encourages participation and full engagement. Muting people gives them permission to disengage or multi-task. If people are allowed to use the mute button, it often leads to a few dominant participants, and the others in “listen only” mode. Note: This is different from a presentation, town hall, or larger forum where there is less interactive discussion and a mute button may help reduce background noise.
  • To keep the conversation flowing. Using the mute button interrupts the flow of dialogue among attendees and creates an extra (unnecessary) step in the process. By stifling conversation, you may be inhibiting your ability to fulfill the purpose of the meeting or achieve the desired outcomes as smoothly.
  • Staying off mute also does a better job of mimicking the ability to connect as one would at an in-person meeting. If we were in a room together, we wouldn’t be muting ourselves or multi-tasking. If you’re not on mute, you’re more likely to behave like you would during an in-person meeting. Staying off mute will foster a culture of transparency and respect to one another, by being present and fully engaged.

How do I limit the number of virtual meetings I am having?

  • Take a hard look at the meetings you have and assess if you are really needed for each of them. Many of us accept meetings because of who it comes from, or because they’re in our calendar and recurring. Ensure that you understand the purpose and your role, delegate if appropriate, or simply decline with an explanation to the meeting organizer. Be aware of meetings that you attend because you don’t trust the right decision will be made; there are other issues here that should be examined and addressed for the root causes.
  • You should also let others know your calendar. Many of us have routines and block time to get work done. However, we hear many stories where these time blocks are not respected. We encourage everyone to share their calendars and why you are blocking time. As others learn, they will work to match your preferred times and schedule.

We’d love to hear other tips as well to operate as effectively as possible in this new normal. Please share what you’ve learned by emailing us directly. If you have any questions on how to make your next virtual meeting more effective, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Published: 6/22/2020


Meredith Hargreaves

Senior Lean Practitioner