Designing Powerful Online Meeting Experiences

Originally published via The Startup on Medium.com, May 8, 2020

Do online meetings have to be mediocre? With drawings of three faces with faces that aren't very happy.

Most folks have adjusted to the new normal of online meetings. Unfortunately, that means that many have accepted “good enough” by creating mediocre experiences. We know folks can do better. With some careful planning, an online meeting can excite and energize participants.

During April 2020, we trained over 200 people to create better online meetings. We’ve found that folks usually think they need training on the mechanics of Zoom, Teams, or WebEx. Yet, we’ve seen many online meetings turn into disasters when organizers don’t use the medium purposefully.

Please don’t start with technological “bells and whistles.” Instead, have a clear and purposeful meeting design with technology as a support. Sure, any of us can jump into a meeting without a plan, but we’ll rarely get the results we want. Besides, meetings cost a lot of money. Consider two scenarios is this graphic for two weekly one-hour meetings.

Infograph describing two meetings with 10 people. Over a year one costs $16,250 and the other $48,750.

In the image on the left, we provide annual costs of weekly one-hour meetings for two scenarios. These scenarios reflect only direct salaries. Ineffective meetings also cause missed opportunities, decreased morale, and fewer opportunities for innovation. That cost concerns us the most.

Multiplied across a year, organizations spend massive amounts of money on meetings. Why spend this amount of money? Because great meetings can sustain and even transform groups and organizations.

We have an opportunity to rethink the way we do meetings. Regardless of your platform, online meetings can be engaging. We’ve outlined some basic principles as a roadmap.

#1: Start with a Clear Meeting Purpose

Like in-person meetings, online meetings frequently suffer from a lack of precise purpose. Does your standing meeting have a clear purpose other than check-ins or updates? This crisis forces us to rethink some bad habits and make more effective use of meetings.

Meetings should address a concrete problem, challenge, or opportunity. That problem should be something you can’t solve in another format. For example, if you need to share a new policy that’s already decided, you can do that by email or another medium. But email likely won’t work if your team needs ideas for replacing a crucial in-person customer event. You might need an online meeting to brainstorm alternatives.

#2: Design the Key Elements of Your Meeting

Good meetings rarely happen by accident or miracle. And designing conversations about complex or controversial topics requires even more detailed planning. A deliberately crafted meeting design helps to ensure a meeting’s success. Good design requires intention and effort. We provide three design steps for creating an engaging online meeting.

Build Purposeful Agenda Items

A great meeting starts with a great agenda. One that isn’t a laundry list of topics. Topics only provide a starting point for crafting a good agenda.

For each topic, you’ll need to identify the product or outcome for that item. What should result from each item on your agenda? For example, do you need…

  • Participants’ Understanding of New Information
  • Reactions and Input from the Group
  • Generation of Ideas
  • Collaboration and Teamwork
  • A Clear Decision

Once you’re clear on the outcomes for each agenda item, you can decide what processes should occur to support each of your outcomes. For example, helping a group toward a decision looks different than leading them to understand something. Below, we provide our framework for agenda outcomes and processes.

Each agenda item needs:

  • An outcome and
  • A process to get to that outcome

graphic illustrating range of processes/outcomes: inform to produce compliance, reassurance; seek feedback to produce reactions, general input, recommendations, guidance; brainstorm to produce robust list of ideas, issues, solutions; collaborate to produce consensus, group learning, teambuilding, shared experience, group ownership; decide to produce resolution, agreed next steps, public statement.

Processes to Achieve Outcomes for Each Agenda Topic

Third, you should decide who should facilitate which items on the agenda. We recommend having various people responsible for a meeting. Doing so helps to mix things up and also distributes responsibility. Each person needs coaching on how to best arrive at the desired outcome.

Fourth, you need to identify the time allocated to each item. We don’t mean you should have a legalistic focus on time, but having a good estimate of the time needed is important.

Kevin Hoffman, in his excellent book on meetings, advocates seeing meeting planning as a design challenge. He uses George Miller’s early psychology research on memory and how many items we can process at once. Hoffman provides his “Groups of Five” principle of having no more than five agenda items. Each agenda item should also be about five words.

We created a streamlined agenda template that follows this process.

Engage through Variation

Every 2–5 minutes, we have to change what folks are doing, looking at, or hearing. We can use tools like breakouts, text chat, polling, and whiteboard visual feedback. In planning a session, we design for a variety of interactions to keep folks engaged.

Meeting participants also need more frequent breaks. Our recommended practice is a 5-minute break every 45 minutes if the meeting will go over an hour. People can’t engage much longer online.

Reinforce with Visuals

The cortex is the surface area of our brain. More than 50% of it processes visual stimuli. Knowing about that massive investment of brainpower, we have to engage folks visually. If a person isn’t visually engaged in your meeting, they will find other visual engagement. People can look outside, look at their phone, view another computer window, or play with a pet.

Visuals can help us capture key agreements, concerns, and next steps. Often, a note-taker or leader might interpret group output differently than the participants. So, having visual note-taking on essential items via a shared screen or whiteboard can help.

Engaging folks visually helps us make abstract concepts more concrete. We lead an interactive online class on creating better online meetings. That’s a pretty abstract concept for most folks. We help make the topic concrete by using visuals that make the content come to life for participants.

We also need visuals to support creative thinking. Most folks can’t be creative with sole reliance on verbal engagement.

#3: Identify the Appropriate Tech Tools for a Given Meeting

Any technology you identify should support meeting goals. We shouldn’t add another fancy tool unless it leads us to the outcome we’re trying to achieve. A frequent example we’ve seen is adding tools like polls without it supporting the goal.

With the changes in our lives in the last couple of months, many people feel overwhelmed. We recommend keeping technology as simple as possible to support engagement. For example, we mix easy-to-use tech tools within meetings. In one regular meeting, we use an interactive Google document while in Zoom. In more important meetings, we use Mural.co virtual whiteboard with audio from Zoom. We also consider what we should move outside of the meeting to email and other tools.

We’ve put together a list of some tech tools for engaging folks in before, during, and after an online meeting.

#4: Create a Welcoming Culture

If you lead a team that typically meets face-to-face, you likely have norms for how folks act. For example, are folks expected to show up on time? Do people work on email and texting during the meeting, or do they stay engaged? Work to continue these norms online.

With a few groups we’re part of, we’ve noticed that nobody engages in “chit chat” before the meeting starts. We’d rarely see that in a face-to-face meeting with friendly colleagues. As a meeting leader, you can model behaviors like this that you’d like to see.

You’ll also need to decide on norms around video usage, which has pros and cons. We recommend letting folks know in advance to prepare to use video. If you’re using a conferencing system with audio delays, you need to decide how participants can “raise their hand.” For example, some groups use text chat or virtual hand-raising.

It’s essential to continually read the tone of the group to know if it’s time for a stretch break. Proceeding unrelentingly usually doesn’t work when folks need to recharge.

We’ve developed some checklists for fostering a healthy online culture and specific practices for leaders.

#5: Make Next Steps Clear

Meetings exist to produce something or propel an action forward. We have to make sure that action happens, and detailed minutes typically don’t that. Few read minutes, and the minutes often show up way too late. By developing a simple structure for tracking who’s responsible for doing what after a meeting, we can propel the group toward action. As an alternative to meeting minutes, we have a simple template for after-meeting action items to identify the:

  • Action Item
  • Responsible Party
  • Target Date

Moving From Mediocrity to Inspirational

Rather than creating dread, online meetings can involve, inspire, and lead teams to act. Useful resources exist to support you in developing better online meetings. You can use our free online resourcesour online courses, or free online videos from others. With some time and careful planning, you can make your online meetings productive and even fun!

Rod Githens and Nileen Verbeten