This week, my roommate had a shower while she was on mute in a meeting. I kid you not. And the other day, I moved to four different locations in my apartment block to avoid intrusive apartment renovations while on a video call with my team in an effort to #stayathome.

Virtual meetings have always been a challenge. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that now, we need them more than ever. And unfortunately, most of us are not adept at navigating the unique challenges that the virtual world presents us. But with unique challenges, come unique solutions.

I’ve attended multiple virtual meetings each week since I joined the Sydney office of Inventium four years ago. I’ve been the participant who can’t be bothered to get involved in the chit chat that arises in poorly structured meetings, with 75% of words lost with people speaking over each other. I’ve left those meetings feeling less connected with my colleagues than I was before. I’ve also been the facilitator – I’ve run virtual meetings with teams across four countries in Asia. And with a majority of the world now on-board with virtual meetings, I recently ran our first virtual workshop with a client, with all participants working safely at home.

So, here are my top tips to help you make virtual meetings not suck:

  1. Set the ground rules, and stick to them.  

This one is a no brainer, but is incredibly important. Basic rules include making sure each participant’s video is turned on. The reason why this is so important – humans LOVE faces. Even newborn babies will show a bias to turning their heads towards a face. Secondly, mute when not speaking. Thirdly, be in the meeting. This may sound obvious, but it means no driving, washing dishes, or doing something that you wouldn’t normally do during a physical meeting. Multi-tasking is literally impossible, so if you are in a meeting – be in the meeting.

In order to stick to the rules you create, take a leaf out of how DBS runs their meetings (DBS is also known as  “Bank of the Year” (The Banker) and “World’s Best Bank” (Euromoney)). For each meeting, they allocate a MO – meeting owner, and JO – joyful observer. The MO sets the agenda and runs the meeting, while the JO is assigned to help the meeting run crisply and to encourage broad participation. Taking inspiration from this, allocate one “JO” to each meeting. This person is responsible for making sure your pre-agreed virtual-meeting rules are adhered to. Rotating this responsibility around your team will encourage accountability (as opposed to making the JO the naturally ‘bossy’ person in your team). 

  1. Be crystal clear on your agenda, timings and breaks.

Ensure that participants are clear on the agenda, before the meeting and throughout. In a training workshop, it is important that the facilitator explains the workshop plan at the outset, with repetitions of “where we are” throughout. This aids learning by preventing participants from trying to multi-task (“What is this new concept, and how does it fit in with the other concepts we have already discussed?”). At Inventium, we use a Google Sheet for our team meeting agendas. This agenda is compiled by all team members before the meeting and notes are updated live.

In terms of timings for virtual workshops, I’ve been working off a rule of thumb of allocating roughly half the time you would to a face-to-face workshop.  So, a four hour workshop becomes a two hour workshop. This makes being on top of your agenda even more critical. Think about leveraging people’s brains before the workshop to make up for lost time – for example, sending pre-work a week in advance to allow people to incubate on the problem to be discussed.

As for breaks, aim for regular, five minute breaks. Research from the University of Colorado uncovered that in contrast to one 30-minute break, hourly five-minute walking breaks boost energy, sharpen focus, improve mood and reduce feelings of fatigue in the afternoon far more effectively.

  1. Move from passive to active. 

Any skilled facilitator will have a collection of tools they use to encourage active participation in a physical workshop. Everything from awkward silences, meaningful eye contact or even the simple ‘move-physically-closer-to-the-audience’ strategy. These social cues are all techniques for encouraging participants to move from a passive to an active role, which is incredibly important in learning.

Whilst many of these techniques don’t work in the virtual world, the key is to create a sense of responsibility to make sure people have an active role in your meeting. One way we do this at Inventium is with the simple rule that the “meeting opener” role falls to the person with the first agenda item in our shared Google Sheet. And the “meeting closer” role falls to the person with the last agenda item. For larger meetings, or workshops, I use tools to make the meeting as LIVE as possible. A virtual whiteboard (I like MURAL) allows people to write post-it notes, draw, fill in templates and frameworks live during a workshop. For example, for an activity, you can ask people a question and give them one minute to write their answer on a post-it note. Afterwards, a discussion can be built off of the notes that are visible to all participants.

  1. Keep participants hooked.

John Medina is an expert in applied learning and author of “Brain Rules”. He argues that, in a face-to-face lecture, students’ attention will typically plummet after only 10 minutes of content. To break through this and re-capture attention, he uses an “emotionally competent stimuli”, AKA “hook”. Hooks are the moments in a lecture which bring you back to the moment and engage your brain’s executive functions, which are crucial for learning.

According to Medina, a hook follows three principles: it triggers an emotion (for example narratives that trigger fear, laughter or incredulity), it’s relevant to the content (as opposed to a random joke dropped in), and it appears every 10 minutes – either ending content that has just been covered or providing the bridge to the content that will follow. Hooks allow you to continuously win the battle for people’s attention, something that is incredibly important for virtual meetings.

In order for this to work in the virtual world, the principles still mostly apply. Make it emotional and relevant. But, given we are prone to many more distractions while working from home, I aim to infuse my virtual training workshops with a hook every five-seven minutes.

  1. Experiment with mixing it up.

Now is the time to test new approaches. Everyone can identify with the frustration of virtual meetings, meaning that your audience is likely to be forgiving of things that don’t work perfectly the first time. So get out there and mix it up with new ways to make your virtual meetings even better than face-to-face. For example, could you use a quiz during your workshop (I like Quizziz.com)? Or, could you share a Spotify playlist for people to play while working on solo activities during your workshop?

Treat every new thing you try as an experiment – set a metric for success, gather feedback and move forward from there.