Ah, the age of virtual meetings. A time when Zoom fatigue is a real thing, “You’re on mute” is the most repeated phrase you hear, and virtual meetings that are uninteresting, ill-prepared, or just outright suck seem to be a norm. In our virtual, post-pandemic world, I bet you’re probably experiencing one or more of those things more than you want to be. Or maybe you’re the facilitator and know that your virtual meetings could be better. Good for you: Virtual meetings can be interesting, productive, and even fun. To create those productive, engaging spaces, though, will require a new knowledge and tool set for creating inclusive spaces where participants feel comfortable to share ideas and take part as a full member of the conversation.
Most professionals are not taught how to run good meetings; they aren’t taught to share the space with and deeply include participants or to even trust the group to guide the work and direction. Through a series of blogs, we will outline what it is that makes virtual meetings harder, as well as our tips on how to plan and facilitate meaningful, engaging virtual meetings. Before we jump right into the tools you can use to run better virtual meetings, let’s take a look at what’s different in virtual meetings that make them harder for everyone involved.
1 – Folks easily feel less valued
Have you ever tried to speak in a Zoom meeting and realized you were on mute? We know that talking while muted is a common (and frustrating) experience, as research shows that “You’re on mute” was one of the most common phrases of 2020. Or maybe you’ve tried to talk but couldn’t speak because someone else did first, and it was unclear who should speak next.
Experiences of not being able to speak or not being heard are common among virtual meeting attendees. Whether or not we notice it in the moment, the inability to speak or not being heard makes us feel less important or less valued amongst our colleagues. Whether in a virtual meeting or an in-person meeting, research shows that if we feel undervalued, we are less likely to engage and very unlikely to participate.
2 – Norms are invisible and body language is scarce
When you’re in a Zoom meeting, do you feel unsure of when to speak or how to engage? Do you feel disconnected to other people on the call, unsure of how they may be feeling, or wondering if they’re even paying attention?
In an in-person meeting we can rely on body language, the arrangement of participants in the room, and other nonverbal factors and cues that help to guide conversations, follow established and unspoken norms, and monitor the energy of the room. In the virtual space, we’re limited to viewing participants from the shoulders up, thus losing out on all of the nonverbal cues we are accustomed to and the physical context for each participant.
In person, we can use body language and the physical space to get a sense of the energy in the room, take turns speaking and engaging, and identify the norms of the space. In the virtual space, unspoken and unclear norms, combined with the lack of body language, can lead to participants feeling uncertain about engagement expectations and out of relation with other participants. This lack of clarity can lead to disengaged participants and meetings that don’t seem to be going anywhere.
3 – Participants feel like they have less control
Have you ever been in a virtual meeting where crickets chirp when the facilitator asks if anyone has questions or comments? Or maybe everyone seemed to sit back and let the facilitator dominate the content and conversation? These situations can be due to the exaggeration of the power, the status and authority, of the facilitator in virtual spaces.
The facilitator is usually the ‘host’ of the virtual meeting space; therefore, they have control over who joins the meeting, whether or not participants’ audio is on or off, screen sharing, and the use of the meeting platform’s virtual tools. The perceived degree of power of the facilitator in virtual meetings can lead to participants overly relying on the facilitator to move the meeting along or make decisions. Participants need to have and feel a degree of autonomy in the virtual space in order to increase engagement and ownership of the outcomes of a meeting.
4 – Participants feel they have fewer opportunities to contribute
Do you struggle with knowing if or when to speak? Maybe it takes you a little longer to form your thoughts and choose your words. Or maybe you prefer written and visual information. Everyone is different and possesses different strengths and preferences when it comes to communicating and processing information. Unfortunately, virtual meetings emphasize verbal communication and, when combined with the previously described challenges, participants who favor non-verbal communication can feel left out and devalued.
5 – Attendees feel less connected
What makes you feel connected to others? Physical proximity? Feeling valued, understood, and included? As we now know, the virtual space challenges how we are accustomed to connecting and engaging with others during meetings.
We often don’t know the physical context in which others are participating and we lose the ability to use body language to convey our feelings and energy. More effort is required to convey and discuss information in a manner that works for all participants. And when we don’t feel connected to others or the topic of the meeting, we’re more likely to disengage and passively participate in the meeting.
6 – Tech glitches leave participants behind, or out entirely
Chances are you’ve been in a virtual meeting and everything is going well until someone suddenly disappears from the call mid-conversation. You’re left wondering if you should keep going and if the other person will rejoin.
Some days technology just isn’t on our side – the Wi-Fi is spotty, your computer starts an update at a bad time, or a software update changes the location of buttons from where we’re used to them being. These problems can make us late to a virtual meeting, unable to speak or be seen, or miss a meeting entirely. This opens the door for feelings about fairness and frustration to take over and derail what could have been an effective meeting.
7 – Participation is less balanced
Some people naturally talk more and always have something to contribute right off the bat. Others require extra time to think before they speak. These communication styles combine with the challenges of virtual meetings that we’ve already discussed to create an imbalance of participation.
Imbalanced participation can cause some participants to feel like they don’t need to speak up and engage because someone else will, or that their thoughts don’t matter because someone else is dominating the space. Meetings are more productive and meaningful when all participants feel that they have the time, space, and means to participate.
Despite these challenges, virtual meetings can be interesting, productive, and even enjoyable with the right approach. If you’re ready to transform your virtual meetings but aren’t sure where to start, we’re here to help. RSP’s New School of Participatory Change teaches participatory facilitation as a fundamental practice of leadership. We believe that effective facilitation is integral to leading in a participatory way, one that involves everyone so that they see themselves in the futures we are working toward. The New School is excited to offer an 8-week Virtual Participatory Facilitation online course, starting on September 6th, 2023. Join us and other leaders to develop your own practical approach to facilitating participatory conversations, whether it’s from a seat or in front of a room.
Not sure if the course is right for you? We’ll be hosting a free webinar on August 9th where we’ll get into the details of the course, introduce you to our team, and answer your questions.
Click here to learn more about the New School and how we can help you become a better participatory facilitator and changemaker.