Last month, I wrote about how a major two-day, in-person meeting I was to facilitate in Washington D.C. had to quickly pivot to an online meeting due to our current world order. The meeting involved 20 people from multiple partners who needed to come together for generative work and rapidly devise a solution despite many moving pieces. Now I’ll tell you how our best-laid plans played out in real time.
We broke down our two-day meeting into four three-hour sessions over two weeks with an additional 90-minute small group working call after our third meeting. We needed to accommodate participants calling in from Geneva, Zurich, Abuja, Washington DC, New York City, and Seattle, and decided three hours would be the max amount of time we could reasonably overlap time zones without participants either being on the call incredibly early or late into the night. Additionally, we needed to be respectful of family time and conflicts as well as general weariness.
To be able to use our time the most efficiently, we sent out “pre-reads” in advance for participants to read and absorb. We asked them to be ready to answer, “What are the global trends you think will most impact our work over the next five years?” Instead of going around the virtual room when we gathered, I asked people to enter their responses into Mentimeter, one of the tech tools we were using. Mentimeter generated a word cloud with our responses, enabling us to jump right into a discussion of trends.
As we started, I established clear rules for engagement while being mindful that many people were not in optimal working situations. I encouraged people to use video but also was clear that I understood it wasn’t possible for everyone. Many people do not have dedicated home offices and were working at kitchen tables or had kids running through the room. Nor did they necessarily want their home lives on display.
Early learning moment: everything took longer. Figuring out how to meet was layered on top of the actual meeting agenda and both had to be accomplished. We needed more time up front to agree on the vision of what we were producing, who the audience was, and what success would look like. Determining this took two of our four meetings.
As a facilitator, I’m used to reading the room and feeling the energy as well as managing flow and content. Online, getting a feel for each participant’s engagement is much harder. As people came back from breaks, I ran a silly poll to keep them engaged, asking questions like “When did you last wash your hair?” and “How many of you are wearing pants with an elastic waist right now?” and asked them to use the hand raise function to let me know when everyone was back and ready to go. This set some accountability for people to get back on time as well as helped me to keep adapting my approach based on their responses.
One of the best things about long in-person meetings is the side chat where unexpected ideas are generated, but online, I asked that people not use the chat function unless it was to post a resource that was relevant. It’s too hard to keep the conversation going with the participants (and the facilitator) being diverted by scrolling side chatter.
For small group discussion, we used breakout groups in Zoom. The first day, we did not assign facilitators and although everyone liked the idea of small groups, once the groups got into their chat rooms, they were a bit confused about how to proceed. After that, each room was assigned a facilitator to keep the group on task as well as being responsible for inputting the group’s work into our purpose-built Google docs template. That gave us a document everyone could see and edit as well as being a tool most people know how to use.
One thing to remember about tech tools – be sure to do a quick review of what you are using and how you’ll be using them. Don’t assume everyone has the same level of experience. I had one participant spend way too much time trying to figure out how to virtually raise her hand in Zoom.
We closed every session with a poll first asking what went well during the meeting and then asking what could be improved for the next session. The poll made it simple for feedback to be given and responded to anonymously. Whether in person or virtual, I end all meetings with a verbal overview of agreements and next steps, plus a follow-up email.
Compared to a two-day meeting, this revised model had the unexpected benefit of increased productivity as we actually we got much more done between sessions. The participants and the facilitators had a chance to reflect on key pieces of content, synthesize the information, and figure out how to integrate it into the work moving forward. In a packed two-day schedule, you just can’t do that. While coming together in-person continues to be valuable, this alternative virtual meeting option can relieve pressure on travel while still accomplishing your goals.
Image: Word Cloud in Mentimeter from our second session. Courtesy of Kati Collective.