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5 Guidelines to Keep Virtual Meetings on Track, Inclusive and Engaging

Posted: 5/19/2021

Click here to read on NonProfitPRO. 

By Renee Rubin Ross

Renee Rubin Ross, principal of The Ross Collective: www.therosscollective.com

This piece originally appeared on The Ross Collective Blog: https://www.therosscollective.com/blog/the-best-questions-for-powerful-virtual-meetings

What has been your biggest technology disaster this year?

By now, most of us have heard about the lawyer who couldn't turn his cat "filter" off on a Zoom court hearing, so he appeared in virtual court as a cat.

I'm sure we each have stories like this. I was reminded of this recently at the first evening of the online course in Grant Proposal Writing:

Our 15 working adult students logged onto Zoom and were welcomed into our shared virtual classroom. Each student signed into the collaborative Google document to indicate that they were in attendance. I was about to talk through the syllabus and course objectives.

Then one of the last arriving students, typing their name into the designated row, somehow deleted the whole roll sheet.

Well, maybe the student didn't delete the whole roll sheet — maybe it just got moved into the document header. We weren't sure. It didn't matter!

As you can imagine, this threw me, the instructor, for a loop.

I was just meeting some of these students. I was just setting the tone for class. And now the tone was… #TechFail!

Collaborative technology is incredible. It can empower people across locations to share their individual ideas and build on others' ideas. The whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. It can be inclusive and participatory.

Except when it isn't!

Over the past year, I've run many meetings or course sessions over Zoom. My goal is to design virtual experiences to be as inclusive and participatory as possible.

In past days of in-person training, I presented a slide deck in front of the class and distributed a paper course reader that students could hold in their hands and take notes on. I'd take notes on major concepts on large Post-It notes that we'd post on the wall. Throughout the session, we'd divide into smaller groups or pairs to learn from each other more collaboratively.

Moving to Zoom, the simplest way to adapt would be screenshare my slide deck. What I don't like about screensharing is that I can't see participants' faces and participants can't see each other.

So, I started using collaborative Google documents. Participants can respond to questions and add their thoughts, and we can see each other's faces.

But, as my example indicates, things do not always work as expected.

What do we do when technology (or the people using the technology) do something unexpected? Here are five guidelines I've created after learning from experiences over the past year:

1. Design the technology experience with the lowest barrier to entry. Ask a lot of questions beforehand to understand technology comfort. (And then ask more!)

Some meeting or course participants do not have stable internet connections. Some participants will have two or more screens; others may be accessing a meeting through their phone or tablet. Some participants won't come with the most updated version of the software.

At the end of every planning process, I send out a feedback survey to participants. After one early virtual retreat, an anonymous participant responded that they couldn't read the Zoom chat and had not been able to access any of the shared documents in the meeting. Not surprisingly, their perception was that the conversation had been poorly facilitated and had no structure!

Reading these comments, I felt terrible. I had asked my contact whether participants were comfortable using Zoom with Google Docs. I didn't get the correct information, or perhaps my contact didn't know.

Since then, I've asked more questions about participants' comfort level with technology. I share all materials ahead of time to encourage participants to check whether they can access them so that participants have a chance to review the materials and reflect on them.

In different meetings, we've created breakout rooms so people with stronger technology skills can support others who feel less comfortable by screensharing and/or being the ones to take notes.

And guess what? This isn't failproof! Someone will show up at a meeting, not having read the documents ahead of time, and be upset that they can't access the materials (see No. 4 and No. 5 below).

2. Have a clean backup of your materials.

If you share a document, someone may corrupt it. I always have a backup copy available, in case I need to restore the document. In the example situation of my Grant Proposal Writing course, we were saved by another student, who also had a backup copy of the document and quickly copied it to the roll sheet.

3. For larger, more complex meetings, include a technology producer in addition to the meeting leader.

I am a member of the Technology of Participation network of facilitators. Over the past year, there has been significant conversation about best practices for virtual facilitation.

Currently, the best practice for a meeting with some complexity is to include a technology producer. This enables the facilitator to focus on the flow of the conversation or planning process.

The tech producer can also help someone who is having a technology challenge without this taking up the whole group's time.

4. Keep learning and adapting with each group.

We can share the exact same information and process with two different groups of people, and it can be received in very different ways.

Of course. We are each unique humans who bring different perspectives, strengths, experiences and knowledge.

In order to account for this, I collect feedback after each meeting and adjust the presentation and materials to each group.

5. Know that things will go wrong with technology. Keep calm and carry on.

I have a sign on my desk that says, "If Plan A didn't work, don't worry. The alphabet has 25 more letters."

If we've learned anything from the past year, it's resilience!

The purpose of coming together is… coming together. Keep that in focus at all times.

In the case of the deleted roll sheet, I did remain calm. It wasn't a big deal. My most important priority was building community, not getting pulled into focusing too much on technology. That's the lesson here. By maintaining composure, we were able to quickly resolve the issue. That #TechFail was nothing more than a brief hiccup — it could have derailed the class and wrecked the tone I was setting. Instead, we were able to sort it out and no one (else) will even remember that it happened.

So when did technology, or your participants, surprise you this year, how did you manage and what have you learned? Feel free to share in the comments below.

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