How to Lead Effective, People-Centered Virtual Meetings

These tips work best for participatory meetings of 5-20 people; if you have a larger group or are trying to replicate a conference or training, you will need slightly different strategies.

Photo of many people's face on a computer screen as they attend an online meeting

Many of us have found ourselves scrambling to transition to virtual teams in the last month. First come the everyday practical challenges — finding a dedicated spot in our homes to work, switching to video calls, having children/partners/roommates/pets constantly interrupt, figuring out what a “regular” work schedule looks like amid anxiety and grief, managing the insatiable need to snack all the time (oh, wait, maybe that’s just us), and more.

Then come the questions about how to take our programming virtual. The in-person meetings, conferences, and trainings that many of us rely on need to change. But it isn’t a matter of simply taking your typical meeting and just doing the same thing over Zoom. It requires thought and intention, and we have some tips to help you.

Move to End Violence is a capacity-building program of the NoVo Foundation that is staffed by Raben. Over five years ago, our client team intentionally became a virtual team and started launching national virtual capacity-building projects where thousands of people have participated, like our 21 Day Self Care Challenge and our Racial Equity & Liberation Learning Series.

But even with this virtual experience, our team loves a good multi-day in-person meeting to dive deeply into relationship building, strategic thinking, and big picture planning. We’ve successfully taken these meetings virtually and want to share our top tips. These tips work best for participatory meetings of 5-20 people; if you have a larger group or are trying to replicate a conference or training, you will need slightly different strategies.

Step 1: Focus on what is most important

You cannot cover the same amount of content in a virtual meeting as you can in an in-person meeting. Get clear on the best way to use the time and what needs the interactivity of a meeting (versus what can be done via email or a phone call). Remember that what is urgent is sometimes not what is most important.

We calculate one full day of in-person meeting as four hours of virtual meeting. Four hours is long but totally doable, we don’t recommend longer than that. You can do this up to three days in a row, we don’t recommend longer than that. So, a two-day in-person meeting that was originally scheduled to run 9 am to 5 pm becomes a two-day virtual meeting running from 10 am to 2 pm. Here’s a sample agenda.

Pre-work is your friend. To support people into diving into the content right away, provide advanced reading, videos, reflection questions, brainstorming exercises, etc. Send a calendar hold for 30 minutes to 1 hour of prep time in addition to the meeting time.

Step 2: Get your tech right

Tech tools are not what will make your meeting great — but they can be what makes your meeting not-so-great.

  • A dual-screen set up is a gamechanger, especially if you are the facilitator. If you have a spare computer monitor or a tablet in addition to your main computer or laptop, one screen can be for the video call and the other screen can be for notes and docs.
  • Remind people to mute when they aren’t talking. If you are the host, you can mute them.
  • Zoom is our current preferred virtual meeting platform, although more tools are being developed, so this may change over time. Here’s a recent article with some top picks. Whatever platform you use, get a paid account — it’s worth it.
  • Many platforms let you create virtual breakout rooms, do participant polls, shared whiteboards, and more. Use them.
  • If you are hosting a bilingual call, check out our tips here.

Step 3: Support people in staying focused

Set a shared expectation about staying present. If folks are juggling multiple priorities, give them a chance to share that at the beginning of the call so the reason for their distraction is specific rather than setting a general tone. Encourage people to grab whatever they need to be comfortable and stay focused – snacks, drinks, scratch paper, coloring books, tinctures, etc.

Ask everyone to turn on their video and use “gallery view” so we can see each other’s faces. Explicitly tell folks not to worry about messy hair, cluttered rooms, eating on screen, or children or pets in the background. If someone calls in via phone and their phone number rather than their name shows up on the screen, find out who it is. If you are the host, rename them so everyone can identify them.

Take breaks of 10-15 minutes every 90 minutes. Name a specific time when people need to be back on the video. And remember that long video calls require rest afterward. Don’t expect folks to be super productive afterward or to be able to join another long meeting on the same day.

Step 4. Visuals, visuals, visuals

Visuals keep people engaged and help create a more generative atmosphere. They also support people who have visual learning styles.

  • Take notes in a shared google doc during the call so that people can follow along in case they’ve missed anything and have easy access to the agenda. It can also make the notetaking communal so one person isn’t always holding it.
  • Use the chat box liberally — it’s a great way to say hello, share reactions, engage in humor, notify folks if you need to step away for a second, paste links, paste discussion questions, or prompts as a visual cue – without interrupting whoever is speaking.
  • Create interactive documents for brainstorming that are inviting and interesting. Here’s an example of a visual tool we created for one of our calls.

Step 5: Keep what makes your meetings unique

If there is a special element that really made your in-person meetings work, don’t assume you can’t do it virtually. Dance breaks, graphic facilitation, small groups, great catering, swag bags, juicy ice breakers, provocative guest speakers, time to catch up on each other’s lives — all have a virtual equivalent and will probably be warmly welcomed.

The invitation in front of us in these times is not to simply generate the same kind of work we’ve been doing but in a virtual setting. We are in a moment where we are collectively dealing with uncertainty, anxiety, and loss. Where the ability to meet people’s basic needs of income, healthcare, housing, and food is coming into sharper focus. Where we have the opportunity to put systems and practices into place that support a more just and humane world. So, if we are going to keep having meetings, let’s bring people together in a way that centers humanity, joy, equity, and resilience in all that we do.