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7 Best Practices for COVID-19-Necessitated Online Meetings

How to facilitate a web conversation.

March 8, 2020
 
 

COVID-19 is causing many higher ed people who would typically meet face-to-face to now meet online. Most higher ed people I know have moved over to Zoom for online meetings, although there is still considerable diversity in the web-meeting ecosystem. (What online meeting platform do you use?)

Why are meetings that were once face-to-face now moving online? I suspect that many more meetings are being scheduled. Anticipating the impact of COVID-19 requires a great deal of planning.

Meeting online is more efficient, as people from across campus can be accommodated. Physical rooms don't need to be scheduled, and you won't run out of space. For meetings called on weekends and at nonstandard hours, a web meeting is usually more feasible than having everyone come to campus.

Remote work is also a strategy to bolster institutional resilience, as I suspect that a possible long-term result of COVID-19 will be to change higher ed norms around telecommuting.

The good news is that most campuses are now well set up to move meetings from face-to-face to online. It is only over the last couple of years that web-meeting platforms have become a ubiquitous campus tool. (Can anyone argue against this assertion, or provide any data to back it up?)

The quality of web meetings has also greatly improved in recent years. Again, I give Zoom lots of credit for this advance. Zoom's focus on simplicity (fewer features) and quality (video and audio streams) has made web meetings a more reliable experience.

With all these people on campus running meetings that were previously face-to-face and are now online, it would be good to discuss a few online meeting best practices. I'll offer some suggestions and hopefully, you will contribute some others.

No. 1: Have an Agenda

The quality of the online meeting will be a function of the thought and care put into the meeting agenda. If possible, the agenda should be distributed ahead of time. Displaying the agenda in the online meeting software is a good idea. The agenda can be put in the comments or shared on the screen. Many people in the online meeting are likely to be audio only. The meeting host/facilitator should go through the agenda at the top of the meeting and then move the discussion through each point.

No. 2: Do a Roll Call

Online meetings lack many of the social and visual cues that groups rely on to communicate. In an in-person meeting, you can see who is in the room. Taking a minute at the start of each meeting to go down the list of attendees, either by reading out from the invites or having everyone identify themselves, will make the subsequent conversation more productive.

No. 3: Actively Facilitate the Conversation

Online meetings require higher levels of facilitation than in-person discussions. Whoever is hosting the meeting will need to play an active role in moving the conversation along and distributing time for people to give their updates and opinions. The meeting facilitator needs to be willing to actively invite comments, calling meeting participants out by name. Do not be afraid to move the conversation along, even if that means cutting people off or redirecting to making progress at the task at hand. A good online meeting facilitator will firmly direct the conversation through the agenda and across all the participants.

No. 4: Create Space for Everyone to Contribute

Every group meeting that involves humans, in every setting and every context, will follow a predictable script. High-status members of the meeting will talk more. Those lower in the hierarchy may have the most relevant knowledge, but they will speak less. There is no correlation between the amount of time that someone speaks and the quality of their contribution. These information inequalities can either be ameliorated or exacerbated by online meetings. It is up to the meeting host (or facilitator) to actively create space for everyone in the meeting to contribute.

No. 5: Make Space for Dissent

Online meetings are as likely to fall into groupthink as any other gathering. The risk of groupthink may be even worse in online meetings, as it is hard to find the right moment to jump in with dissent. For this reason, the meeting facilitator should always create space for contrary opinions. It might be necessary to assign some people in the meeting to play the role of devil's advocate. In each case, always invite dissent -- and make clear that the online meeting is a safe space for contrary opinions.

No. 6: Have Clear Next Steps and End on Time

The facilitator/host of the online meeting should leave time on the agenda to articulate next steps. Too often, the discussion will go to the end of the allotted meeting time, and the conversation of next steps will be rushed. Prioritizing the development and sharing of next steps within the meeting takes discipline and a willingness to move the discussion along. Next steps should then be emailed to meeting participants. The online meeting should always end on time.

No. 7: Give Careful Thought to Facilitating Mixed In-Person and Online Meetings

One way that campus meetings are rapidly changing in response to COVID-19 is that many more meetings are mixed or blended conversations, with some people in the room and others online. If the host/facilitator is not careful, the people who are online in a mixed meeting will not be able to contribute equally to the discussion. It is almost impossible for a person who is participating in an in-person meeting from another location to know when to jump into the discussion. Turn taking in meetings is driving by nonverbal cues.

The host/facilitator of the meeting must make an active effort to invite contributions of remote attendees. It is not enough to ask if anyone who is online has something to say. Far better to ask individual remote participants, by name, to report and to respond.

You likely think that all of these suggestions are equally applicable to face-to-face as online meetings. And you would be right.

We need to remember that the behaviors that enable reasonably productive face-to-face meetings to occur will not work with online meetings.

Online meetings, if designed with care and facilitated with skill, can be superior to face-to-face gatherings. Conversations can flow more from expertise than from status. Information can be shared more freely, and disagreements aired more thoroughly and respectfully.

Following these best practices may be too much to hope for in this time of high stress and huge workloads related to COVID-19. We all need to be extra caring, forgiving and kind to our colleagues in the coming days and weeks.

Modeling that care and concern for each other is likely the best thing we can all do in our online meetings.

What suggestions do you have for improving the quality of online meetings? Is COVID-19 causing more meetings to move online on your campus? What do you think the relationship is between online meetings and online teaching?

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