By Apollon Fanzeres

We’ve all participated in virtual meetings. But when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit, we suddenly had to make every meeting virtual. That comes with its own challenges, including actively engaging participants who are in a non-work setting.

These best practices can help drive higher engagement when leading a video conference. Let’s start with some of the basics:

Be ready, presentable and professional. This means more than reading materials ahead of time and being prepared for discussions; it also requires adopting a business demeanor. Dress appropriately — bottoms, too; no jogging shorts or skivvies. Do not use the bathroom with your audio/video on.

Although these may sound like obvious measures, there are a number of embarrassing videos with such issues circulating the internet.

Familiarize yourself with the video conferencing platform that will be used. We’ve found ourselves suddenly immersed in an alphabet soup of video platforms that include Skype, Blue Jeans, Zoom, Hipo, WebEx, GoToMeeting, ClickMeeting, My Open Conference, StarLeaf and Microsoft Teams. Before the meeting, download the platform — and use it in advance — to ensure you’re comfortable with it. Take a tutorial to become familiar with features that can increase the productivity of the meeting, like polling, muting and screen sharing.

Consider time of day when scheduling meetings. This is particularly important when your team is geographically dispersed. Schedule the meeting at a time — preferable during working hours — that works for everyone. If a worker is in an outlier time zone, ask if he or she prefers a meeting time of late in the evening or early in the morning.

Email participants a detailed agenda before the meeting. Be clear about the meeting’s objective. In a March Harvard Business Review article, “How to Get People to Actually Participate in Virtual Meetings,” authors Justin Hale and Joseph Grenny state that the four reasons for a meeting are “to influence others, to make decisions, to solve problems, or to strengthen relationships.” Active, voluntary engagement makes a meeting effective, they say.

When It’s Showtime

During the meeting:

Keep communication short. It is difficult to interject in a virtual meeting. Designate someone to be a moderator to “manage” the meeting.

Be empathetic. It may be difficult for participants to control their non-work environment. Acknowledge that some employees may have home disruptions like roaming children or pets. Ask those who are not speaking to mute their microphones. If your home office is not presentable on camera, it can be camouflaged with a virtual or blurred background on some platforms.

Require participants to turn on their cameras. Among other benefits, this (1) will enable you to pick up on nonverbal clues, (2) creates an atmosphere of enclosure, which builds relationships, (3) limits distractions and (4) reduces temptation to multitask or not pay attention or engage in the meeting.

In the Harvard Business Review article, Hale and Grenny mention that “it’s particularly annoying when you make a nine-minute argument, pause for an expected reaction and get: ‘I’m not sure I followed you’ which might as well mean, ‘I was shampooing my cat and didn’t realize I would be called on.’ ”

Create an engaging meeting environment. Among the ways to ensure active participation:

Provide plenty of opportunities for all attendees to contribute.

Ask people by name to share their thoughts and opinions on the topic. Consider letting them know you will be calling on them.

Use the platform’s survey function to ask questions and present the results.

Give participants tasks in which they can engage among themselves. For example, have them discuss a topic or work on a solution for few minutes, then regroup.

Delegate a topic to a participant, who leads discussion on it.

Assign roles.

Developing the Slide Deck

When creating a slide deck for a virtual meeting, consider:

The MVP Rule. “Nothing disengages a group more reliably than assaulting them with slide after slide of mind-numbing data organized in endless bullet points,” the Harvard Business Review article states. They recommend creating a minimum viable PowerPoint (MVP) deck — a deck containing the minimum amount of data participants need. For example, I once gave a 90-minute presentation using a single slide.

Control of the slides. Ideally, you ought to have control. It can be cumbersome to continually ask someone else to move the slides.

The benefits of having slides and camera views. You can achieve a higher level of engagement if your virtual-conference software allows both views simultaneously.

Using a pointer, which allows you to emphasize elements on a slide.

After the meeting, email a recap with action items, and follow up as appropriate. Ask for feedback from the group so you can improve the style, flow, content and visuals of future presentations.

As we face unprecedented challenges, we must learn the most effective ways to keep teams engaged, work flowing and communication lines open. Taking advantage of opportunities presented during this crisis can create a team that returns to the office energized and committed to moving forward. Effective virtual meetings can go a long way toward reaching this goal.

Apollon Fanzeres is a CPO and has held senior executive roles at Merck KGaA, Sodexo and Laureate International Universities. He has managed global teams and has lived and worked in Europe, Latin America and North America.

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