Over the past nine months I transformed my business as trainer and facilitator from in person to virtual. It required learning to recreate the level of interaction I used to have with in-person groups. Many of us are online for hours each day, not only in our professional lives (meetings, check-ins, conferences and webinars) but also in our personal lives (shopping, health appointments, fitness, and social events). With “Zoom fatigue” the bar has become even higher for leading meetings that keep people focused and engaged in a consistent manner.

The most important thing I learned is actually from my improv class which I use to attend in person every Wednesday night. In our last in-person session, when it started to be clear that we would not meet again for a while, I suggested we may have to continue on Zoom and everybody thought that was not possible. We did move to Zoom, however and quickly realized that doing the same thing we were doing in person was not working so well. Over time, we learned to take advantage of the Zoom format rather than resenting its limitation. For example, it is easy and fast to get in and out of the scene (just turn off your camera or leave your frame) and that can make up for funny interactions. And it can be so delightful to give a present to your partner and see it appears in their frame transformed! Or somebody turns on their camera and they are wearing a pirate hat with the wind moving a palm tree on a deserted beach (thank you Zoom backgrounds!). So I encourage you to see the benefits of the virtual meetings and find ways to make them engaging and maybe even delightful!

Here are five tips that can make your online meetings more engaging and productive:

1. Start with a warm-up exercise

In person, there is often a chance for small talks and reconnections. In virtual life, jumping from meeting to meeting, we get in an out often without a chance to connect. We feel we are time constrained so we jump right into our topics. Yet, including a short warm-up connection activity, even in a brief meeting, can make your meeting more efficient (and enjoyable) because the group has bonded. For example, you could use the chat box and ask a question. From basic (what did you have for breakfast?) to something more personal (tell us something people don’t know about you?). You could rename yourself for the day on your Zoom profile (super hero day?). Anything that helps to build human connections and be more than a face in a square can go a long way to creating more participation and enthusiasm.

2. Have a clear agenda

This seems obvious as good meetings always require a good agenda, yet it is often missing. I believe that an agenda should include the topics that will be discussed, how much time is allocated for each, the expected outcomes and the person(s) responsible. This is helpful because 1) people can decide if they actually need to be at the meeting, 2) it helps manage time better and 3) and people can focus on the parts that cannot be easily accomplished off line (see point#3).

3. Make sure a virtual meeting is the best choice

You may not agree with this, but I believe it is best to avoid presentations or anything that is “informational only” in an online meeting. Meeting time is best used in engaging the participants and discussing implications and options with specific outcomes and decisions in mind. I always disliked presentations in a meeting as it is often easier, faster and more productive to get the presentation ahead of time so you can read and have time to think about its implications or questions ahead of time. In the virtual world, it is even more important as presentation time becomes the opportunity to tune out, multitask and check your emails, go have a snack or help your kids. Send your presentation beforehand, and if it is really important, you may consider a pre-recorded video so you can focus the online meeting time on meaningful discussions where the whole group’s perspective and synchronous interactions are needed.

4. Use breakout rooms

A large group discussion is hard enough in person and almost useless in a virtual meeting as it is so easy to tune out. Breakout rooms are a great way to foster engagement. In a small group (I would suggest 2 to 4), everybody has to participate and be fully present as there is no escape. With each group having a discussion at the same time, a great deal can be covered (each group can work on the same topic but could also select a different topic or angle on a topic). Once the groups come back from their breakout rooms, think about the best way to for reporting back (a few slides, a spokesperson summarizing in a defined amount of time or specific format, use of the chat box to post a summary, use of a white board….). Even the group discussion gets more focused once participants know they have to be prepared to report back. You will be amazed to see your engagement and efficiency back.

5. Know and use technology to your benefits

Technology can be annoying (how many times did you hear “I can’t hear you” or “you are frozen”…) but it can also be a great enhancer for your meetings. My philosophy about tools is that tools are only that. You need to know how and when to use them by weighting their pros and cons (for instance how much time will it take for participants to go to another site or learn a new tool versus its benefits). Look for the simplest ones that have the most impact. For my innovation work I know 100+ tools and yet I mostly use the 10 that get me most of what I need and are easy to use and learn for participants. In the virtual world, I try to do the same and identify the easy and impactful tools and approaches that can make a difference. I am down to mostly three:

A good platform.

My preferred one is Zoom. Because, I use it so much I am familiar with its features and I also know that most of the participants are too by now. Within Zoom there are breakout rooms (see #4) and polls.

A polling function

Polls are great for participation and getting a quick read on a group’s mindset. Zoom has a polling function, however it can only be used for close-ended questions. A few other options are Mintemeter, Kahoot or Slido.

A white board function

This is getting into more sophisticated type of facilitation but it can be very effective as a collaboration tool. Zoom has a simple white board that can be used for participants to type and draw together as well as use stamps and other annotation tools to show their thoughts or interest. It is another way to make a meeting more participatory and interactive. If you need to use complex tools for strategic and innovation work, you may want to use a tool like Mural. Because you have access to sticky notes and many templates (the Business Model Canvas is one I use a lot), you can do most of the work you would do in a room with participants on flip chart, post-its® and markers. Of course, this type of work requires good planning and a trained facilitator to make it easy and effective for the participants. But it is very powerful to move from discussion to actually solving complex problem together.

Another benefit of being virtual is that team members from all over the world can participate synchronously or asynchronously. Think about how this may help your team ideate on a challenging issue or problem over 3 days rather than in 20 minutes and can make this a perfect collaboration tool to avoid more meeting time!

There is much more to the art of effective online meetings, but I hope this inspires you to try something new during your next meeting. The hardest part in change is the first step, so I would like to challenge you: what tip from this post will you try in the next 24 hours?

And if you want to experience these approaches firsthand, starting in January, we are planning to offer a series of short webinars focused on “How to improve you online meetings”. We want to keep these highly experiential and give you a chance to ask questions as well.

Learn more and sign up to get notified here.

Helene Cahen is a trained facilitator and an expert innovation trainer with over 20 years of experience guiding teams through the innovation process and helping them collaborate better.