How to Boost Participant Engagement in Online Meetings

“Great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.” – Steve Jobs

Kevin McMahon

January 10, 2018

“Great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.”
– Steve Jobs

Collaboration is proliferating in enterprise communications.

“The collaborative intensity of work has exploded over the past decade,” Rob Cross, a professor of global leadership at Babson College, recently told the Knowledge@Wharton blog.

The reasons for this explosion of team interaction? The increased complexity of products and services, globalization, email proliferation and the adoption of collaborative tools and social media, says Cross. He also links the phenomenon to the rise of matrix-based organizational structures, which replace traditional hierarchical management with dual lines of reporting – i.e., team members often answer to both functional and product leadership.

Of course, digital technology is inseparable from this trend, as unified communications platforms redefine the meaning of face-to-face interaction. In today’s business ecosystem, more and more interactions with customers and colleagues now occur in virtual settings, meaning online meetings are destined to become our most common collaborative environment.

Multiplying Collaboration Requires Sharpening Meeting Management Skills for Virtual Settings

Researchers established long ago that business people spend as much as half of their time in meetings, a proportion the escalating trend of collaboration surely will increase. So, if team leaders are destined to spend more and more time meeting online, the best collaborative leaders will resolve to sharpen their virtual meeting management skills.

The best place to start? Keeping participants’ attention. Digital distance lessens the leverage of visual cues like body language in virtual settings, where often webcams come between moderators and their audience or the discussion is audio-only. Engaging colleagues during online sessions takes a shift in mindset from efficiency as priority to effectiveness as the prime directive.

Yes, collaborative leaders in business should be attuned to making meetings more efficient and productive, corporate trainer Paul Axtell writes in the Harvard Business Review. But “There’s another outcome that leaders should be paying more attention to: creating a quality experience for each participant,” Axtell asserts.

What’s a “quality experience” in a meeting – online or otherwise? Axtell’s definition: When participants leave the session “feeling more connected, valued and fulfilled.”

Fully Engaged Meeting Participants Make Comments Like These

  • “I never left anything important unsaid. When I spoke, I felt like I was being heard, and I believed that what I said had an impact.”
  • “It felt like I was really a member of the group. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in each other and in what was going on in our lives.”
  • “I knew that I added value, both in the meetings and outside of them.”

So, how can collaborative communicators lead online meetings to elicit this type of engagement?

3 Signs of an “Engaged Meeting”

On her blog, leadership coach Jesse Lyn Stoner shares a profile of an “engaged meeting.” Here’s a digest:

  1. Connected to the Big Picture
    Team members feel responsible for the success of the team, not just their individual area of responsibility. Plus, the team makes joint decisions using everyone’s best thinking.
  2. Conversation Flows All Directions
    Team members talk with each other, not just with the team leader, and the team’s energy circulates with the flow of conversation. “If everyone is looking at the team leader, the energy is flowing in the wrong direction,” Stoner writes.
  3. Collaboration Exceeds Individual and Session Boundaries
    Engaged teams accomplish objectives together in meetings that could not be achieved separately, and the resulting rapport strengthens (get rapport-building tips) relationships and trust that extend outside their meetings.

3 Tips for Leading Engaged Meetings in Virtual Settings

We reviewed Stoner’s and Axtel’s counsel about leading engaged meetings and added our spin regarding virtual settings. Here are our five tips:

  1. Preparation Makes Possible
    “Take adequate time to prepare so that you can be available and attentive before and during the meeting,” Axtell advises. “Preparation allows you to relax about leading the meeting and pay more attention to ‘reading the room.’”

    How does one read a virtual room? With words. Reserve a few minutes at the start of a virtual session for small talk, a word or two with each attendee. Greet participants as they sign into the meeting. If the group is large, ask the team whether anyone feels anxious, preoccupied or pressed for time and encourage honesty. Make an earnest promise to keep the session focused. Your mission here is demonstrating empathy.

  2. Identify Necessary Conversations Beforehand, and then Manage Them
    Stoner recommends listing conversations that need to occur on the agenda along with decisions to be made from them. Axtell emphasizes asking permission from the team to manage these conversations, which means setting guidelines for courtesy upfront and setting the example for following them. Stoner believes sharing this leadership is important, too; encourage team members to take initiative and lead discussion about agenda topics relevant to them. Handling this process in a virtual setting means paying strict attention, listening closely to all comments and keeping track of who has spoken and who has not.
  3. Free Time with Fewer Agenda Items
    Axtell suggests padding meetings with time for broad participation: “As a target, put 20% fewer items on your agenda and allow 20% more time for each item.” In an online meeting, facilitating this depth means slowing down conversations and taking care not to dominate discussion yourself or allow anyone else to do so.

“Of course, you should still be focused on achieving the meeting outcomes, but thoughtful meetings and productive ones don’t have to be at odds.”
– Paul Axtell

We agree.

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Kevin McMahon
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