The Virtual Meeting: What Works, What Doesn’t

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By Julie Pham and Cole Hoover

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Being quarantined highlights a paradox: We want to connect but we also want to avoid the anxiety, fatigue and potential boredom that can result from bad virtual gatherings. We don’t have the same tolerance for Zoom and its kind as we do for those held in-person. 

We’ve witnessed many people trying to translate how they interact socially in-person to the new virtual world. As we observe efforts to try to adapt, it’s becoming clear to us what can and can’t be translated. We believe that some social meeting practices shaped by the technical constraints of videoconferencing might actually enhance our in-person interactions when we do meet again in person.

The two of us have been organizing social and professional gatherings virtually now for years, with participants from all over the world. Here’s what we’ve learned.

Work meetings are easier to translate from in-person to virtual because there’s already an expectation of a meeting leader and a set agenda. By contrast, social gatherings lack the formality of work meetings. And their objective can be much more ambiguous–building new and/or deepening existing relationships. 

Let’s start with social meetings. It’s easy to romanticize the best parts of in-person meetings. We miss the energy that comes from being in proximity to others, including being able to read people’s body language; the power of eye contact that you know is directed at you and not to the camera generally; and the verbal tracking cues that people make as we listen to one another, like laughter, gasps of surprise, the affirming grunts of approval. We also miss commenting on a shared environment, like the food we’re eating together or the ambience of the room. Such observations seemed like small talk back then, but now we recognize we were setting the table for the conversation to come. 

There are things we DON’T miss, mainly the transportation time it takes to get somewhere or knowing that some people who we would like to have joined us just weren’t able to come, for whatever reasons. We also don’t miss how one or two people can dominate the conversation. Social gatherings typically don’t have a conversation facilitator. That means natural conversationalists shine in facilitator-less gatherings while those who already say little are even more likely to say less.

In virtual gatherings, we miss the ability to read body language and to hear people’s verbal tracking cues because everyone’s on mute. Beginners to virtual meetings may find it awkward to speak into muted silence. There’s also the temptation to multitask (like checking email) when in a virtual meeting in ways that would not be possible, or at least considered more rude, in in-person gatherings. What we miss the most is knowing we are intentionally entering this physical shared space and leaving behind the distractions of our normal environment to be with one another.

On the other hand, with virtual gatherings we get a chance to look into people’s homes, their private lives, or at least their choice of virtual background. We can see their pets and their family members passing by in the background. Sometimes people take us on a tour through their homes as they move from one spot to another. We’ve been inside more homes of friends and family members in the past two months than in all the pre-Covid years combined. We’ve invited others in to see our lives. “So that’s what your home looks like!” we say to each other. 

Because of the physical fatigue of looking at a screen for too long, virtual meetings can make us more intentional about our time together. When virtual meetings are well planned, you can have more meaningful conversations in less time and include more people in those conversations.

Here’s a caution. Some people try to translate practices of in-person gathering to virtual meetings, and it just doesn’t work. For example, one individual speaking to another individual in a group call, which can happen in face-to-face meetings as a side conversation, is painful to watch in a virtual meeting. Personally, the two of  us prefer having the side conversation with private chat messages or in a break out room.

While in-person gatherings can get by without a facilitator, it’s chaotic not to have one in a virtual gathering. This doesn’t mean that there has to be one person who facilitates the entire time, and often different people naturally lead different parts of the conversation. 

This is where an opportunity to keep some practices developed in a virtual gathering environment and apply it to in-person gatherings when we are able to gather again. “Facilitation” can be as simple as someone proposing a question that everyone agrees to answer. What we’ve seen from virtual gatherings is that it encourages more people to participate. It’s clear when the spotlight is on one person and everyone else listens. In virtual gatherings, it’s a lot more obvious and awkward for people to talk over one another or to interrupt one another, though it does happen. 

We’ve seen those who seldom speak up at in-person gatherings speak in virtual meetings because there is the expectation they will speak and the expectations others will listen. Because it’s a lot harder to jump in and interrupt one another in virtual meetings, we have to be so much more alert as to who might want to say something and to reciprocate deep listening.

Some might argue allowing whoever wants to speak is more democratic. We think having facilitators helps ensure conversations are more inclusive.

Here are some tips from our work at MovingWorlds and the Ion Collaborators in designing thoughtful virtual gatherings that could be applied to in-person ones:

  • Invite people to propose questions to the rest of the group
  • Keep the questions broad so that they can be open to individual interpretation
  • Agree that there’s no right or wrong way of answering
  • If there are people who don’t know each other in the group, consider sending the questions beforehand to allow for processing time
  • Have multiple rounds of questions, the first round being “what’s your name” (for groups of strangers) or a quick check in question for groups that know each other. “What is the word to describe how you’re feeling right now?” is simple and effective. If you want to give space to acknowledge life under quarantine, here’s a list of questions other than “How are you?”
  • Encourage people to encourage one another to speak, so it doesn’t just fall on one facilitator to call on people. That can be as simple as saying, “Who hasn’t spoken?” and those who have spoken already will usually point out those who haven’t
  • If you are still interested in learning more great ways to connect virtually here is another piece  from one of our favorite thinkers on gathering, Priya Parker: How to hold work meetings and events that connect people — even online
  • If you and your community are trying to learn together or do something collaboratively here are some best practices we have experienced for driving engagement and commitment while in online learning communities

The truth is that we have all been guilty from time to time of just going through the motions in terms of gathering. No one steps up to guide the conversation or asks engaging questions, leading to a lost opportunity to connect. Thoughtful conversations are even more critical to make gathering virtually worthwhile when we cannot engage a variety of senses made possible when we are physically together.

Because life is not “normal,” we don’t have to do what we’ve always done. The quarantine is an opportunity to have more intentional social gatherings, which can only enhance our interactions, regardless if they take place virtually or in-person. 

Dr. Julie Pham is the founder of the Ion Program, which provides experiences that foster collaboration, resulting in better leaders, organizations, and communities.

Cole Hoover is the Director of MovingWorlds Institute Social Impact Fellowship, which helps working professionals find purpose in their work and make an impact with their career.

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