Those of us who Chair and lead meetings have had to get used to a whole new set of disciplines when chairing virtual meetings, which have been the norm since early March 2020 and are poised to continue for many months to come. In fact, it is possible that, once all the restrictions have been lifted, virtual meetings will remain part of the diary, as Chairs explore how to mix “in person” with virtual meetings as a means of containing costs.
I set out in this article some of the techniques I have learned over this past year for chairing virtual meetings. We are learning as we go along and all trying to do better each time.
This is slightly complicated by the fact that there are three common systems for virtual meetings that I have used, and the tools vary slightly on each. I have mainly used Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams. However, I know that there are also systems from Cisco Webex, Google Hangout, Skype and others.
This article is very clearly written from the perspective of a technical novice, so please forgive the basic errors which will become evident.
Invitations to the Meeting
The invitation is all important. Users are still not perfectly comfortable with the ease of joining a virtual meeting. Both Zoom and Teams allow you to click straight through to the meeting from your Outlook or other calendar. But there are still many people who will text you just before, or sometimes just after the meeting has started, asking for the Link. Zoom allows you to read the meeting ID from an Email or text message, whereas Teams does not currently have the same function. So, it is worth reminding attendees how to join a few hours before the meeting and having someone on standby to send links out to those who have lost them.
Starting the Meeting
Both Zoom and Teams have a “waiting room” or “lobby” function. I suggest you use that. It allows you to see who is joining, and that in turn allows you as Chair to greet each person as they join. This retains the personal touch that would be present at a physical meeting. This feature also allows you to protect yourself against unwanted visitors. Unlikely I know, but I am aware of meetings that have been bombed and you really need to avoid that.
I suggest also that before you get into the Agenda of the meeting, that you explain to the attendees the rules of the virtual meeting and how you intend to chair it.
There has been a bit of attention given to people’s backgrounds. The media have started discussing bookshelves and what they say about you and people have been “caught out” playing with filters and other features in meetings.
I have no such luxury. My workspace is in the eaves at the top of our house. I have nothing behind me, other than two whitewashed ceiling eaves. So, I need to use the Background features on the software.
Both Zoom and Teams allow you to upload your own images as backgrounds. These could be brand or company logos or any image you choose.
As I use a Microsoft Surface, for some reason, the Zoom backgrounds are ineffective. My face strobes or disappears into the background and it is not effective. I am not sure why this is or how to change it. Teams is much better. Background images work much better for me on this software.
If you are using a background, make sure it is unobtrusive and unlikely to be a distraction.
Controlling the Meeting
There are some tools and techniques that I find useful.
It comes from the fact that Zoom and Teams currently have considerable differences on how many people you can see at any one time. Teams seems to be limited to 9 people in vision at any one time. Zoom allows up to 25 on one screen with the ability to scroll to other screens to see others.
As I frequently chair and lead meetings of more than 40 people, this would seem to give Zoom an advantage. But, I find it does not really help, as you rarely end up scanning all the faces and, when it comes to people speaking, you need to use a few common tools to ensure good order.
Firstly, mute everyone, except yourself. Both Zoom and Teams allow the Chair to be appointed the co-host and then you can mute everybody except yourself. Make sure you announce at the beginning that this is what you are doing.
I suggest that you set up your own screen in such a way to allow you to manage the meeting.
- Put your screen to Gallery View to allow you to see as many people as possible.
- Press the participants button and keep it open so you can always see the list of participants.
- Also keep open the chat function.
These tools allow you to offer a number of options for how people can get your attention to speak.
- Use the Raise Hands or Hands Up button. This is the easiest. You can see on their icon and on the participants screen who has raised their hand. Remember, when they start speaking, to lower their hand which you can do as host or co-host. I suggest that as Chair, you actively lower someone’s hand when they are speaking, so you know that you have gone to them. You can do this on Teams. I have lost count of the number of meetings where I have had to ask if the hand up is from the previous time or if they indeed want to speak.
- People will be joining from a host of different devices, so they may not be able to find the Raise Hand button. So, other options include allowing them to send a message on the chat function to say that they would like to speak. This is why you need to keep the chat screen open.
- Actually raising their hands. Some people still do this and if you are on gallery view, you have a chance of seeing them.
“You’re on Mute”
People need to remember to unmute. It is amazing how many people forget to do this. So, I tell people that I am coming to them and give them a little time to prepare by unmuting. You do need to give people a second or two to find the unmute setting and to talk so do not be too eager to jump in and accuse them of still being muted.
Once they have spoken, people are getting into the habit of muting themselves again. But, if they don’t, you as the Chair can mute them. Remember to check this.
I have found this step the trickiest every time I chair and lead meetings. The raise hands tool is the easiest, as you can simply count that. But I recently chaired a 50 person meeting at which a vote was carried out, and I had people voting with the hands Up button, and by sending a message, and by physically putting up their hand. It made it very difficult to count the votes.
We have now worked out how to vote using Google Forms. It works well, but setting it up is technologically beyond me. Thank heavens for a technically savvy Company Secretary and an efficient Executive Assistant.
You need to enable screen sharing by anyone so that colleagues can share papers and presentations. Make sure you stop the screen sharing as soon as the presentation is finished.
A tip too for anyone sharing their screen. Clear your computer of anything else that is open. The last thing anyone wants is to see your cluttered windows or, heaven forbid, any personal messages or communications.
If you chair and lead meetings physically, you would allow people to get up for a comfort break, or to wander to get a drink. So, if your virtual meeting is scheduled for more than 90 minutes, I suggest you build in a 10 minute comfort break. Announce that you are going to take a break and when at the start of the meeting so people can plan accordingly.
Ending the Meeting
When the meeting is finished, just watch how many people wave at the screen. Who waves normally when they leave a meeting?
If you Chair and lead meetings, it is your job to keep it moving, give people who want to speak the chance to, to retain order and to finish on time.
I find chairing virtual meetings tiring. Staring at a screen, with chat and participants open, keeping an eye out for who has raised their hands or who wants to speak, requires great concentration.
Virtual meetings create a new set of challenges to being a good Chair. But, as with everything, having a clear set of rules and practising will make these virtual meetings better.
I also think that the battle of the virtual meeting systems will be fun to see play out. I suspect that Teams will continue to add functionality so that, in time, with the heft of Microsoft behind it, it has the chance to be the dominant player. It is catching up with Zoom, but it seems that, at present, people are more comfortable with Zoom.
Get it right, and virtual meetings will remain part of the armoury of a Chair.