Keeping human teamwork in your virtual meetings

Recently we’ve been asked a great deal about improving online meetings. The days where the online meeting is the unpopular, ‘do it if we have to’ are gone. The online meeting is here to stay, and it’s now one of the key decision-making arenas at work.

Leaders asking us to help with their online meetings are often sharing similar themes:

  • Head offices are shrinking and teams are going more virtual.
  • Many teams that used to meet face to face, with an occasional Skype call, are becoming almost fully virtual. Online meetings are no longer the inbetweeny bits. They’re the main deal. In some cases they’re the only time the team gathers.
  • A lot of time in the meetings is low energy report-back stylee.
  • Something sad has been lost in the connection between the humans

As organisations finally decide to give their eco-responsibilities more attention, the purse-holders and those who care, will be gunning for the obvious high costs and carbon impact of organisational travel. As coronavirus hits the news this year, more attention is being paid to keeping humans away from each other.

Great online meetings are an obvious imperative.

I read Keith Ferrazzi’s HBR article “How To Run A Great Virtual Meeting”, and I liked it. I also felt it could go further. So please pause here and read that first – I’m avoiding duplication…

Welcome back…

How to behave

One of the critical areas to explore more deeply is the ‘contracting’ of behaviours for the meeting. What will make this meeting a success? What is the agreement about the behaviours and the culture of the meeting? This is so often over-looked.

Just as a company’s culture is made up of a set of complex behaviours and micro-behaviours, so the nature and culture of regular virtual calls is created. Micro-behaviours are tiny, often unconscious gestures, facial expressions, postures, words, tone & volume, routines which can influence how we communicate. Who speaks first or most? Who is the interrupter? Do we turn our screens on? (yes is the answer to that by the way)… Who takes notes?… They can all become set patterns and rituals in any regular meeting.

If you were a fly on the screen of your virtual meetings, what micro-behaviours would you experience? As external coaches we are invited to teams’ virtual calls to observe leaders in action. It’s easy to imagine that one team’s meeting will be very much like another, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. How much social chit chat occurs at the beginning, how much laughter is allowed, how much do people enjoy normal banter and interruption compared with a more serious wait-to-speak approach? And what is your approach doing to your team’s morale?

If your team doesn’t meet in person very often (or at all), the role of your virtual meetings is not just to share information, ideas and plans. It serves the critical purpose of connecting your team members, so that they belong. The way you run your online meetings is actually representative of your whole leadership brand. What do you want this team to be like? And how much attention are you giving to that?

How you ‘be’ on this call, is how you ‘be’ as a leader.

Contracting time

The single biggest easy-fix I see when I observe leaders in online meetings is the way they handle the time and the people. In eight out of nine calls that I observed last year, the leader gave hugely less time to the people taking their ‘go’ later in the call. The management of time was much worse than in the face to face meetings that I see.

As a super-fan of Nancy Kline’s work on the Thinking Environment™ this is even more distressing. I’d encourage anyone who’s aiming to build great thinking environments to read and digest her work, maybe the latest one “More Time To Think”.

Kline proposes that to create the perfect ‘Thinking Environment’™ certain ‘components’ must be in place. Two of her critical components are ‘ease’ and ‘equality’.

Ease to know that we belong, that our time will come, that we will be heard… Equality of time, of attention, of care. If we disrupt these factors and run out of time before we have heard from everyone, a great universal unravelling has occurred. Well, maybe not a great universal unravelling, but certainly a big sting of injustice whether conscious or unconscious in those who were not heard fairly. The more we work in ways that honour ease and equality the more offensive it feels when they are disrupted. I appeal to all hosts of online meetings to crack the time management, either alone, with a nominated time keeper who knows the agreed rules, or as a group. The more we contract with each other to manage the length of time we speak and our own responsibility to each other, the more efficient meetings will become.


A third component of the Thinking Environment™ is Attention, which was described very well in the HBR article, where the risk of multi-tasking, hitting mute or leaving the room are explored. My additional nudge to this would link back to the need for contracting. What is this meeting for? And is it hitting the mark? Chances are that if someone has the opportunity to nip to the kitchen for a cuppa and disengage from the meeting, whatever is being said shouldn’t be being said right now! If something is not for the team, why is it in focus now?

Deciding exactly what should and should not make it into the meeting is a hugely life-changing shift. My challenge to the leader of the meeting is to decide exactly what can be distributed ahead of time, and in what format. Could we be sending our peers more video clips recorded on our phones, or more sound bites recorded on our WhatsApp microphone? How many seconds would it take for you to send a summary to your team that they could listen to ahead of the meeting? In the car? On the move? Let’s not wait until the whole team assembles to start working our way through the updates. Meetings should be generative, connecting, energising, fun. They should build trust, connection and a sense of belonging.

If you’re in a team that you quite like, but your online meetings are not making you feel that, I urge you to hunt for the shift. What are the micro-behaviours of that meeting that serve you and that don’t?

If your team is gathering online, taking it in turns to describe their updates then waving goodbye, I challenge you to think about whether that’s what you really want to do. Who is that for? How else might you share the information and what else could your team achieve when it meets to communicate? All those expensive leaders gathered together to listen to stories… Where’s the innovation, the diversity of thinking, the challenge, the generative banter?

I wonder if lack of confidence in chairing a hairy debate online might hold people back, or the concern about the facilitation skills of leading an online team coaching session. These are valid fears because these skills aren’t easy, but they are skills that can be developed, and they will transform your team delivery. First step to improving is to plan a new way of being; then do it, record it, watch it back, and iterate. Ask your team their thoughts on the meeting and tell them you’re changing it straight away. Pay special attention to your facilitation of the noisiest and quietest members of the group and then bring your whole self to the meeting. Dare I say it, get a coach to join a couple of meetings.

Your face

I’m fascinated to watch the normally animated faces and voices of leaders I know, turn to stone as they log on to their monthly meeting.

My appeal to you, if you don’t already, is to shrug off the strangeness, be real and to relax as the online meeting becomes our normal.

For the sake of your colleagues… please look at yourself in the screen! This is not for beauty reasons – I’m requesting that you align your face in a central, uplifted position. If you google “Ricky Gervais Twitter Bath Challenge” you’ll see pictures of the effect when you have your screen in the wrong place. It’s fantastically distracting when someone online is peering from the very edge of the screen, or disappearing off the bottom. It’s the equivalent of standing half in and half out of the meeting room during a board meeting. Having a play with your technology to ensure it works and is situated smartly, is new etiquette for our era that hasn’t quite landed on everyone yet. If you don’t already, see where your face is, see what’s behind you, decide if that’s the way you wish to be. How you ‘be’ on this call is how you lead, right? I have a box on my desk now which sits under my Mac to correct the height on these calls, and a lamp that removes glare or darkness. I have watched as the power of online meetings is reduced when people are struggling to see, hear, relax. We can turn up our whole-body attention to online meetings and not assume that they have to be uncomfortable, glitchy and tiring. It amazes me how many people are sitting in a position that means they are in dark shadow, when I meet them online, or using a microphone that doesn’t work. No one in the real world would sit out of view, or too far away to hear in a meeting. All the considerations for others that we have when we share space are simply transferred in new ways when we meet online.

Five dysfunctions of an online meeting…

You probably know Lencioni’s ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’.

It’s an oldie but a goodie – and a useful framework to look at how smoothly a team is functioning. It can also be a useful self-assessment for leaders running online meetings. Taking the model as below, exploring each facet of a meeting in turn from the bottom, can be helpful in exploring your own meetings.

  • What are the ways in which we can build trust online? And break it? What are we currently doing that is stopping short of best practice? What would my team members say if I asked them?
  • How bravely are we handling, avoiding or bringing on positive conflict in the online meetings? How aligned to our real world behaviours are our virtual meeting ones? Are we losing any challenge or support when we switch to online platforms?
  • How often are we showing lack of commitment? – muting, leaving early, reading email at the same time? Failing to pre-read, failing to pre-send…
  • How well are we doing what we said we’d do and holding up the team’s accountability to each other? What’s the invitation to the team?
  • And how clear are we on why we’re there and how we can absolutely guarantee this online meeting will give what we need? – and back to the accountability thing – what will we do, in the moment, if the meeting isn’t going well? What does the team agree is the shared responsibility?

Great online meetings can be really powerful and connecting. It’s worth working on them to make them great. And if you’ve tried and you’re not there yet, have you asked the team?

If you’re all stuck – then call us!

Thanks to Jonny Caspari on Unsplash for the photograph

This article was written by Aly King-Smith. Aly is Director of Clearworks and writes for Clearworks and others as Aly KS & Co Ltd. Please get in contact via