How to structure online meetings that are engaging

Icon of 4 people connected by lines.

If you are like me, you might experience fatigue after online sessions. In an article, CBC reports that “Users can feel like they’re performing for the camera more than they would while meeting colleagues in person — especially when software continuously displays to a user their own live image, adding an element of self-awareness.” Add to that the lack of personal cues that we get instinctively in person, and it is sometimes difficult to connect.

So what can you do to structure the meetings to be more engaging?

A picture of a circus performer with one hand outstretched to audience and the other holding a woman performer who is bent over his hand with her stomach to the sky.
iStock Photo

Here is a checklist from the Art of Transformative Consulting on ways to make the session more successful.

  • Short sessions (not more than 2 hours without a break)
  • Generous lunch break + more frequent body breaks
  • 1:1 connections – Folks can use breakout rooms, call, or text one another for paired sharing.
  • Graphic recording – where an individual hired for their graphic recording ability can draw out the main points that are discussed
  • Live notes / virtual flipcharts via Google doc
  • Small group work 
  • Time in between sessions
  • Invitation to mindfulness about presence, emotional labor, and connection
  • Silent disco! Have folks rock out with their sound off. Adorable!
  • Folks bring drawing and crafting materials. Lots of arts response + time to reflect, doodle, and think on your own 
  • End early or on time

Next is the idea of collaboration. Collaboration is the first principle I use to make my sessions more engaging. If people feel invested in the session because they are being asked for their ideas, this can be very engaging.

What kind of collaboration?

Collaboration can look very different to different people. Take a look at this list to get a full sense of the different types of collaboration.

•Awareness – We realize we are all working with a shared purpose
•Motivation – We gain consensus in problem solving or development
•Self-synchronization – We each decide as individuals when things need to happen
•Participation – We participate in collaboration and we expect others to participate
•Mediation – We negotiate together to find a middle point
•Reciprocity – We share and we expect sharing in return 
•Reflection – We think and we consider alternatives
•Engagement – We proactively engage rather than wait and see

Consider what kind of collaboration you are trying to achieve as this is a great way to build engagement. It also is a helpful model for figuring out how you want people to engage.

Another model to consider is designer Molly Lafferty’s ideas that she presented at Remote Design Week.

Her first level is to build the foundation. This involves the introductions and the first level of icebreakers. The intention is to ensure that everyone understands the ground rules and knows what to expect from the session.

A pyramid with the first level reading BUILD THE FOUNDATION with the words HIGHLY STRUCTURED and Ice breakers, team building and presentations as a list.

The next level is to reinforce connections. This is done through encouraging collaboration and sharing. Individuals sharing and talking about their own work or material are very effective methods to reinforce connections. As a facilitator, the key is to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard and that no one monopolizes the conversation.

I notice that women will answer if given the time and space whereas men tend to speak up first, so it’s important to balance gender participation. I do this by asking for people who have not spoken yet to speak or to set the expectation that I will encourage people who are usually marginalized to speak up.

A pyramid with the second level reading REINFORCE CONNECTIONS. With a heading Less structured, still curated and a list below: Donuts, team fikes, Show N Tell.

Lastly, the third level is to nurture ties. In Molly’s presentation on how she did her online conference, this was a level that was about building a community. In this level, the idea is to try to nurture a deeper relationship beyond the superficial interactions of the session. This means sharing or being creative together. When we consider artists, allowing this to happen is an excellent way to also have meaningful engagement.

Last level of the pyramid reading NURTURE TIES with a heading, Team Led, Freeform in Nature. And a list below: DJ & Draw, Watch parties, Animal crossing visits, Exercise/meditation classes, Cooking demos.