Facilitating a large virtual meeting is a lot harder than conducting many small virtual meetings, and way harder than large in-person meetings.
At least that’s my experience, based on my one virtual big meeting in March 2020 versus more than 100 in-person meetings of at least 200 people per meeting during my career. By the way, these are meetings that require participants to take some action, such as voting on issues, not just consuming information.
For my first big virtual meeting, I underestimated the degree to which I had to juggle all the technology the meeting required, due to the constraints we were working under. (More about that in a moment.) And I also miscalculated what a lousy a juggler I am.
None of the technology was new or difficult on its own, just cumbersome in its use. I had to switch seamlessly among the four devices I was using:
- Laptop for the slides
- Landline phone for the audio
- Cell phone for texts, keeping time and calculating votes (I also had a separate calculator too.)
- Tablet for tracking the speakers’ presentations and instructions.
Before I explain what I wish I had done differently, let me provide some additional context that affected the meeting format.
In early March, just two weeks before the annual national membership meeting, a longstanding client of mine decided to hold the meeting virtually rather than convene in person.
A few days earlier, individuals mostly from the west coast started expressing concerns about traveling to Washington, DC for the meeting because of the quick spike in coronavirus cases.
Leaders listened. Rather than postpone or cancel the meeting though, they requested that the meeting morph to a virtual format. Members needed to vote on the slate of new board members, including officers, as well as members of the nominating committees.
If the voting could happen on the regular timetable, the organization could operate more effectively and efficiently. Furthermore, leaders explained that while meeting virtually on Thursday and Friday afternoons wouldn’t have the same impact as the usual five day in-person conference, it would at least signal that the organization was tenacious and resilient. Members agreed.
The staff swung into action to choose the best platform for conducting the meeting. (Another group unwound all the in-person meeting arrangements.)
The platform needed to accommodate at least 200 meeting participants, most of whom aren’t technically savvy. More importantly, the participants had to cast votes in a secure setting.
Under the time constraints, the staff chose live webcasting, which allowed the voting delegates to watch slides and vote, supplemented with operator-assisted audio for listening, discussing issues, asking questions, and commenting.
The operators could ensure that everyone with proper credentials could be on the phone. Also, the operators could manage the queue of individuals who wanted to speak at the pre-meeting on Thursday and the business meeting on Friday. And if there were any tech problems, the operators were standing by.
However, we gave up the option to have any video. No live shots of the speakers or the participants.
Two days before the meeting, we had a practice session for the speakers. We also tested the log on and dial in instructions for both meetings, Thursday’s discussion session and Friday’s formal business meeting. We made a few tweaks.
Both meetings went well, especially considering the requirements and the rushed timeframe. And I learned three big lessons from this experience. They are:
- Practice all aspects of the meeting, especially those specific to the virtual circumstances. For example, although we ran through the agenda with the speakers using the technology, I didn’t practice how I’d do my role alone in my office with no visual cues to my teammates. We were connected only by chat and text. Nor, did I practice how to use my desk space to best use and look at my devices.
- Ensure you have the most appropriate equipment. While I was fully aware that I needed multiple devices for the meeting, I didn’t think through whether I had the best devices for this type of meeting. For example, a better designed phone or headset for quick muting and unmuting would have helped me jump in faster to speak during the meeting.
- Plan for the weakest links and how you’ll manage them. In this case, the weakest link was me and my performance. What normally is a strength of mine for other work – my preference to single task and focus – was a disadvantage for this virtual meeting. Multitasking was necessary – listening for text and chat alerts while monitoring the meeting progress. I forgot to turn on the audio on my cell phone, tablet, and laptop, which meant I didn’t get messages as soon as they arrived.
In retrospect, it hadn’t dawned on me that for this large virtual meeting, I needed to reconsider my perspective – looking down and in at all my devices to view everything that was happening.
By contrast, when I’m in large in-person meetings, I’m looking up and out — always scanning the hotel ballroom and all the people to detect potential problems.
Yes, old habits can die hard. And they can trip you up when you have to adapt to a new setting, even in my case when I’ve been doing small virtual meetings for years.
What challenges are you facing in doing all virtual meetings?