Because of Coronavirus, lots of us are experiencing online meetings for the first time.
If you’ve never chaired or attended an online meeting before it can be a pretty weird experience. Done well, they’re a great way of getting people together from a wide area or at a moment’s notice and can make you much more productive.
In Jisc, we’ve been holding meetings online for years so here’s our take on what works, and what doesn’t.
Get the basics right
All the usual things about productive meetings still apply. Is the purpose of the meeting clear? If there’s an agenda, have people see it beforehand.
Be prompt. Give yourself at least 5 mins to get logged in and set up your audio. If you’re chairing, give yourself 10 mins.
Are the people invited actually needed? Larger numbers can make it difficult to chair and makes people restless.
It might be helpful to set some ground rules, especially for your first meetings.
Think about your environment. Can you find somewhere to join that isn’t too noisy? Can you find a way to stop interruptions? Letting the people around you know that you’re in a meeting and mustn’t be disturbed is important. (We get it! If you’re also looking after children because of school closures this can be tough!)
Find a space with a door you can close.
If your chairing, acknowledge that things will feel weird and different and that it’s probably not going to go perfectly first time round. Be kind to yourselves and give yourself permission to experiment and learn.
The main causes of problems is audio quality and connection. Maybe arrange a practice session to check that people can all login and their audio works fine.
You can largely avoid incessant feedback loops and echoes if people use headsets, rather than the speakers on their own device. Also, ask people to mute their mics when not speaking – this also means you don’t have to hear people slurping their tea!
Webcams can be a great way of feeling connected with people, making up for the loss of face to face contact, but they can use up a lot of internet bandwidth and slow your connection. Use them sparingly. Also, not using webcams helps protect your privacy.
If you are using a webcam, don’t have a bright light behind you. Most times you’ll just be a dark blob on people’s screens. Lighting from above or the side works best.
If you’re connecting from home, don’t be too far away from your broadband router as this can affect your connection speed and stability. You can buy wifi boosters to give you greater range. If it’s possible connecting to your router with a cable is even better.
Protecting your privacy
If you’re using webcams, use the preview video function to check your surroundings before you join. What do you have on the walls? Whiteboards and noticeboards might have sensitive info on them. What about items on your desk?
Some systems let you blur your background or replace it with another image which can hide things like personal pictures on the wall or an untidy office!
…and not just your privacy. If your meetings include confidential information think carefully about who could overhear.
Dealing with large numbers
This is a big challenge for people chairing the meetings. It makes all the other advice in this guide even more important but you can do other things to help.
Ask yourself if you are actually running a meeting. It may be that a “briefing” is more appropriate. Some systems like Teams or Google Hangouts let you run something more like a broadcast event where interaction is limited to a Q&A.
With a large meeting it can be handy to have a co-pilot to manage the more technical issues and follow the chat or Q&A.
Some of the more complex systems will let you mute everyone’s mic when they join and give presenters the power to unmute when they want to ask a question. This can give you much more control.
Using the tools
A lot of meetings systems let you do things other than talk:
- Screensharing – great for running through slides or sharing a document
- Chat – If getting verbal answers from people will take too much time then asking people to put responses in chat can speed things up. Most systems will let you save the chat for later reference. Can be a great way of “raising your hand” and letting the chair know you have something to say or ask.
- Polls – use these to put something to the vote quickly
- Whiteboards – these can be a nice, visual way of getting a group of people collaborating or sharing ideas.
- Shared documents – systems like Google Classroom or Office365 let you share documents within meetings that everyone can edit. This can get chaotic, but if you manage it right can save loads of time and confusion sharing copies of drafts while you work on something.
Lastly, be kind to yourselves
If it’s the first time you’ve had to do this it’s good to acknowledge that this will feel different from normal and that there will be mistakes. Be patient with the frustrations and you’ll be experts in no time!