9 best practices for engagement in virtual meetings

A bearded man on a laptop screen meets with someone we see only the back of.
Oct 10, 2017
9 minute read
Operations • Organizational Culture

In many of the workshops I've been facilitating based on the Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout, nonprofits are recognizing that offering some workplace flexibility to employees is not only an attractive benefit but also can increase productivity and help prevent burnout. Many nonprofits allow staff to work remotely one day a week. Workplace flexibility creates a need for better skills in facilitating virtual meetings and hybrid meetings where some participants are in the room, and others participate are using audio-only or video conferencing platforms.

However, there are many challenges to running effective virtual or hybrid meetings. Virtual meetings that are not well implemented can mean a loss of productivity or create a collaborative overload. Aside from technical issues, the biggest problem is engagement. As Hasan Osman points out in his Pyramid of Communication, as you move to virtual modes of collaboration and communication, group cohesion and intimacy decrease. This makes it hard for people to fully engage with each other.

Here are some best practices for virtual meetings to get past the pain.

1. Co-create your team's rules of engagement or virtual meeting norms

  • Rules of meeting engagement or "meeting norms" are stated standards that refer to processes, preparation, and communication practices that can apply to any meeting. Virtual meetings may have some specific norms, such as:
  • We will use the technology that most accessible to everyone on our team.
  • Test your technology before the meeting, and resolve any technical issues.
  • Use a phone line with audio clarity and stability.
  • Do not multi-task (do other work) during the meeting.
  • Follow an organized line-up to ensure each person has a chance to respond.
  • Find a quiet space to participate.
  • Use the mute button at your site to prevent transmitting background noise.
  • Speak up to get attention if you have something to say.
  • Turn on your video whenever possible, and be camera-ready.

Meeting norms should be shared with your agenda at the top of your meeting, used to reinforce different behaviors, help you improve your virtual meeting process, and should be a shortlist of no more than six. Meeting norms should be co-created and discussed with your team because for them to work, everyone has to own them.

A thirty-minute facilitated process can be used to discuss and create a draft for your meeting norms. Alternately, you can use a process called Gifts and Hooks where participants share what gifts they can bring to create an engaging meeting and what they need to be engaged.

2. Remember that virtual meeting design is more than agenda planning

While agenda planning covers what topics will be discussed for how long and by whom, virtual meeting design requires more designing. You need to think through purpose, roles, meeting norms, materials, facilitator agenda (especially if you are using online tools to do activities like brainstorming), technical, scheduling, and communication.

If you want to get better engagement, identify different people to assume different roles on a rotating basis. Roles may include:

  • Facilitator: Designs and facilitates meeting
  • Notetaker:  Takes action notes/takeaways and emails them to everyone right after meeting
  • Technical support: Helps with technical troubleshooting
  • Bridge moderator: Someone who can assist remote participants in a face-to-face meeting or those unable to use a video conference platform or facilitates in the chat
  • Timekeeper: Keeps time

Some teams appoint a "Yoda" to add some levity and increase human connection. A Yoda is a person who mentions the elephant in the room or calls it out when meeting norms are not being followed.

For more on designing your virtual meeting, read this helpful resource from Nancy White and colleagues.

3. Avoid technical and time-zone scheduling snafus

It isn't a matter of whether or not technical problems will happen—expect them to happen and have a Plan B or a way to avoid falling into the pit of technical despair where the meeting gets derailed because of one person's technical issue or you experimenting with a new tool, and it doesn't work as planned. First, make sure everyone troubleshoots their technical issues before the meeting, if possible. Many platforms have a technical testing page and good tech support; include those links ahead of your meeting. And, if not, here's a great infographic of common virtual meeting technical issues and fixes.

My secret is to write out a step-by-step facilitator agenda if using a new technical tool and rehearse it. And, always have a plan B. For example, if your platform drops callers, be a little flexible with the agenda. If someone is supposed to share their screen and is having a technical problem, make sure people have copies of the document. As the facilitator, you should also have a copy so you can share your own screen if needed.

Many virtual meetings require working across time zones; my best tips and tools are in this post.

4. Always do a virtual icebreaker or check-in

A great meeting or training starts with a great icebreaker. Icebreakers are discussion questions or activities used to help participants relax and ease people into a group meeting or learning situation. It is important to build in time for an icebreaker because it can create a positive group atmosphere, break down social barriers, motivate, help people think about the topic, and get people to know and trust one another. Almost any icebreaker you do in a face-to-face meeting can also be done virtually.

But you can also have some fun with virtual icebreakers that build trust and engagement. For example, you can share photos of your workspace or your location.

5. Create a line for participants to follow

Establish a method for call-in participants. This might include alphabetical order by first or last name, or if you are using a video conference platform, by order on the screen. If you are using an audio-only conference call platform, you can use the clock technique where you assign people numbers on the clock at the top of the meeting, then use that for introductions and later in the meeting to call on people as part of the discussion. Here are some more tips for making audio-only conference calls more effective.

Pro Tip: If you are using a video conference platform, watch for eye movement (means the person is reading something), arms moving or typing sounds (they're typing), or bored expressions. Don't call out the person specifically, but remind people that one of your meeting norms is full attention.  Here are some more techniques to ensure your virtual meeting participants are listening.

6. Use techniques for virtual brainstorming, voting, feedback, and energizers

In face-to-face meetings, one way we get engagement is by doing activities like brainstorming and sticky voting. Both of these activities can be done online using different tools. For brainstorming and sticky dot voting, there are many free, simple to use, and low-cost tools you can use. My two favorite sticky note applications are BoardThing and  Linoit. The tool is the least of the requirements for an effective virtual brainstorm. You need to understand how to design and facilitate an effective process. If you are using a video conference platform, you can do a thumbs up or down vote.

During face-to-face meetings, you can easily tell when participants are getting tired or the energy drops.  With virtual meetings, even with video conferencing, it is more difficult. You can ask people about their energy level and then ask them to do a simple stretch movement to help replenish energy. There are also some fun virtual energizers and games that make it fun.

7. Evaluate and continuously improve virtual meetings

Your nonprofit's virtual meetings will get better over time if you allocate 5 or 10 minutes at the end of the meeting to evaluate how it went and what you need to improve. You can use the same methods you would use to evaluate any meeting or training. Here's an example of using virtual sticky notes to evaluate meetings using two different methods, "Sad, Mad, Glad" and "Plus/Delta."

8. Make sure virtual participants aren't left out in hybrid meetings

When you have both remote participants and people in the room, use a bridge moderator (someone in the physical meeting) who ensures that there is a linkage between all participants. The bridge moderator reminds people in the face-to-face meeting that virtual participants are part of the meeting. They check to make sure that virtual participants can hear, see, and speak. If you're using video conferencing, project remote participants on the screen or give them a seat at the meeting table.

9. Send meeting notes that people actually read

I'm sure you are not surprised: no one reads meeting minutes. Nonprofit professionals are so under-resourced and busy that they don't often have time to go through meeting minute documents and reading them to figure out what they missed. Most people rely on what was mentioned verbally in a meeting, which can lead to miscommunication. A brief, concise follow-up email that summarizes who is working on what is a lot more effective than meeting minutes. Here's a good guide for meeting note-taking.

Additional tools and techniques

If you are like me, you are always looking for more tools and techniques to increase engagement during virtual meetings, webinars, and workshops. Check out "The Ultimate List of Virtual Meeting Tools" or "The Ultimate List of Online Collaboration Tools" for more tools. If you want to evaluate meeting platforms, check out this list from Gartner or this curated list from Collaboration Super Powers. If you are looking for different facilitation techniques to adapt to virtual meeting spaces, check out "8 Fabulous Meeting Facilitation Playbooks."

A version of this post originally appeared on bethkanter.org and is reprinted here with permission.

Beth Kanter

Beth Kanter


Author, Trainer, and Facilitator,

Beth Kanter is an internationally recognized thought leader in digital transformation and wellbeing in the nonprofit workplace. Named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company, she has over three decades of experience in designing and delivering training and capacity-building programs for nonprofits and foundations. She is a sought-after keynote speaker and workshop facilitator. Beth was recently awarded the lifetime achievement in nonprofit technology from NTEN. She is the author of The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout and The Networked Nonprofit

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