Last week I facilitated a short planning session by phone for a virtual team. In the brief post-meeting evaluation, I was struck with how happy the group was about such commonplace meeting format. It got me reflecting on a couple of best practices I use as a facilitator to make the most of conference calls:
1. Do a POP: as with any meeting, clarify the Purpose, Outcome and THEN the Process before calling the meeting, and at the beginning of the call. For example:
- Is the PURPOSE of the call to plan an upcoming strategy session with the whole board – or just to share information?
- Is the desired OUTCOME to make a clear decision, or simply some shared context across a group that will be planning together in the future?
Then clarify the PROCESS, especially:
- What prep is needed? Is there any pre-reading that needs to be circulated in advance?
- How long do you have for the total call?
- What are the priority agenda items?
- How much time will each topic need?
- Who is facilitating? Presenting?
- Who’s taking notes, and how will these be distributed
- Who’s on the call?
2. Practice “Conocimiento“: Always start with a brief check-in. As my Rockwood co-trainer Michael Bell continually reminds me, “go slow to go fast.” It’s not just a lovely thing to do: at the end of the day, teams that have taken the time to build trusting human relationships tend to function more efficiently and creatively, especially during times of crisis, stress or when rapid-response is called for. So take just a few minutes, even on a conference call, to share appreciations and see how everyone’s doing. One great simple question to ask is, “where are you right now – what are you looking at?” When we engage our mind’s eye in seeing our fellow callers, it brings us that much closer together, even as disembodied beings.
3. Use frequent “rounds”, and call people out. In a face-to-face meeting, facilitators are trained to do the opposite – we avoid calling on people by name, because it could force some to participate in a large group when they’re not ready or willing; it can be pushy or disrespectful. But on conference calls, I can’t read the body language of people wanting to speak. If I simply ask “what does everyone think”, we risk:
- Vast, excruciatingly long silences
- Only hearing from the same 2 brave and hasty souls who happen to jump in really fast each time a question is called
- Repeatedly having two or more people tripping over one another as they jump in at the same time.
So I keep the list of participants in front of me and simply do ‘rounds’ – calling the name of each person on the call in order. This is especially important when we’re capturing decisions.
4. Stay abreast of the tech: Technology to facilitate interaction for remote groups is quickly becoming effective and affordable. More groups and trainers I know are now experimenting with Maestro or similar systems aimed at maximizing group participation in a strictly auditory environment (i.e., you can do small group breakouts AND still wear your pajamas!). They not only allow up to dozens of participants to call in to one central line from anywhere in the world, but people can ‘raise their hands’ to ask questions or offer comments, with the moderator tracking it all on a web-based dashboard. Participants can also be broken out into small groups for more intimate discussion, with auditory facilitators supporting the conversations or ‘lurking’ until needed. Of course, people can be looking at shared documents at the same time, even using simple web-based collaborative platforms like Google Drive, that allow multiple viewers to edit the same document in real time, with colour-coding or other visual cues indicating who is making what changes.
5. Commit to continual learning: Even if you don’t have time to do a brief evaluation at the end of every meeting, commit to doing it after every two to three calls. Honest, direct, kind feedback is the only way individuals and teams can learn about what to keep doing or do more of, and what to avoid, in order to maximize their future performance. At the end of the day, social change leaders are aiming for results – and a continual practice of giving and receiving skillful feedback can help us achieve more powerful results with less effort in the long run.
For other great tips on virtual teams, see: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/04/how_to_avoid_virtual_miscommun.html and