Effective meetings and collaborations from a distance

Effective meetings and collaborations from a distance
Aug 3, 2020
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, businesses, organizations, and individuals had to quickly scramble to set up virtual interactions. Now that it’s clear the public health crisis is much more than a temporary pause in business-as-usual, how can people most effectively work together in this new normal?

One of the challenges to collaborating from afar is that it’s not about merely translating an in-person meeting to the virtual realm. It’s important to think in advance about what types of activities will work best in a virtual setting and deliver your required outcomes. The most valuable virtual solutions are the ones built on agile methodologies, where each experience is customized to context.

Collaborate smarter

As many offices are heading into their fifth month of remote work, some people are burned out on virtual meetings. But they aren’t going away anytime soon. Determining what tools to leverage and how content is delivered can help to ensure that virtual collaboration leads to meaningful, productive engagement. 

Using a combination of tools is helpful in holding people's attention. For example, we often use Mural’s virtual whiteboard tool as a space for digital collaboration with small groups. Among its many features, this tool allows for digital “sticky notes” to be created and posted to a shared whiteboard. We pair this tool with Zoom breakout rooms for small group discussions. The combination of these two technologies keeps participants engaged throughout the process by letting them share their thoughts in a variety of ways.

Because online meetings pose challenges like disengaged or unproductive participants, you need to adapt your communications to the virtual space. We take advantage whenever possible to leverage the design thinking methodology of our Spark Labs team to improve our virtual meetings. Combining technical know-how (e.g., ideating on solutions to meet customers’ needs) with creativity (e.g., a virtual art gallery for displaying visual concepts) delivers a more engaging and collaborative online experience.

Prepare for successful virtual meetings

Thoughtful planning and preparation can help you diminish the impacts of distance and enhance the new opportunities of digital engagement.

Verify that your participants have digital access

Confirm that your participants have the right hardware, software, and connectivity to participate in a meeting. Some participants may have older laptops/software or slower internet connections, which could impact their ability to participate. Test technology and digital access in advance and have back-up plans in case of technology glitches.

Share meeting agendas and other documents in advance 

Sharing information in advance helps participants follow along and mitigates the risk of technology issues during the meeting. Creating opportunities for communication offline between meetings and sharing materials in multiple formats can also increase the likelihood of success.

Establish norms for virtual meetings

Being up-front about meeting expectations can help establish a comfortable, safe working environment. New norms may include muting the microphone when not speaking and accepting work-from-home conditions (e.g., children and pets).

Allow more time for participation

Virtual meetings require more time for introductions and engagement. Plan meeting lengths to accommodate the time needed for all participants to introduce themselves.

Adapt the right mental framework 

Be human

Participants may be juggling work, kids, and other interruptions when working from home. Show empathy and understanding for different circumstances to ensure that everyone can participate.

Encourage participation

The visual cues that you may get from an in-person meeting (eye contact, body language, etc.) are much more difficult to see. Encourage other ways of being “seen” in the meeting such as using chat windows or hands-up features. In some cases, allowing participants to comment anonymously—such as in quick polls or in collaboration activities—generates more honest feedback.

Plan for breaks and distractions

Recognize and accept that virtual meetings need a different type and level of concentration that can be very tiring. If your participants lose interest, the temptation to multitask is ever present. Design shorter sessions with longer breaks in between and deploy more frequent engagement techniques such as surveys and other feedback collection tools.

Staff up

A much higher level of active facilitation is needed to keep participants engaged as well as to troubleshoot technology challenges. Use more than one facilitator to manage breakouts and chat sidebars.

Determine the right type of virtual meeting

Many of our clients are starting to move beyond the initial scramble to embed virtual meetings into their day-to-day operations. Large group meetings, workshops, and conferences require a higher level of effort. By designing thoughtful collaboration sessions, however, it’s possible to convert even large in-person workshops into web-based training or co-creation sessions. This calls for embracing the challenge of digital offerings. Providing support through the entire meeting process—starting from selecting the right platforms and tools—will allow you to design remote-friendly agendas and impart effective meeting facilitation.

Meeting types, adaptive considerations, and technology options for virtual meetings

Meeting types

Adapting to a virtual format


Gatherings of any size for project coordination; check-ins; voting or decision-making; presentations; webinars; or all-hands.

Most organizations have experience with virtual meetings and many commercial platforms are available. Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Meet, and Zoom are commonly used for smaller meetings, while platforms like GoToWebinar, WebEx, and PGI GlobalMeet can facilitate large-scale one-to-many presentations.

Collaborative sessions

Sessions (2 to 12 people) may focus on ideation; co-creation; identifying, understanding, and framing challenges; and collecting feedback. Meetings are dynamic and require active engagement from all participants.

Transitioning to online collaborative sessions requires more planning to ensure that participants can effectively contribute and the right tools are utilized to replace hands-on activities. Functionality will need to be balanced against the learning curve for users. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Meet, and Adobe Connect have some built-in collaboration tools and breakout rooms, while Mural allows for sticky board brainstorming.

Workshops and strategic planning

Collaborative working sessions (2 to 20 individuals) to develop strategy; seed shared solutions on challenges; strategically plan; or conduct trainings.

Longer workshops or strategic sessions (which may have taken a full day) may need to be adapted to a series or shorter sessions to support participation engagement. Sessions may be complemented with asynchronous collaboration and document sharing using systems such as Microsoft Teams, Google Docs, Dropbox, or Slack.

Events and conferences

Large gatherings with multiple and varied sessions focused on knowledge sharing; communicating ideas; networking; or project coordination.

Events or conferences may need a combination of strategies to engage participants. Many-to-many engagement will require more active community management and facilitation to mimic traditional networking.

ICF has worked with various clients in quickly adapting different types and sizes of meetings, workshops, and conferences to virtual formats. We can support your organization through the entire meeting process.

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