How to connect meaningfully in a virtual meeting

April 10, 2020

By: Wayne Baker

10 guidelines to promote meaningful connections in a time of social distancing

Belonging is a fundamental human need. From infancy, we are driven to connect. Connections with others are vital for our mental and physical health and wellbeing. That’s why—in a time of social distancing—it’s more important now than ever before to connect meaningfully in a virtual meeting or gathering.

What is a meaningful connection? It’s an interaction in which we feel accepted, understood, and supported. We feel heard and cared for. We have a sense of belonging. An interaction that engenders these feelings is what my colleague Jane Dutton calls a “high-quality connection.”

A meaningful connection is a “human moment.” Harvard psychiatrist Edward Hallowell coined this term, saying that a human moment requires two ingredients: physical co-presence and focused attention. The first ingredient is not possible when we are socially distancing. Is it possible to create virtual human moments?

The answer is yes, but it depends on preparation and intentional practices. In the past weeks, I’ve participated in dozens of virtual meetings—work team meetings, staff meetings, large town halls, committee meetings, virtual classrooms, church staff meetings, virtual lunch get-togethers, and even virtual happy hours. Some of these produced meaningful connections, some did not. The size of the gathering wasn’t the determining factor, though it can be more challenging to create virtual human moments in a large group. The difference was the extent to which these meetings were intentionally designed, managed, and run to produce virtual human moments.

Here are 10 guidelines to promote meaningful connections in your virtual meetings. These guidelines are platform agnostic. They work in whatever platform you choose—Zoom, Skype, Blue Jeans, Google Hangouts, WebEx, and so on.

These guidelines were developed for a typical meeting size of about 5 to 15, with an upper limit of 20 or so. But there isn’t a magic number for optimal group size. I’ve seen these guidelines work in much larger groups, such as virtual town halls or classrooms. And, you can always divide a large group into small ones, using, for example, Zoom’s breakout rooms. In general, adapt these guidelines to make them work for your specific situation, group, and culture.

Guideline #1: Video On

First and foremost, everyone should have video on. Without seeing one another, it’s almost impossible to create meaningful connections. This guideline might seem obvious, but I’ve been in virtual meetings where some (sometimes, many) people turn off video or call in on their smartphones without using the camera. When we turn off video, we aren’t really paying attention or participating. We might do other things—daydream, space out, write email, scan the web, doodle, grab a cup of coffee, play with pets, read something, or whatever. Video on is a necessary ingredient for meaningful connections.

Sometimes, however, participants have to turn off their video due to weak Internet connectivity. This problem occurs more often now because most of us are connecting from home. So, don’t always assume that video off means that someone isn’t paying attention. Make video on the expectation and check in individually with those who might be having connectivity issues.

Guideline #2: Active Facilitation

Meetings—virtual or face-to-face—work better when someone takes the lead and facilitates the meeting. In one virtual meeting I was in, no one was actively facilitating, resulting in awkward moments when we were just looking at one another and no one knew what to do or say. Virtual meetings should be actively facilitated. This doesn’t mean that the facilitator takes a heavy hand. It means that someone needs to emcee the meeting to make sure it runs smoothly, moves along, stays on time, and produces meaningful connections.

The facilitator can be a formal leader, but it doesn’t have to be. You can rotate the facilitator role, as long as whoever facilitates is established before the meeting takes place. For example, staff at our Center for Positive Organizations (CPO) hold a virtual standup every morning. The rule is that the newest member of the team facilitates, and then it rotates to the second newest, and so on. This rule conveys the belief that everyone can lead and provides opportunities to do so. By the way, CPO uses this same rule in staff meetings, too.

Guideline #3: Acknowledge Reality

We live in a scary time. We are worried. Failure to acknowledge that, at least in the beginning of a virtual meeting, denies the reality we all face. Attempts to conduct business as usual without acknowledging the reality that consumes our attention will make people feel disconnected.

Acknowledging reality doesn’t mean you have to dwell on it. In one of my virtual classes this semester, my guest speaker was Jim Mallozzi, who was CEO and Chairman of Prudential Real Estate and Relocation. My MBA students asked him what he would do as a leader now. He said it was important to let people know that you too are scared and worried. Doing so doesn’t diminish your role as a leader, it strengthens it. Acknowledging reality shows empathy. It shows that we are all in this together.

Guideline #4: Gentle Mandatory Participation

The facilitator should guide the meeting in a way that ensures everyone participates. If, for example, you are doing a round of introductions, the facilitator might let people volunteer, but then call on those who didn’t introduce themselves. If you want people to share personal stories, make sure that everyone knows they are expected to share one and to call on people to ensure they do. If not, the extroverts in the group will speak up, and the introverts will just listen.

This guideline communicates that everyone is expected to participate. This expectation might be uncomfortable at first, but psychologically it’s easier to participate if you know that everyone must do so. Over time, it becomes easier and more comfortable.

Participation is mandatory, but ensuring it is gentle. Call on people, but don’t put them under a spotlight; don’t pressure or coerce. Generally, guide the meeting so that everyone participates. Be sensitive. Occasionally, it might make sense to skip someone. If you are managing a large group, you can divide it into small ones. Or, you could spread participation across multiple sessions. For example, half of the group could share in the first session, half in the second.

Guideline #5: Introductions

Taking turns, introduce yourselves to the group. Introductions are especially important when some or all group members don’t know one another, or don’t know one another well. But even if you do know one another, you have new information to share. Most of us are working from home. Tell others where you are. Because your video is on, take a moment to show your environment. In one virtual meeting, each of us detached the camera (or rotated a laptop) to tour our workspace, commenting on photos, pictures on the wall, physical objects, or even the occasional pet or kid that wandered in. In later sessions, members of the group can reintroduce themselves, using the suggestions in Guideline #6.

Guideline #6: Make it Personal

Devote time to making your session personal. Introductions begin the process. Of course, you may have business to do. However, if possible, at least in a session or two, separate personal and business. In one of my first virtual staff meetings, we spent most of the time taking turns and talking about what we were feeling, our families, our worries, and concerns.

Making it personal can be fun. Meaningful means sharing something about yourself, about your family, your hobbies, your aspirations and dreams. Here are three activities we used recently in virtual meetings. (1) Share a physical artifact that represents something about you or your family. (2) Share a fun fact—something that is not generally well known about you. (3) Share a family story.

Of course, there are countless ways to make it personal. You don’t have to think them up yourself. Engage the group. Ask everyone for suggestions about how to make it personal in your upcoming virtual meetings.

Guideline #7: Learn Something New

Learning something new is a productive, positive experience. Learning together is a collective human moment. Have participants volunteer to give short presentations about something interesting and fun. In one group, we discovered that a participant was an avid bird watcher and member of the Audubon Society. He gave a 15-minute presentation of birds migrating to the area, showing stunning closeup photos. In another virtual session, an archaeologist gave a short presentation on little known facts about the Egyptian pyramids. More stunning photos.

There’s a wealth of knowledge and experience in your group. Have participants share their passions, hobbies, pastimes, and knowledge with the group. Learning something new together.

Guideline #8: Enable Chat in Big Meetings

Every videoconferencing platform offers a chat option. This option is helpful in large virtual meetings, because it gives everyone a chance to chime in, make a comment, or ask a question. In a recent virtual town hall, for example, the chat option was frequently used. Later, people remarked on the high quality of the chat discussion—even better than what would have occurred in an in-person town hall. I’ve found that the chat option is helpful in virtual classrooms, especially with large classes. I’ve also learned that students in a virtual classroom will have a backchannel that doesn’t include me, such as Slack. That’s OK with me. It’s another avenue for creating virtual human moments.

From time to time, the facilitator (or leader) should pause to respond to a chat comment or question. If it’s not possible to cover everything, you can capture and save the chat, responding after the virtual meeting is over.

Guideline #9: Team Practices

Many team practices that are conducted face-to-face can be replicated in a virtual team session. Consider, for example, the daily (or weekly) standup. The standup is common in IT and software development teams, but it has widespread applicability to any kind of team. In the face-to-face version, everyone stands in a circle. One by one, each person covers three points: (1) What I worked on yesterday, (2) what I’m working on today, and (3) the help, resources, or assistance I need. At Menlo Innovations, for example, programmers and staff hold a standup each day at 10 a.m. It takes less than 15 minutes. Any team can use the standup practice in a virtual session. The same rules apply. Everyone participates, one by one, covering the three points. You can adapt these points for your particular needs, or, add a point. For example, the members of one leadership team cover the three points but also a fourth: Here’s something I recently learned. Because the team wants to be a learning organization, this fourth point makes learning a part of the standup.

People feel better when you maintain routines and rituals. Consider your usual routines or rituals and think about how you can replicate them in a virtual environment. For example, my colleagues were able to mimic virtually the in-person ritual they use when students introduce themselves. For example, they used the whiteboard function in Zoom to produce a handwritten agenda—just like they would do in-person. Then, they made a virtual table with seats and asked everyone to “take a seat at the table.” Each student wrote their name on a virtual seat. The facilitator then went around the table, asking each person to introduce themselves and share something they would like to celebrate, replicating the process they would use in an in-person class session.

Guideline #10: Experiment

Experiment with these guidelines. Give them a try, learn, adapt, and keep trying. The important thing is to get started, learning how to make meaningful connections in your virtual meetings. Work collectively, and you will soon learn how to create and sustain virtual human moments.

Wayne Baker, PhD, is Faculty Director of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. He is the author of the recent book, All You Have to Do Is Ask: How to Master the Most Important Skill for Success.

The original article was published in Psychology Today. Copyright © 2020 by Wayne Baker.