What is it about virtual meetings?

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It’s not just you. Zoom fatigue is a thing. Two articles explain some of the brain science:

Once Upon a Time of Global Disruption

Once upon a time of global disruption, the XYZ Corporation’s CEO, Mary, and its board chair, John, realized they needed to convene the board of directors every other week to make vital decisions in the face of a constantly changing situation.

Travel and in-person meetings were not safe, so Mary and John convened the board on a popular virtual meeting app.

The first meeting was a disaster! Some board members couldn’t connect, most were not familiar with the platform, and all felt their attention sagging halfway into the two-hour meeting. When John and Mary debriefed, they realized that not one meaningful decision had been made.

By the next meeting, Mary had practiced with the online platform, and most board members had been using it for other purposes. She and John therefore thought the second meeting would be more productive.


What Mary and John had not considered was that people make a meeting.

Of the 23 people on the XYZ board, a few are what Mary likes to call her “challenges”:

  • Ryan Rambler just keeps talking and repeating the same thing over and over again, using different words to try to find the ones that are most convincing.
  • Dominating Diana won’t “let go of the mic” and often interrupts the flow to respond to everyone else’s contributions.
  • Silent Sam has great ideas but rarely puts them forward.
  • Distracted Dale checks email, talks with another person in the room (usually with the mic still on), and  then asks “Where are we?”
  • Oliver Obvious apologizes constantly and explains that he was speaking while muted, that his dog barked, that his phone rang — even though everyone saw and heard it all.

With all five of these personalities in one virtual room, Mary and John feared that virtual board meetings were just a massive waste of time.

But then Mary started reading our blogs and attending our webinars on facilitating virtual meetings. She embraced — and shared with John — the idea that an online facilitator needs to be more directive than in person. Mary and John made some changes:

  • They split the role of host. John leads the meeting, while Mary takes charge of the tech: admitting participants, muting everyone, advancing slides, and the like.
  • Mary and John give board members a written agenda in question format both before and at the beginning of the meeting.
  • John establishes ground rules: “I’m going to call on each person in turn. You can pass, but I will come back to you. Each person gets one minute.”
  • John tells participants when to use the chat function, and Mary monitors responses to find questions or comments for John to bring to the whole group.
  • Mary and John divide their two-hour meeting into chunks of 10 to 15 minutes: icebreaker, presentation, small-group discussion, large-group report-out, and a round of votes at the end.

The third and fourth meetings had some glitches, but Mary and John both felt that board members at least came to a common understanding of the most pressing issues.

By the fifth meeting, real progress had been made. The board was tapping the expertise of all its members to make substantive decisions. Functional committees got more comfortable holding their own meetings to hash out details so board meetings could focus on large-scale decisions. Mary got better support for the challenging job of managing the company in a time of global disruption.

“Happy ever after” is a static situation, and this is not that. But now 20 out of the 23 board members feel that the meetings are a productive use of their time. Of course, Rambling Ryan and Dominating Diana are discontent because they can’t talk as much as they want.

The other holdout is Distracted Dale, who apparently hasn’t noticed any changes.


What you can do today / Question for discussion

Look for Ryan Rambler, Dominating Diana, Silent Sam, Distracted Dale, and Oliver Obvious in your next meeting. If you identify other annoying behaviors, share them in the comments below. Bonus points for alliterative names!

What can facilitators do to rein in these annoying behaviors?

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