Published on March 25th, 2020 | by Emergent Enterprise0
Virtual Offsites That Work
The COVID-19 crisis has forced many in corporate America to learn how to launch and run a virtual meeting. Like with any technology, there has been a wide range of results, especially in user experience (UX). This informative post at Harvard Business Review by Bob Frisch, Cary Greene and Dan Prager lays out very clear steps for delivering an effective virtual meeting. Not surprisingly, it involves working hard to understand your Audience, Context and Technology, what I call the ACT Connection. Don’t try to “wing it” or you will do more harm than good in your next meeting over the web.
Photo credit: OJO Images/Getty Images
Are “offsites” off for the foreseeable future? In the midst of the current pandemic, social distancing recommendations and travel restrictions have made it difficult, if not impossible, for organizations to convene teams of any size within their offices, much less at sessions outside them.
Not surprisingly, the initial reaction for most has been to postpone or cancel those events, over concern that working together by phone or video conference won’t be as useful or productive as the in-person meeting would have been. But some of the meaty, controversial types of topics often reserved for the rarefied atmosphere of an offsite need to happen now more than ever. So we need to learn how to do them virtually, just as we’re doing with every other vital work process.
The foundation of an effective virtual offsite remains basic meeting management: clear objectives, a well-crafted agenda, concise pre-reads, a well-chosen group of attendees, documented decisions, and specific next steps, etc. Special considerations for offsites versus other meetings have been covered many times, including in our firm’s HBR article “Offsites That Work.” We also introduced some best practices for running virtual meetings in this post.
But virtual offsites were, until just a few weeks ago, a rare exception. Consequently, many executives either convening or designing these sessions now are in uncharted waters. Drawing from our decades of experience running both in-person and virtual offsites, we’ve distilled some practices – over and above the basics – that you can employ to help make yours effective.
Prepare for Your Virtual Offsite
As with any offsite – in some ways more so with a virtual one – success hinges on what happens before it begins. Here are five steps to take ahead of time:
- Provide attendees with the tools they’ll need. Whether detailed in the pre-read, or in a brief pre-meeting session, instruct everyone on exactly how to install and set up the software and video technology needed to participate. One client even provided a high-definition webcam and an extra monitor to each attendee, which allowed them to see participants on one screen and the shared document on the other.
- Ensure everyone knows how to use the technology. Provide opportunities to practice using all the features to be used during the offsite. In Zoom, for example, you can set up a test “lobby” so attendees can familiarize themselves with how to “raise hands” or use the chat function.
- Carefully design the offsite’s flow and conduct a dry run. For each section of the meeting, start with what you want to achieve, sketch out each exercise initially independent of the technology, then consider what’s possible with the software. Make sure you keep the activities simple enough for your least technologically advanced attendees. Meeting organizers and facilitators should practice every module of the meeting exactly how it is envisioned. Given technology limitations, it can be more difficult in a virtual setting to shift and redesign a meeting “on the fly,” so make sure you are equipped with plans B and C if needed.
- Assign clear roles. Like a movie production, individuals running the offsite need to be clear on who should do what. Who facilitates each conversation? Who handles the technology including screen sharing, monitoring chat, calling on attendees who “raise hands”? Who should attendees contact if they have technical difficulties? Who steps in for the facilitator if he or she encounters technical challenges?
- When in doubt, limit the size of the group. A common mistake made with offsites is to invite too many participants. In a virtual setting, with no physical or cost constraints, it is even easier to just send a link to expand the invite list and, before you know it, you’re having a town meeting rather than a carefully designed conversation. Use the scope and objectives as a guide to determine who should attend.
Conduct Your Virtual Offsite
Great offsites require everyone’s full engagement and active participation, which proves even more challenging in a virtual setting. Offsite leaders should consider the following:
- Display a welcome screen when people join the meeting. As attendees sign on, welcome them with specific instructions or reminders on the screen to ensure they are set up for the session. For example, in a recent offsite using Zoom, attendees were greeted with the following message: Welcome! Please exit full screen (but maximize your viewing window), open your chat window (by clicking on “chat” in the toolbar), and raise your hand (by clicking “raise hand” in the toolbar).