As we head into week four of California’s “shelter in place,” many of us are settling into our homes and a new way of doing business. Of course, there are millions of Americans who have lost their jobs, and thousands of others who are working in intense conditions on the front lines, and, while no words of gratitude could ever match their heroic actions, I’ve continually been moved by the expressions of thanks around the country and the world.

For those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from home in these times, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on how host great online meetings. Whether your team is migrating to online collaboration for the first time, or you’ve been in this arena for years, it seems like all of us who are now working from home are needing to up-level our virtual collaboration skills. Thankfully, there are amazing resources like this Online Meeting Resources Toolkit for Facilitators, this Guidelines for Successful Virtual Meetings, and these Tips to Hosting Public Meetings and Workshops Online to help us build our online collaboration muscles and stay sane and healthy as we navigate these times.

At Ag Innovations, we’re experimenting with many different techniques and tools so that we can fine-tune what works for our own team, as well as gain insights as to what might work for our partners, clients, and the teams we work with. For many of our clients collaborating online has been the norm for years, while for others it’s a new dance to learn. We’re finding that this combination of experience and fresh perspective adds a meaningful layer to our prototyping efforts.

I have been facilitating online collaborative efforts and meetings for almost a decade and have picked up a few things along the way. Here are a few tips that I hope will make your next online event a success:

1. Build time into your agenda for both business and interpersonal connection; even just ten minutes for a check-in at the beginning of a meeting will go a long way.

  • Here are a few suggestions for effective check-ins:
    • For groups up to 8 people, facilitate a quick round with a question designed to help each person be more present, get to know each other, and settle into the space.
    • For larger meetings, or to allow for longer sharing, consider using virtual breakout rooms and giving small groups (2-4 people) time to dive more deeply into a prompt.
    • Try using the chat function for the check-in. On some platforms, such as Zoom, participants can “private chat” another attendee and share a written check-in.
  • Some ideas for check-in prompts include:
    • What’s one thing you find annoying or frustrating about these “shelter in place” times; what is one of the silver linings?
    • What’s one reason you’re excited to be here; what’s one reason you don’t feel fully present (or what would support you to be more present)?
    • Where are you calling in from, and is there any place else that you wish you were right now?
    • What’s the best meme or one-liner you’ve heard or seen in the last week?

2. Choose your platform. Next, choose a platform that will support participants to fully engage. Regardless of what the meeting is for, I would highly recommend using video-conferencing software, such as Zoom, which has a phone-only feature built in to support users without access to a computer. Having the ability for participants to see each other adds much more of a sense of connection and engagement than audio alone. (However, it can put a damper on the work-from-home look that some of us are getting used to.)

3. Think outside the meeting with shared lunch breaks and virtual happy hours so that participants can hang out with each other in more informal, non-linear ways. You can invite participants to bring their lunch and/or take their computers outside or into a new room so that everyone is on a break together. If it’s a large group, you might also invite people to join breakout rooms (which you can pair with creative themes that may or may not be related to your meeting topic), so that it’s more like sitting around a lunch table. After the event, you can also host a happy hour, where everyone brings their favorite drink or snack.

As the facilitator, we encourage you to bring fun questions for seeding the conversation with, and pay attention to who is talking and who isn’t. Without assuming why someone is or isn’t participating, you can make space for other voices by asking a participant something directly, or just naming “we haven’t heard from a few of you out there…any new voices want to chime in on this topic?”. You can also line people up according to alphabet, and let them know you’ll be calling on them – and that they can always skip

4. Stand Up! I’ve found that people have a shorter attention span in virtual meetings than they do in-person. That, coupled with the fact that many of us are now in more audio and video-conferencing calls than ever, it’s important to build in time for participants to stand-up and stretch. You can put on background music, lead folks in a gentle stretching exercise, or just encourage them to do self-care for 10 minutes. As a rule of thumb, I recommend a 10 minute break for every 1.5 – 2 hours of meeting.

5. Use the tools by taking the time to train those on your team. Your tools are only as effective as those who wield them, so make sure that your facilitation team understands at least the basics of your collaboration tools, and has a set of shared agreements and expectations for their use. This might mean training your team on how to host Zoom meeting and what your security protocols are, how to engage phone-only participants so that they can fully participate, and how to incorporate other features such as Google Docs, presentation slides, or polling.  I promise, this will be time well spent.

These times are teaching us that we’re all in this together, and that our interdependence is actually our greatest strength. As you experiment with these and other tools and ideas, let us know what you’re learning, and how we can support you along the way.

If you have a collaborative effort in our focus areas of fire, ag, water, or food, and would like some support thinking through how to transition your collaboration from in-person focused to online, do contact me (aimee@aginnovations.org). I’d be happy to set up a call to talk through your challenge and look at ways to support you in “making the leap.”

Written by Aimee Ryan, Lead Facilitator

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