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Virtual Leadership Skills: How to Effectively Manage Virtual Meetings

At the start of March 2020, offices were full with a buzz of energy as people conversed with each other and held meetings around polished board tables.

Then, COVID19 struck, and with little warning offices went ‘virtual’, and people had to work from home where they could, relying on technology to do so.

The proportion of people working from home in the UK soared from around 12% of the population a year ago to just under 50% in April 2020.

With social distancing measures here to stay for the foreseeable future, offices are unlikely to return to normal any time soon. Virtual working will still be part of all of our lives, whether full-time at home or as hybrid teams spread across the office and homes, perhaps with staggered shifts in operation.

However, there is a danger that as some people begin to return to the office, those who remain working from home will receive less attention. It’s, unfortunately, the case that many remote team members end up on the periphery, missing out on crucial updates and the social conversation that comes naturally in an office environment, leaving those remote workers feeling excluded.

My advice to leaders as we transition out of lockdown gradually is, however you are working, to ensure that there is a level playing field for all members of your teams. The best way to do this is to consider every team a virtual team, even if only one person is remote.

Virtual leadership skills will continue to be necessary for the foreseeable future, at least until we have a reliable vaccine that everyone can access. Even then, now that employees and employers have the first-hand experience of remote working, will there be a shift to embrace this in the long term?

What does good virtual leadership look like?

It is not simply about mastering the technology!

From my experience of nearly two decades of working remotely, the best leadership style for almost all virtual work is one where the leader serves those in the team, making it as easy as possible for each person to achieve their best for the team as a whole.

Here, the leader acts as a facilitator, making it easy for individuals to engage in the team and to complete their tasks. This facilitative leader creates an environment and team norms, where the whole team, and the individuals within it, can thrive and flourish together, producing great work.

Virtual meetings

Let’s explore how you can provide great virtual leadership and a level playing field in an important aspect of remote working life: virtual meetings.

The first step, even if only one person is remote, is to encourage everyone to access the meeting in the same way, even if several people are present in the office. That means that everyone has the same restrictions and possibilities for interaction, creating a fair and level playing field.

Once that level playing field is set up, consider how to provide clarity in the meetings. Consider the Magic 6TM elements to cover, which are shown in Figure 1 below.


Figure 1: The Magic 6TM for starting up a virtual meeting with clarity ( ©2007 Making Projects Work Ltd, used with permission)

We’ll go through each element, in turn, using an example virtual leader; let’s call him David.

Let’s say that David has a team of five people, with just one person in the office where he is based. All of the others are working from home. Their meeting is to plan an upcoming leadership conference, which will be held as an online event.

  1. We Are Here To: This element provides the point of the meeting. For David’s meeting, the team agrees that ‘We are here to plan the leadership conference’. Ideally, this element will have around 7-10 words. Any longer and there is probably too much detail.
  2. Today We Will: The detail of the objectives of the meeting lives here. There are often four to six big chunks of content to cover. For David’s meeting, these big chunks are:
  • Update on progress
  • To agree the budget;
  • To identify six speakers to invite to present at the conference;
  • To decide on the online format for the conference;
  • Review actions, agree next steps
  • Review the meeting – ‘what worked well?’ and ‘what do we wish we do differently next time?’

David asked different members of the team to facilitate different objectives, as a way to develop their own skills at virtual leadership. He takes on the final session, the review, as he knows that by spending time on this, each meeting can be better than the last.

  1. Our Plan: Here, David sets out a clear time plan, showing when the meeting will start and end, and any breaks. He knows that a virtual meeting that goes beyond an hour is likely to need a break. He decides on a 9:10am start, with a 20-minute break at 10:10 and finishing at 11:30am.
  2. Who’s Doing What: In his meetings, David knows how important it is to have team members engaged and interested. One of the ways that he’s found most effective in keeping people with him is to give others as much of the work as possible! Sharon agrees to be the timekeeper and Steve agrees to record actions and decisions as they come up. Of course, people are facilitating different parts of the meeting as well as these roles.
  3. How We Work Together: Here, David works with the whole team to agree on how they will work together. While some of these ‘ground rules’ can be agreed for a team in general, it is good to revisit quickly for each meeting. They choose the following:
  • State your name at the start of whatever you contribute, so that everyone who could tell who had volunteered what information.
  • Mute if you’re in a noisy environment. This was especially important as Pamela’s dog was included to bark at crucial moments!
  • We agree to respect each other and have only one conversation at a time.
  • The group should expect check-ins in random order. They know this will keep all of them focused in case they are asked to check-in when they had drifted off a little.
  • ‘Spellling dusn’t mater’ This helps Graham to contribute and not to feel embarrassed if he can’t remember how to spell a word as he has dyslexia.

  1. What’s Next: David briefs the team on what will happen next and how the actions will be followed up. At the end of the meeting, they review this, using the summary from Steve, which is visible to all on their shared screen.

So, as your organization starts to think about the transition out of lockdown and beyond, remember to keep your team’s playing field level, remember that the best virtual leaders are collaborative and facilitative and that the six key elements to starting off your virtual meetings, no matter where your team are geographically. All the best!

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