Think back to the class sessions and meetings that have felt especially collaborative and engaging. What qualities do those experiences share? Perhaps it’s the particular mix of people involved, the sheer number of new ideas that came out of your discussion, or an overall welcoming environment that fosters creativity and conversation. In any event, it likely wasn’t an experience that felt stuffy, dull, or disorganized.
Though positive collaborative experiences do feel energizing, natural, and free, even the most organic meetings benefit from some semblance of preparation, organization, and respect for fellow participants. This is even more true for group meetings that take place in the online setting. Because no one’s watching you, it can be tempting to disengage and pay attention to any number of distractions (your phone, e-mail, other websites…); However, truly collaborative meetings require full participation of all members, regardless of the setting. On a similar note, when you’re attending an online meeting, it’s not as easy to catch the energy, enthusiasm, and engagement that you pick up when you’re sharing a classroom or meeting space with other people and observing both their verbal and non-verbal behavior.
In their book Business Communication: Process and Product, Eighth Edition, Mary Ellen Guffey and Dana Loewy offer a number of suggestions that will help you set up, facilitate, and participate in a virtual meeting or class session at maximum effectiveness. Whether you teach online classes, host or attend an informative webinar, or lead a team meeting online, these guidelines can help you, your colleagues, and your students have a successful and satisfying experience.
1. Create some ground rules. Think about some of the following points:
- How will people indicate that they’d like to speak? (Some programs allow you to raise a virtual “hand”; other groups prefer that questions are asked via the chat box—addressed either to the moderator, or to all the participants.)
- If someone’s presenting, do you want everyone else to put their audio on “Mute”? This does cut down on background noise, but it also makes it more difficult for spontaneous discussion to occur.
- Will you allow time for introductions? (This is a good practice, especially if all members of the team don’t yet know one another. Consider taking a “roll call” to ensure all participants are present and accounted for.)
Once you’ve decided on your ground rules, state them at the beginning of each meeting.
2. Make sure you’re understood. Keep your language, and your points, as clear and concise as possible. If you’ve given the group a significant amount of information, be sure to summarize what you’ve said.
3. Strive to sound enthusiastic. Whether you’re leading the presentation or sharing your insights and opinions during a discussion, keep your tone energetic. If you sound engaged, your students or colleagues will likely be engaged with what you’re saying or presenting.
4. Manage the flow of discussion. Because you lack the non-verbal cues you’d catch during an in-person meeting, it’s important to ensure that conversation is neither dull nor disorganized. If you’re a participant, be sure you actively engage in discussions (without monopolizing, of course). If you’re the facilitator, don’t be afraid to “call on” individuals if you have a question to ask. You could also give every group member the opportunity to share their ideas (if you choose this latter option, set a time limit; thirty seconds might suffice). A lively discussion will help keep all participants engaged.
5. Allow some time for informal conversation. A few minutes of simple chit-chat before the meeting will help the group get to know one another and become more comfortable in discussions—especially if they haven’t met in person or they see each other only on rare occasions. If you’re teaching an online course, you might consider starting the conference early, to allow time for student chat or unofficial “office hours.” (Guffey and Loewy, 56)
In addition to the above recommendations, do allow yourself ample time to log in to the session. If at all possible, try not to jump on the webinar or class right as it’s supposed to begin. An extra ten or fifteen minutes can give you a “buffer” in case you have technical issues or you need to update your software.
What are your suggestions for effective online collaboration? How do you manage online meetings for maximum engagement? Share your suggestions below!
Reference: Guffey, Mary Ellen and Dana Loewy. 2015. Business Communication: Process and Product, Eighth Edition. Mason, OH: South-Western, Cengage Learning.