Despite the fact that we spend a lot of time in meetings already, many of them (especially the online ones) aren’t going as well as they could go. Part of the reason is that some of the strategies that work well for in-person meetings don’t translate well to online meetings.
Below are a few simple starting points for organizing and running high-quality online meetings. The primary audience for this post is the Media Lab community, but we tried to keep it general enough to be useful for others.
(This post is mainly about smaller meetings. We are planning to share some tips for running large participatory online events via a separate post in the future).
Online meetings (2–25 participants)
Most Media Lab meetings fall within the 2–25 participants range—project meetings, group meetings, and even some of the MAS seminars. The structure of these meetings can vary widely, and a project presentation followed by Q+A will be need a different approach from an open brainstorming session. The following principles and guidelines are meant to be a starting point; they should apply to most meetings, but we encourage you to adapt them to your specific needs and use-cases.
I. Designate a facilitator. In an in-person meeting it is easy to pick up on physical cues and often conversations flow naturally without a dedicated facilitator. That’s much harder to do online, and quiet people often end up participating even less. Good facilitation is a skill and facilitators need to keep in mind that they play that role; for example facilitators don’t typically get involved too deeply into the substance of what is being discussed. Some groups, especially groups that have been doing online meetings for a while, may be able to share the facilitation role without designating a single person. But in general we highly recommend having a facilitator who can keep an eye on group dynamics and guide the conversation.
II. The key to a good video call is the audio. Nothing improves the quality of a video meeting as much as a headset and good audio etiquette. Make sure all participants use a headset, and encourage participants to mute themselves when they are not speaking. If necessary this is one of the areas where it’s ok for the facilitator to get a little heavy handed if necessary. Bad audio from one or two participants can ruin the meeting for everyone else. In addition, all participants should be in a quiet space when they connect.
III. Raise your hand/use a speaker queue. This may sound like we’re back in elementary school, but it’s amazing how well the conversation flows if all participants “raise their hand” to indicate they want to chime in. Some videoconferencing tools have a dedicated button for this, but we often just use the chat window and type “Hand” or “q+” (shout out to the W3C IRC crowd). It’s the facilitator’s job to make sure that people are asked to speak in the order in which they added themselves to the queue.
IV. Don’t stress about the tech. Most videoconferencing tools are fine. If you are already using a tool that you like, just keep using it. If you don’t have a preference yet, we recommend Google Hangouts Meet or Zoom. Hangouts Meet is the conferencing app for corporate Google accounts (like the Media Lab accounts). Zoom is a stand-alone application. Both offer mobile apps for smartphones or tablets (much better experience than trying to login to the website from a mobile device).
We generally recommend Google Hangouts for groups of up to ~8 people, and Zoom for larger groups. Zoom has a few extra management features that make it easier to facilitate larger groups.
a) Google Hangouts Meet (https://hangouts.google.com/) has a web-interface, but the easiest way to use it is through the Google Calendar. When you create a calendar event, simply choose “Add Conferencing” and the event will include a link to a Google Hangout. For Google accounts that are part of an Enterprise edition (the Media Lab accounts are) it will also automatically generate a dial-in number for meeting participants without access to a computer. Like this: