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Best Practices for Collaborative Virtual Workshops and Online Meetings

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All best practices for collaborative conversations and workshops that we present are just as important in a virtual workshop as in a physical conversation. However, some of them need modifications and others need to be added. In this lecture, we will explore modified and additional activities and techniques for online collaboration.

Udemy Course: Lead and Contribute to Collaborative Meetings and Workshops

How to Facilitate or Participate in Live and Virtual Conversations to Define Requirements, User Stories, and Features

I love virtual meetings. My major beef with them is the lack of visibility. I dream of conducting a collaborative conversation in virtual reality where all participants can be virtually in the same room and see the same things. During physical workshops, I have flip charts, whiteboards, and post-it notes visible throughout the meeting. A major aspect of my meeting philosophy was knowing when to show what to keep people’s focus on a topic. That includes what to hide to minimize distractions.

The Importance of Visibility

As human beings, we evolved to survive in a multi-dimensional world. We mentioned spatial memory in an earlier lecture which explains why we remember a lot of things based on where we saw them. This spatial memory is why you remember a lot more about your childhood when you visit your old neighborhood.

Over the years, I have developed several methods to replicate this spatial memory somewhat even in an online environment by keeping things in front of the people as much as I can. For example, I use an app with post it notes that I can share with the group at any moment. I also have a copy of the agenda open on my machine to allow me to refer to it quickly.

If we document anything, for example, a list of brainstormed User Stories, I leave that document open on my laptop for immediate access. And, most importantly, I always have quick access to my Open Issues List (or Parking Lot) and my Question File.

I’m sure if you think about it, you will come up with your own ideas how to make effective use of spatial memory in a virtual environment.

Here are a few more tips and tricks that have worked for me and my team in the past:

Recognize Who Is Talking

For many people, the biggest challenge with multi-person virtual meetings is recognizing who is talking. Knowing who says something can be just as important as knowing what they are saying. Although the mosaic view in many video conferencing tools allows everyone to see all participants, that view is not always available together with screen sharing functionality.

Some collaboration tools highlight the name of whoever is speaking. This can be helpful, however, in a lively discussion where the conversation involves short exchanges, the constant switching of highlighted names can be disconcerting. If the meeting technology does not let everyone know who is speaking, request that everyone prefaces their contributions with their name.

Increase the Teams Productivity

In an online conversation, you need to address every question to a specific person by name. If you pose a question without specifying to whom it is addressed, you will often be met with silence followed by several people talking at the same time. That is good for comic relief, but not good for productivity.

If you are the facilitator and you want to address multiple people with your question., ask each individual in turn.

Keep Everyone Engaged with Interactions

Never spend more than a few minutes on any form of presentation whether it is media, audio, or slide show. Rather, engage in a dialogue. Especially in a virtual environment, you can lose people’s attention quickly with a PowerPoint presentation. Think about activities you could do to get the team involved.

Keep everyone engaged with interactions that require participants to do something. Most video conferencing tools support chats, screen sharing, white boards, Q&A, polls, and even giving control to each participant. Figure out how to make your session interactive with these tools especially if you have a larger group. It will stop people from getting distracted.

For example, use the Q&A function to ask a question or use a brainwriting exercise to collect potential user roles or other items on your agenda. Call on random people to show their results.

Monitor Participant’s Engagement

You have no knowledge or control over how focused the contributors are on the topic. Even with video conferencing, you may be able to observe whether people are looking in the general direction of their screen, but you can never be sure exactly what is on their screen. Consider occasionally inserting a question that can only be answered intelligently if the participant is engaged in the presentation and discussion.

Beware of Multitasker

A lot of people multitask during teleconferencing which limits the value of their contributions. Not that I have ever done it(;-), but it is rumored that some folks check their email or play video games while ostentatiously participating in a video conference. That is obviously a collaboration killer. Sometimes it is because another participant is allowed to ramble on about a non-essential topic. As the leader, you need to recognize and rectify the situation.

As the leader, consider posing a direct question to anyone whom you suspect might be multitasking. Make it a question that only they can answer and that requires their undivided attention.

Conquer the Body Language Challenge

Although modern video conferencing technologies allow all participants to see and hear each other, people’s vibes are not as obvious. That whole thing about reading body language only works if you see the other person’s body. In video conferences, you most often only see the headshot of each participant. That limits your nonconscious mind’s ability to assess how everyone really feels.

The best idea I have for tackling that issue is to randomly poll the group for their mood, their sense of how the conversation is progressing, how comfortable they are with the progress, and whether they can recognize where you are heading. Consider the percentage of participation in the poll as an indicator of their true opinions.

Well-timed Breaks Are Essential

Finally, video conferencing is exhausting. The limited feedback loops that energize us by physical presence are lacking. As a result, set expectations up front by promising (and of course, delivering) frequent breaks. Harvard Business Review recommends that you “close any tabs or programs that might distract you, put your phone away, and stay present” and “take mini breaks during longer calls by minimizing the video, moving it to behind your open applications, or just looking away from your computer now and then.”

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