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Two-dimensional meetings don’t have to be flat

How to design and pull off effective remote meetings.

My team, PwC’s The Difference, designs and facilitates large-group collaborative sessions aimed at solving complex problems. We scope the work before we begin with a sponsor team and then invite the right people to engage around a challenge and move forward, together, with speed and alignment. These sessions are conducted exclusively in person and are designed to be highly experiential. When the pandemic made holding such events impossible, we feared that our whole method of working would instantly be rendered obsolete. But we’ve discovered that many elements of the in-person work we were doing translate well to virtual collaboration — and are, in fact, vital to success in this new arena. In the last couple of months, we’ve tested, iterated, and delivered our work remotely in ways that were still effective and engaging. There are some important challenges to keep in mind and takeaways we learned along the way for how to add depth, texture, and power to two-dimensional meetings.

All designers of good meetings have to master the basics: the right objectives, agenda, facilitation approach, participants, materials, and a space that’s fit for purpose. In addition to getting the basics right, planners of virtual meetings must overcome additional constraints to creating optimal outcomes in three key parameters: attention, tools, and space.

Attention. Because people typically join a virtual meeting via a device that contains every other element of their work lives and access to the Internet, the temptation to multitask is even greater than when participants are together in person. It’s also usually easier to hide, because the norms that prevent such behaviors in-person are no longer present. When sitting in a room with 10 colleagues, you can’t simply put yourself on mute or hide from the camera so you can clear your email inbox. But in a virtual environment, meeting facilitators are constantly competing for participants’ attention.

Tools. The infrastructure supporting remote meetings is becoming increasingly robust. But it still suffers from some shortcomings. Most audio lines don’t handle people speaking over one another well. Participants may experience lag times when updating the same document together, especially if they have a less-than-stellar Internet connection. And we have all heard stories about Zoom meetings getting disrupted by outsiders.

Space. Because participants aren’t in the same physical space as one another, some of the things that we take for granted at in-person meetings are more difficult in a virtual environment. It can be really challenging to “read the room” and understand the sentiment of participants. And communicating via gestures is tricky, because screen layouts aren’t the same for all users. We also lose the ability to physically move to a new space to signify a transition to a new topic or to manage the group’s energy.

So how can a person design stellar meetings in a virtual world in which these constraints are very real?

Scoping matters more than ever. The most important work often takes place before people dial in. Be clear on what you’re trying to achieve and who is essential to make it happen. Make sure each participant has a vested interest in being there. Ensure that you have the right inputs to enable participants to meet the session’s objectives. Share the purpose, objectives, and ground rules in the invitation so everyone is clear before they accept the call. Consider what can happen before and after the meeting, what work is synchronous or asynchronous, and what work requires the full group versus a subset.

The most important work often takes place before people dial in. Be clear on what you’re trying to achieve and who is essential to make it happen.

Commit to a platform. The technology you use matters less than your commitment to mastering its features so you can use them adeptly and wisely. We suggest using a conferencing tool that shows people’s faces and, if your group is more than seven people, lets you move individuals in and out of small groups. A virtual whiteboarding tool is especially beneficial if you’ll be doing design work like ideating or building a prototype. Of course, you need to test the technology and have a backup plan in case it fails.

Design the experience. Start with the ideal case and design the work as you’d like it to happen, then consider the features of the available tools. If your tools don’t enable what you want to do, can you augment them with others? The participant’s experience starts the moment the invitation is received, so the more thoughtful you can be about each element — and the more you have in place when the invitation goes out — the better. For screen-bound meetings, shorter sessions with many breaks tend to work better. Split that eight-hour session into two shorter work-blocks on two consecutive days.

One of our teams recently planned a two-day, in-person kickoff session for a client. Only a few days before the meeting, the team decided to conduct the meeting remotely, in shorter bursts over four days. In anticipation, the facilitation team wanted to level-up the participants on working remotely and get them excited for the session. So they shipped a custom-branded kit to each participant that included everything they’d need: pre-reading material, a pack of pens and notebooks, snacks, and a few surprises. It was an excellent primer for the work ahead and gave the participants a sense of excitement about what was to come.

Once the meeting starts, several key ground rules should be followed.

Keep the cameras on. There is some debate about the broad application of Albert Mehrabian’s classic 55/38/7 formula, which attributes 55 percent of communication to body language, 38 percent to the tone of voice, and 7 percent to the actual words spoken. But it is universally agreed that nonverbal communication is important. As you set ground rules for the meeting while planning it, it is vital that turning cameras on should be one of them.

Mute cautiously. Participants need to be able to hear one another clearly. If someone sounds like they are in a wind tunnel or has a noisy pet, it is fine to mute. However, nothing sucks the energy out of a virtual “room” more quickly than a well-delivered joke that is followed by “crickets.”

Divide and succeed. Just as with in-person meetings, it makes sense to work in small groups, but to test and align in the large group. The bulk of the work is done in small groups, ideally composed of fewer than eight people. We’ve found that in a virtual setting, even smaller groups are advantageous. Small groups share their work with the larger participant group at regular intervals to get feedback and generate alignment. We also mix teams frequently. There is often initial resistance to splitting participants up to work simultaneously for fear of missing out, but large group conversations tend to take a lot of time and make it difficult to get real work done, so we use them sparingly, especially when virtual. Another benefit of splitting up into smaller groups is that doing so gives people who don’t normally work together the opportunity to collaborate — and thus form more connections and build esprit de corps.

Read the room. Those leading the sessions have to be mindful of the different learning, working, and “showing up” styles on the team. Facilitators must challenge themselves to build in time for individual work as well as collaborative work. They also have to be conscious of the need to pass the mic. A body of research suggests the more a person speaks in a meeting, the more successful they perceive the meeting to be. As facilitator, it is your role to enable more voices.

There’s a final best practice that is not often associated with meetings:

Have fun! Embrace the peek we now have into one another’s lives and get creative about replicating on-screen the casual contact and natural conversations that happen when we meet in-person. One of our teams recently hosted a pet parade to give participants a short break from the content. Another team conducted an in-home scavenger hunt and created a model with found objects.

Because working with other people in person is second nature to many of us, adjusting to remote environments can be disorienting. But if we can figure out how to be as effective on Zoom as we are in a conference room, the benefits could be far-reaching. Imagine the potential reduction in CO2 emissions that would result from business travel being cut by half. Consider what a substantial decrease in spending on travel might mean for organizations — and the personal time people could reclaim for themselves and their family. Former travel-dependent jobs that were off-limits for those with family constraints or disability would be open to a broader swath of candidates. If thoughtfully designed, remote meetings could create a world of possibilities we haven’t anticipated.

Author profiles:

  • Katherine Dugan designs and facilitates collaborative sessions to solve complex problems with PwC's The Difference. Based in Los Angeles, she is a senior manager with PwC US.
  • John Colaruotolo works with clients in the technology, media, and telecom sectors. He designs and facilitates programs of work to help client teams achieve better outcomes by using creativity and collaboration techniques. Based in Dallas, he is a managing director with PwC US.
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