How active facilitation can improve participation in your (remote) meetings

Marty de Jonge
Marty de Jonge
Agile project manager
Posted on
Mar 8, 2022
Updated on
Mar 21, 2023
Table of Content

Although step by step, one thing is certain: we seem to be getting COVID-19 under control. Completely going back to the way we did business and worked together in 2019 and before is not going to happen; recent studies show an average of 85% of people prefer to work in a hybrid model, a mix of on- and offsite. How people meet, collaborate and achieve their goals while not working in the same physical space has changed forever. Large companies around the world have already made agreements with their employees to work partly at home and partly in the office. Hybrid working is the new norm.

There has been a lot of attention in the media on employees working from home, but little discussion on the consequences for facilitators. They still regularly ask themselves how they can better lead (virtual) meetings. 

By the term "leading" meetings, I mean "guiding" the process toward the most valuable outcome possible. One of the most important drivers for this goal is the level of participation. First of all, it is a prerequisite that the right people are invited to the meeting. When you have them around the (virtual) table, it is important that you also make use of the available wisdom of the crowd to provide the meeting with maximum value. 

No person is alike, so as a facilitator you have to provide every participant with the platform that suits him/her best. For Michael, this could be by stimulating participation and sharing of his opinion, whereas for John that would be by slowing him down and helping him be more concrete and to the point. 

I know how challenging it can be to conduct productive meetings in person, let alone virtually. In this article, I share my experience and insights. I hope these help you to improve your (virtual) meetings and help you guide teams through effective facilitation.

Can virtual teams be just as effective?

You might wonder whether virtual teams can be as effective as teams whose members work side by side. When it comes to meetings, “bad” face-to-face meetings can get worse when they become virtual. However, the "problem" of bad meetings is not fundamentally different.

If you lead meetings, the challenges you experience in face-to-face meetings – engagement, productivity, collaboration and effectiveness – will haunt you in virtual meetings too. But it is not the ‘virtual’ part that kills the meeting. The route cause for low engagement meetings is the same, only the symptoms are often more noticeable. If the route cause of a poor meeting culture or low engagement is not addressed, the fact whether your meeting takes place in a remote or co-located environment doesn’t matter that much. 

Let’s see if you recognise this scenario:

  • You’re in a meeting and you’re surprised by everything that is happening:
  • By people who come into the meeting too late,
  • By not having a clear agenda or desired outcome for the meeting,
  • By a facilitator who doesn’t take the lead,
  • By always having the same people speak,
  • By people who are talking 1-on-1 in the personal meeting, or using a side-channel chat in a remote one,
  • Jumping from topic to topic without finalizing the previous item,
  • Not listening to each other,

Your amazement builds up to frustration, so you try to change the group process.

By saying it doesn’t work that way. Or by throwing in a brilliant idea…. Which is then not responded to by anyone… Your frustration grows and you think to yourself:

I GIVE UP, I don’t want to be here anymore!! 

I Dare You!!!

I dare you not to give up in a situation like this. Rather, I challenge you to use your frustration as a source of energy with which you can do a lot of beautiful things. I’ll give you 6 steps to get the group aligned and to help you convert ineffective meetings to effective ones. And, spoiler alert… again, YOU are the one that has to step up to make it happen (again). But let it be a comfort to you, if you succeed, everyone will thank you for it.

1. Call out what you see without judgment and tell what effect it has on you.

Say what you see happening, as objectively as possible. Pay close attention to your tone of voice, speak in a normal, neutral tone.

It could sound like this: “People, can I just say something? It strikes me that we’re starting later than we agreed and we’re talking at the same time. I’m afraid we won’t make it through the agenda this way, I think we can work much more effectively.”

2. Ask if people recognize what you see.

For example, ask, “Does someone else recognize what I am saying? That we start later and talk simultaneously?”

3. Make a concrete proposal.

This sounds like: “My proposal is that we first determine the agenda and set a time limit for each item. I’d like to supervise that, but perhaps someone else would like to do the same. Who can support the proposal that we set the agenda again and that I supervise that process?”

4. Be interested in the NO.

It might happen, someone says ‘NO’. To be truthful, that’s probably going to happen one day and you don’t have to be afraid of that. Don’t let it knock you out; instead, start investigating what information there is in that ‘NO’.

Summarize and try to find out why and what she/he doesn’t like about the proposal. If this person maintains the ‘NO’ position, ask for approval for a one-time experiment. You agree that if it doesn’t work, you will try something new next time. For example - what if we can save 10 minutes in the next meeting? Let me facilitate, and I will make the meeting 10 minutes shorter AND more effective. Who wouldn’t want to have shorter meetings?

5. In the case of a collective NO.

If you get “NO” from the whole group… That hurts. And it comes with a very important lesson: Never take it personally!!!!!! Apparently, the group is not ready for a change, or you proposed your solution at the wrong moment or to the wrong audience. In cases like this, you wait patiently until you think it’s appropriate to intervene again and use this ‘epic fail’ as a lesson to become better in timing and messaging for the next opportunity.

6. It’s a YES!!

Did you get a “YES”? Go get them! Show a good example of someone who can supervise this process tightly. Show leadership, stay nice and be patient. Show this group that the meeting can be shorter by at least half, by monitoring the agenda very closely.

Make it visual

Make your meeting visual, so everyone can see each other and read body language. Set "webcams on" as the default setting. As the meeting leader, watch for signs of distraction, boredom or agitation, and for anyone who signals they want to speak. Most video conferencing tools have a “raise your hand” option to request the facilitators' attention. For the other available icons, you can propose to use them in any fun way you like to spice up your meetings (and by that, the attendees’ participation).  

I personally love to use this set:

  • Thumbs up: I agree with this proposal
  • Heart: I want to give a compliment to…..
  • Clapping hands: ELMO ( Enough Lets Move On) OK,  I get the point / we can stop discussing this point.
  • Smiling face: My energy level is ok 
  • Yawning face: My energy level is low

(I actively ask the use of these last two icons when in meetings longer than +/- 30 minutes) 

For co-located meetings, write the agenda or the end goal of the meeting on a whiteboard or flipchart. This way, you can always keep the attention on the agenda or goal by simply pointing towards the drawing (instead of verbally intervening).

Encourage participation

If you want participation in the meeting, you may need to address your participants more intentionally. Plan to ask people who are quiet to contribute and make a plan to address people who over-participate. If you don't want to put people in the spotlight in front of the whole team, discuss it with the person concerned before the meeting. 

Plan for document sharing

You need a way to share documents. Share them in advance with the meeting invitation, and decide how to share documents with participants during the meeting. Learn how to use the screen share feature so you and other participants can share documents and make notes and edits in real-time.

This part of facilitation involves my personal mantra. I believe very much in the 5 P's in this respect:

Perfect Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. 

Now you might be thinking, “does that mean I always have to work out the entire meeting down to the last detail?” No, it certainly does not! 

You can be sure of one thing: a meeting with several people will almost always turn out differently than you expected or planned. And often the greatest value comes from what cannot be prepared, the interaction that happens between participants. 

What I mean by the 5Ps is “get your basics in order before you start.” When you ensure that all preconditions are perfectly arranged and planned, you get the (head)space you need to pay attention in order to maximize the value of interactions.

  • Send out a clear agenda, on time. Doing so means the participants know in advance what the objective and their role in it is; usually they’ve prepared themselves better and the meeting runs more smoothly.
  • If you make sure you are in the meeting room 10 minutes beforehand, you can already check the projector, make sure the coffee is there, and the tables and chairs are set up. In a virtual meeting space you can make sure the digital work environment is already shared, your camera and lighting are in order, etc. This ensures that you don’t stress out within the first 5 minutes of a meeting because such basic things have to be taken care of with everyone waiting in the meeting. 
  • Think very carefully in advance about the method or retro template you want to use. make sure you know it well and that the method and goals are clear to you, so you can guide everyone through it tightly. 

(I myself often make grateful use of already available online templates such as this one from Mural

If you have prepared this well, you can put your attention and energy into 'reading' the audience so you can quickly anticipate when things go a different way than expected. 

So never forget – make sure you respect the 5 P's and your meeting participants will thank you for it!  ;-) 

Set up meeting rules: Set some meeting rules in advance: no mobile phones, no emails and no multitasking. In virtual meetings, agree that everyone closes the door and uses the "mute" function to reduce background noise. Decide how participants indicate they want to speak without interrupting. Establishing the rules with your team at the start of the meeting will give your team a sense of ownership of the rules and make them more likely to be followed.

7. Continuous improvement and handover.

Once you have experienced an effective meeting, you’ll get a taste for more! We want the next meeting to be at least as effective and preferably even better. To start a continuous improvement cycle and at the same time reduce dependence on one or a few good facilitators, here are a few final tips:

At the end of the meeting, summarize the process of timeboxing and agenda management, and ask participants for feedback. This can be done very quickly and easily using a ROTI (Return On Time Invested) or by utilizing a good online retrospective. Based on this feedback, your next meeting can become even more effective.

The last tip: Agree on who will be the facilitator for the next meeting.  This way everyone will learn best practices and effective meetings will spread like an oil slick throughout your organization.

We change agents — and by change agents, I mean everyone (Scrum Masters, leaders, coaches, advisors and trainers) who finds it interesting to get involved in group processes, remain patient and observant. Intervene to a level that the group is ready for. 

We have to deal with our own frustration and sometimes we fail miserably.

But that’s the way we learn.

Henry Ford Quote About Love, Inspirational, Life: Failure Is Simply The Opportunity...


About the author

Marty de Jonge
Agile project manager

Marty is a seasoned Agile professional with over 20 years of experience in various management positions in several industries. The last 5 years mainly focused on change management within various international companies. In this independent role he likes to facilitate organizations and especially the people working within them by offering (inviting, challenging and fun) ways of collaboration and he links these effort towards achieving results. What he sees, reads and experience in these change projects causes an irrepressible itch to write about his views, lessons learned and the situations he encounters. Most of them on the value of applying Scrum and several Agile practices, often at the interface between leadership and teams.

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