Facilitating Virtual Meetings: Five Benefits of Having a Neutral Facilitator

By Chuck Doran and Megan Winkeler

Facilitating virtual meetings, many of us are discovering, isn’t always easy. Even for a simple staff meeting, there’s so many questions to answer. Should we use video, or is audio alone okay? What’s the best system to use – Zoom? Teams? WebEx? How do I create a dialogue and make sure everyone has a voice? What if my four-year-old finds me hidden in the bedroom and starts asking for snacks during my presentation? Many people have had to gain quick expertise in this area due to COVID-19, relying on online articles and advice-centered blogs to patch together an effective approach.

Especially during this time when funds are being stretched and tough decisions must be made, effective meeting facilitation is essential. However, the more important or contentious the topic the meeting becomes, it becomes even tougher – and important – to answer these questions and provide an effective approach. Rather than spending your time becoming a Zoom expert and reading about techniques for facilitating virtual meetings effectively, there are vital benefits to leaning on a professional facilitator for significant meetings.

1. You can focus on leading, not logistics.

When you had important meetings in your office, did you bake the pastries that kept everyone focused and engaged? Probably not. You focused on your role – leading. When facilitating virtual meetings, it’s helpful to adopt this frame. Virtual meetings present unique logistical challenges, some that you might not even anticipate. Not only does this require you to pull double-duty as a leader and support agent, but it also asks that you quickly gain expertise in technology and a new type of facilitation.

Rather than focusing your energy on learning the ins and outs of engaging virtual meetings, a professional can efficiently and effectively support you so you can focus on what’s important. This includes:

  • Setting up all technology
  • Managing in-the-moment technology issues
  • Focusing the agenda and managing time
  • Capturing data/outcomes
  • Providing a follow-up report of minutes, action items, and/or agreements

2. You can engage employees more effectively.

You ask a question during a meeting, and no one answers. If you were together in person, you would read the group’s body language, make eye contact, and maybe ask a follow-up question. You’d do anything except sit in silence, wondering what’s going on. Yet during virtual meetings, that can feel like our only recourse. Engaging employees in a virtual space requires different approaches and skills. And like anything else, applying these effectively takes practice and experience – a luxury many of us don’t have after quickly being thrown into remote work arrangements.

Whether in person or online, it’s essential to engage everyone present in a meeting. Research shows that there are ample benefits when employees feel they have a voice that is heard and considered, especially in meetings about contentious topics or relating to organizational decision making, and there are meaningful negative consequences if meetings lack this level of engagement. Successful engagement feels lively and natural, but this doesn’t just happen – it’s typically the result of good planning and facilitation.

A professional meeting facilitator knows how to break through virtual barriers to get feedback from a variety of employees, inclusively brainstorm ideas, and bring new voices into the conversation. From thoughtful setup, to utilizing technological tools in creative ways, to monitoring engagement throughout the meeting, the facilitator ensures that employees have a voice in the meeting, even those who might feel put off by participating in a virtual environment.

3. You can make more informed, inclusive decisions.

In addition to logistical and technological challenges, it’s almost impossible to facilitate a meeting in a neutral manner while you advocate for certain outcomes. This becomes especially difficult to balance if the meeting confronts divisive topics or touches on existing conflict, and it’s important to accept that these conversations will be difficult in any environment. However, having such difficult conversations online amps up the possibility for miscommunication, misunderstand, and renewed conflict.

There’s also the issue of reactive devaluation: if I disagree with someone, I am more likely to devalue their ideas and suggestions, regardless of their content. Basically, because I disagree with you, I now disagree with everything you say. No one is exempt from this psychological phenomenon, even the best of leaders. The impact: good ideas are left on the table simply because we don’t tend to agree with their source.

Adam Grant, an academic expert and best-selling author on organizational psychology, recently highlighted the impact of biases playing out during meetings:

facilitating virtual meetings

Typically, it would be best to have these tough meetings face-to-face, but avoiding all difficult conversations until we can meet in person is impractical and ill-informed. Inviting a neutral facilitator to the meeting helps address several potential pitfalls. The neutral can address conflict as it arises, help disputing meeting participants address their concerns, and guide everyone to move forward together in a problem solving effort.

A neutral facilitator can also act as a sort of filter for ideas, which has two important points of impact. First, it mitigates the effects of reactive devaluation by changing the frame – even if the idea came from someone we disagree with, we are more likely to hear and consider that idea when it is filtered through a neutral. Second, this helps mitigate bias by ensuring the everyone’s ideas are acknowledged and the sources receive equal credit for their contribution – a strategy that many women have used in the workplace to ensure their ideas are heard, considered, and correctly attributed to them.

4. You can save time and money.

One of our clients once shared an anecdote about how they addressed “meeting overload” in their workplace. In every meeting, this employee would translate the amount of time each person spent in the meeting to a real dollar amount based on each participant’s annual salary. It was an extremely thoughtful and successful way to highlight that our time is valuable, and we should strategically select where we spend that valuable time.

Meetings have always had a reputation for being inefficient and waste of time – one that was earned through poor meeting preparation and facilitation. This popular tweet about working remotely during the COVID-19 lockdown encapsulates the general feeling: “I guess we’re about to find out which meetings couldn’t been emails after all …” Facilitating virtual meetings poses even more opportunities wasted time – which equals wasted money. Beyond monetary costs, poorly run meetings cost us in other ways: lack of clarity or alignment, disengagement, heightened conflict, and poor decision making.

One immediate cost presented by online meetings is investing in effective technology. If your organization wants to avoid paying an annual fee for a service you’ll use just a few times, hiring a professional facilitator will give you access to premium accounts at no extra cost to you. Professional facilitators also prepare for and address common pitfalls, such as technology failures. And their expertise in meeting facilitation ensures that the time you and your employees spend in the meeting is maximized, focused, and effective – which means no one feels like they are wasting their time, everyone and the organization’s resources, and everyone gets back to work sooner.

5. You can relieve some pressure.

Everything is more difficult now. Daily work, buying groceries, raising kids, staying healthy – the list goes on. Combine all of this with the underlying stress of a difficult economy and fears for you or family getting sick, and you have a powder keg of pressure on your shoulders. In this moment when you need your mind clear and ready for problem solving, stress actually makes us far less effective.

You have a lot to worry about. Knowing that you have the support of an experienced professional during an important meeting can help relieve some of that pressure and help you focus more clearly on problem solving. Rather than staying one step ahead of what might go wrong, you can be present and engaged. Not only will this benefit you and your decision-making abilities, but it will also project strength and calm to your employees. That’s leadership we could all use right now.

Talk to an MWI Neutral Meeting Facilitator

Interested in learning more about how you might benefit from a neutral facilitator?  Visit our webpage on Meeting Facilitation at https://www.mwi.org/dispute-resolution-for-companies/meeting-facilitation/. You can also reach out directly to Chuck Doran, Executive Director, at 617-895-4026 or cdoran@mwi.org to learn more.

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