Key Learnings from Virtual Meetings

It seemed like an easy concept. With the mounting concerns around COVID-19, the order to “work from home,” took hold without a lot of debate or exception. But I’m told by many clients that the shift to 100% virtual wasn’t easy. It was more a herculean task as companies moved everything from call centers to billing departments into a make-shift home office. It was a frenzied pace and transition, and then all of a sudden, we were home… working.

For some employees, it’s been easier than they thought. For others, it’s been harder than they expected. And for everyone, there have been surprises and key learnings.

First, the surprises. Whether you work virtually every day, occasionally or not at all, the experience hasn’t been quite what anyone expected. Prior to COVID-19, leaders often asked us for help in managing a virtual workforce. And our advice has always been: “Turn the video on. It’s a much better meeting if you have a visual connection with an employee or a team.”

I felt heard on that point after seeing the significant increase in Zoom, BlueJeans, and Teams Meeting invites on calendars. Everyone is on video meetings. And, they’re exhausted by it. How can that be?  Because the video adds a requirement that we misunderstood. Historically, “work from home” meant I can manage a personal schedule on top of a work one. And that interpretation means everything from not dressing up today, to making lunch over sales reviews, managing errands or home repairs, etc. Until now, virtual working has been a multi-tasking opportunity.

It doesn’t mean people weren’t paying attention on conference calls, but they were rarely in front of a computer screen. So, they weren’t participating in the same way that we’re asking employees to participate now. And that realization has also highlighted some challenges in managing a virtual meeting.

Here are some thoughts on improving the virtual video experience.


The Zoom screen full of faces isn’t the same as the room full of bodies. If you didn’t realize it before, you now know how much we rely on body language to get a group’s attention or to speak up in meetings. It isn’t as easy in a virtual format. So, the meeting lead needs to set ground rules for how to participate. There are tools within most platforms to raise hands, wave and forward questions. But you have to know how to use them and establish that you are using them in order for them to be effective. There aren’t universal rules. So, set your own and call them out at the start of every meeting.


We’re also learning how to manage interruptions from dogs barking to kids who need something. The responsibility for managing this lies on the participant more than the meeting lead. Participants should be alert to sound quality, noises in a house, etc. We are overloading all internet systems, and most virtual meetings have at least one person with technical difficulty. Have a plan for managing this. Respond quickly to an interruption on your end. It’s OK to have interruptions right now; it’s not so good to ignore them or to be slow in response to them.

During this time, meeting leads need to be lenient. Be aware of who is more challenged working from home. Some people are balancing a lot more than others. Once we reset and define new boundaries, you can reset expectations. For now, try to help individuals manage interruptions so that everyone gets value out of a virtual meeting.


In a virtual setting, we often say someone needs to participate in order to listen well. As a meeting lead, you should encourage and manage participation differently. In our remote meetings workshop, we coach facilitation tools to help someone manage a virtual group of people. One simple tool is to draw a picture to replicate a meeting setting. Then add names of people so that you have a snapshot of who is in your meeting. Keep track of participation and discussion with a tally beside each name so that you can “see” involvement and call on people who haven’t had an opportunity to speak up.


If you’re running long meetings or back to back meetings, remember the surprise that most people have about working virtually. People weren’t sitting in front of a screen for a virtual meeting, and now we’re asking them to do that. Virtual participants were taking breaks during those calls; we just didn’t realize it. So, make breaks a part of a video meeting. There should be breaks in meetings that run more than 1.5 hours. And if you acknowledge this in your ground rules, you’re less likely to see people leave the meeting or turn off their video.


The “work from home” format also takes the social time out of the workday. Many companies are creating social time. Team leads are being encouraged to host “happy hours, game nights, workout challenges, etc.” Every culture is different, but it’s a nice way to help employees connect with each other without a tight agenda. Keep it light, keep it optional and see if your team values it.


No matter when we shift to a “new normal,” we’ve learned a bit about working virtually. And I stand by my advice on the video format. It’s the best way to work because it sets expectations very similar to being in an office. It isn’t a punitive step for a virtual employee; it’s just a better way to work as a team because it improves listening and increases participation.

I expect we will redefine virtual working and reset expectations. Today, working virtually has become the catch phrase for a day an employee needs to be somewhere else and hopes to multi-task between personal and work activities. That’s different than someone who is working in a different location. If virtual working stays front and center, I suspect we will define it more clearly.

In the meantime, it’s smart to sharpen your skills as a virtual communicator. And if your team would like help setting new ground rules and leveraging a different skill set, we can help you do so.

Stay healthy and call us when you need us.

Sally Williamson