Virtual Meeting Best Practices

We’re all in a lot of virtual meetings these days thanks to COVID-19. As we continue to shelter at home, I’ve been trying to optimize my online meeting experience. FWIW, I’m no stranger to online meetings. I work at the secondary location of Sandia (in California). The vast majority of my coworkers are located in another state (New Mexico). Over the years, I’ve been actively seeking for good ideas and am fortunate to have many colleagues that have shared their meeting facilitation techniques with me. I share below what I consider to be best practices. Comments welcome! @TammyKolda on Twitter or email.

Best Practices

  • Opening check-in - Take at least a few minutes at the beginning to quick start engagement.

    • If there is anyone new or who hasn’t attended in a while, introductions are mandatory. I cannot stress how important this is. Never assume that everyone knows each other.
    • I like to start with a question of the day. Some examples are given at the end of this post.
    • Find some excuse for everyone to have a chance to at least say hello at the start of each meeting. This is especially useful for identifying who’s on the phone with no video!
    • For a large group where there might not be time for everyone to answer individually, answers can go into a chat box.

  • Agenda - Every meeting needs an agenda that is shared with participants in advance. Many meeting attendees reflect on the agenda items in advance, come better prepared, and engage more. This is especially useful for persons who are less prepared to speak on a topic extemporaneously. For online meetings, it really helps participants to track what’s going on.

  • Rotating note-taking responsibilites - I currently use a system in some meetings where note-taking is rotated among participants. This started because a project supervisor required meetings notes from our subproject meetings, but it’s evolved into another engagement tactic. We have an online wiki where a person can claim the edit token, make edits, and then save the changes. We then pass the edit token on to the next person. This makes for natural breaks in the meeting and opportunity for the note-taker to make queries to ensure adequate notes are recorded. For online computers where everyone is already on a connected computer, this is pretty easy to do.

  • One camera per face - It’s really hard to mix in-person and virtual meetings. Not impossible, but that’s a topic for another day. Even if some folks are co-located in the same building, I still ask that each person call in from their own computer. This way, everyone is on equal footing. For my teams, this meant that transitioning to working from home during COVID-19 made virtually no difference in our meetings!

Especially for Larger Groups

  • Raised hands and a master of ceremonies - Because it’s very easy to talk over one another in online meetings, there needs to be protocols for engagement that are stated up front and repeated in the chat window. The master of ceremonies can be a rotating assignment, so long as there is someone who has the clear job of calling on people. In online meetings, a person can raise their virtual hand using the button if it exists or just typing <raised hand> in the chat window.

  • Using the chat features - It’s not always possible to engage with a larger group via voice, and the chat box gives another option for engagement that’s not even available in “live” meetings. This can be used for answers to questions, commentary, or even jokes. This can help a meeting to be friendly in ways that are really nice. (Of course, chat also makes it really easy to exchange links and other electronic information.)

  • Silence is golden - If a question is posed, allow time for participants to formulate their responses, find the button to raise their hand, paste a note in the chat box, or what have you. Silence is never as long as it seems.

Cameras or No Cameras?

There are plently of valid reasons not to use cameras, including

  • Protecting the privacy of others in a shared space
  • Bandwidth issues
  • Lack of a camera
  • Bad hair day

But I really, really like the additional connection that comes with having the camera on. I try not to be too pushy about it though I will generally inquire about camera availability.

Question of the Day (QoD)

I’ve falled in love with an inclusion technique known as question of the day, which I inexplicably abbreviate as QoD. I choose these carefully depending on the audience and how much time we have for the activity. I try to avoid questions that have to do with marital or relationship status, parental status, origin (where were you born?), cultural heritage, religion, politics, etc. Whew. But there are still infinite options. The general goal it to help facilitate some connections that go a bit outside the reason for the meeting and have the potential for participants to discover unexpected connections. A few specific examples.

Just for fun (but still approiate for workplace team buidling)

  • Any good recent streaming recommedations?
  • On May 4th: Favorite Star Wars trilogy?
  • Favorite dessert? Bonus points for sharing the receipe.
  • Where are you headed for your next vacation? (Admittedly, this question made more sense pre-COVID19.)

More professional, targeted towards academics

  • What hobbies do you engage in outside of work?
  • What’s the title of a paper you’re working on right now? Or recently finished?
  • In a meeting of SIAM volunteers: If you have to pick just one, which is the most important letter to you in S-I-A-M and why? (Obviously, this can be adapted to many organizational acroynyms!}
  • What was the first conference you ever attended?

One that is surprisingly useful QoD for teams that meet regularly is What QoD would like me to do in the future? I’ve gotten some fun suggestions like What’s your favorite theorem? and What do you eat for lunch each day?

FWIW, I presume attendees at my meetings kind of hate these questions in the same way that teens hate mom hugs. They go along with grudging good humor and would miss them if I stopped.


Thanks to many Sandia colleagues who have inspired me and been willing to share their secrets, including Bert, Mike, Janine, Jeremy.