In Practice: Lessons for and from Practitioners

“Working remotely is a big adjustment — especially if your work typically depends on in-person contact. Feeling connected to a group is more challenging over phone calls and video conferences, and staff and managers have to work to build a sense of motivation and shared purpose.”

Running Effective Group Meetings While Working Remotely

April 2020
Frustrated woman at computer

As programs across the country adjust to working and serving clients in the context of COVID-19, many of us are spending considerable chunks of our days on conference calls and group meetings—and many of us may already be feeling frustrated.

Our February post shared ideas on how to organize effective, engaging remote learning communities, and contained a number of tips for establishing connections between groups that meet virtually for check-ins and training. We’re expanding on that theme with tips to help you run remote group meetings with staff, stakeholders, and participants and stay productive in this uncertain, unsettling time.[1]

Working remotely is a big adjustment — especially if your work typically depends on in-person contact. Feeling connected to a group is more challenging over phone calls and video conferences, and staff and managers have to work to build a sense of motivation and shared purpose.

The agenda assumes prime importance in a remote setting. Each meeting should have  clear goals and takeaways. Most important, the agenda should include time for building connections between and among participants and encouraging active participation.

How to Set the Agenda

The most productive remote meetings include several essential ingredients:

  • Time for brief introductions and a brief opportunity to share how the pandemic is affecting programs, personnel and participants if relevant
  • An icebreaker activity to build connections
  • Reviews of goals and expectations
  • A mix of guided conversation and opportunities for group participation
  • Opportunities for participants to share experiences, test out new ideas, and reflect on what they have heard
  • A clear structure for the conversation — for example, one person discussing a specific experience, others asking questions, and the facilitator summarizing
  • A way for more introverted participants to contribute to the conversation, such as using the chat box to share ideas

Depending on how the COVID-19 crisis affects your program operations, you may want to build in time for self-care, discussion of difficult circumstances, or a little time for levity to lighten the load.

Facilitators: Important, Effective Leaders

Since physical distancing now features in nearly every aspect of daily life, facilitators of group meetings have even more responsibility and opportunity to make remote work productive and inclusive. You can help build connections and cohesion among people — even over the phone — by planning ahead and ensuring these elements are a part of your meeting plan: 

  • Know the agenda backwards and forwards and understand the group’s expectations.
  • Be ready to move the group through activities while maintaining an eye on the process.
  • Ensure that everyone is included in a way that makes sense for them.
  • Be attentive to and ready to manage group dynamics so everyone keeps to the agenda.
  • Keep an eye on individual reactions in the group and be prepared to follow up with people privately after the meeting if necessary.

Don’t overmanage according to a prearranged plan:

  • Don’t talk over every point at length: Rely on group expectations and agenda to provide structure.
  • Use in-the-moment strategies (as shown in the table below).
When the group breaks down Supporting the group process

No one will talk

  • Sit with the silence: Give it time.
  • Ask people to write down thoughts first.
  • Be prepared with some specific questions — for example, “How is Steve’s experience similar to, or different from, your experience in your daily work?” — to elicit a thoughtful comparison.
  • Create a structure that allows each person to contribute one thing but gives them the “right to pass.” For example: “I’d like each of you to share one concern, then pass the baton to your neighbor. You can say ‘skip’ if nothing comes to mind right now.”

One person does all the talking and controls the conversation

  • Restate expectations for sharing the floor.
  • Ask people who talk a lot to sit back and let them know we want to hear from others who haven’t shared yet: “Steve, thanks for sharing your ideas. Let’s pass the baton to Melinda and hear her experiences.”
  • Ask people who have been quiet to come forward, and draw them out by asking a direct question: “Ann, you shared a helpful tip with me yesterday at our check-in. I wonder if you want to share your experience?”

People strongly disagree with each other

  • Acknowledge that you have hit on a sensitive topic and allow the conversation to unfold.
  • Encourage the group to explore the disagreement by using open-ended questions: “It seems we’ve hit on a key concern here for people. Who else would like to share how this is affecting their work?”
  • Let participants know that “forming, storming, and norming” is part of the group process.
  • If disagreements take a wrong turn, restate group expectations.
  • Use humor to help address tension.

Someone says something that makes others uncomfortable  

  • Encourage attendees to be aware of how others are receiving their messages: “That might have struck a nerve with some folks.”
  • Keep an eye on people withdrawing or showing emotional reactions and follow up with them privately through chat.
  • Explicitly redirect conversation if discussion is shutting down.
  • Ask open-ended questions to explore difficult topics.

Someone gets the group off track

  • Maintain a balance between being responsive while keeping the meeting on track: “Sam, I would love to hear your thoughts about this if we have time at the end.”
  • Explicitly ask the group whether they want to change the direction of the conversation: “Sara brings up an important point. Do we want to shift gears and dig into that issue together?”

We are eager to hear your tips, suggestions, and shared experiences as we all adjust to the new realities of working at an enforced distance. Please email us with your thoughts at [email protected].


[1]This post draws on insights featured in our February 2020 In Practice post featuring remote learning communities in the Building Bridges and Bonds (B3) and the Procedural Justice-Informed Alternatives to Contempt (PJAC) projects. The B3 study was supported with funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Administration for Children and Families, Office of Family Assistance, and overseen by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation. The PJAC demonstration was funded by HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, Office of Child Support Enforcement, and the Georgia Department of Human Services.