Dedicated in-person strategic ‘away-day’ meetings have long been a regular event in the diary for Board members or senior staff at many organisations. Sadly, of course the coronavirus has made such meetings inappropriate, so leaders have had to get used to holding virtual meetings, which can be more challenging.

So, what are some good tips for running a virtual strategy meeting? Well, the foundation of such a meeting remains similar to what is best for an effective in-person meeting, including: clear objectives, a well-structured agenda, a relevant group of attendes, advance reading, and good facilitation. But there are several practices specific to virtual meetings. Here’s what I recommend:

Break down the strategy process over a number of short meetings: Holding strategic discussions online can, of course, be tiring. So, best in your strategy process to hold a few more, separate meetings compared to traditional in-person planning and, also, try and keep each individual meeting to no longer than about 3-4 hours maximum. If your Board or exec team is used to using a longer one (or two) day ‘away-day’, best instead to divide that up into an integrated set of shorter meetings over one or two weeks. An overall work/agenda plan needs, of course, to be prepared for across the meetings and the supportive work in-between (e.g. detailed analysis/research, more focused thinking or planning, meeting of smaller task-groups etc). Don’t be too rigid, though, as strategy is heavily an iterative process, where ideas or views can evolve or change along the way.

Ensure all attendees are familiar with the technology ahead of time: Although traditional conference ‘dial-ins’ are still possible, the expected standard nowadays is to use a modern video conference tool (like Zoom, MS Teams, GoToMeeting, Slack or Webex), as they make people feel like they’re all ‘at the same meeting’. But an absolute ‘must’ is to ensure all participants try-out the technology before the meeting and check they are comfortable with the major features. Nothing kills the opening of a meeting like a 10-minute delay because someone can’t connect!

Ensure the right size and composiiton of the group: A common mistake, in my experience, with away-days is that organisations invite too many participants. In a virtual setting it is even more tempting – and easier – to do so! Managing strategic conversation online is much more challenging, so try to keep numbers down to a minimum – no more, ideally, than about 8 or 9 people if you want to really ensure everyone is going to be fully engaged. And, of course, make sure those are the right people best suited to the purpose of the meeting in question: if someone is only needed really for a specific part of the agenda, get them to join later for that item only.

Create a team feeling from the start, if not beforehand: As with any group endeavour, it’s very helpful if the people know each other to some extent, as this will encourage trust and greater openness. Where participants don’t know each other – or they come together only infrequently – be sure to set aside a little time at the very start for some informal ‘social’ chat or have the facilitator use one or two suitable ‘ice-breaker’ techniques. After this informal exchange, the faciliator should turn to confirming the overall aims and agenda of the meeing and check everyone is clear and allow for any queries to be answered: this step helps for everyone to see themselves as a group that has a joint task to work on.

Appoint a facilitator and assign any other roles: A virtual strategy meeting needs a suitably competent person to act as facilitator – ideally an independent, trained professional – especially if the meeting is going to run for several hours or involve a lot of creative thinking or wide-ranging discussion (a virtual meeting is much more challneing than an in-person meeting for a CEO or Chair to both facilitate well and contribute to detailed discussion). For any individual segment in a meeting, although it’s possible, best to avoid having two or more co-facilitators, so there is no confusion. Beyond the facilitation task, decide who – if not the facilitator – is to handle tasks around the technology, for example monitoring the chat function, splitting participants into break-our groups and resolving any techical issues that occur.

Minimse presentations, maximise discussion: The only thing worse than a long presentation in-person is a long presentation during a virtual meeting! So, circulate detailed or long documents for participants to read ahead of the meeting. Ensure all papers are well-structured and sections and paragraphs precisely numbered/labelled, so that participants can all locate a particular section quickly on the day if needed (shared document tools or virtual portals e.g. Sharepoint and Google Docs can be very helpful here). If someone does need to present, limit to a few pages only and use screen-sharing to show the material, so everyone can easily follow along.

Make sure all faces are clearly visible: To get close to the feel of an in-person meeting, it’s best if the faces of everyone participating can be seen altogether on-screen (and throughout all sessions). The facilitator also needs this in order to maintain a roving eye across everyone and ‘control’ discussion. To help everyone’s visibility, ensure all participants have enough light on them, get everyone to sit close to their webcam and get them to look into the camera lens when speaking (this helps enhance eye contact and enables participants to read each other’s facial expressions more easily) Also, ask everyone to keep their on-screen backgrounds free from distractions and movement as much as possible at all times.

Define some basic rules of meeting etiquette: Like any away-day, there’s a need for some basic rules of suitable behaviour. Typical ones used for an in-person meeting still apply – for example, don’t be rude or offensive, don’t interrupt others until they have made their point, make points succinctly, and return from breaks on time. Others need to be more specific to virtual meetings, including, notably: “mute” when not speaking, stay on-video throughout, and ‘raise hand’ if want to speak and wait for the facilitator.

Use well-planned sessions and a facilitation style that balances engagement with control: As it’s not easy in a virtual setting for a facilitator to redesign a meeting ‘on the fly’, all agenda sessions should be carefully planned and precise time-slots set. Try and vary the format, interaction approach and type of on-screen materials used across segment sessions, so things don’t get boring. On the day, in each agenda session, the facilitator should at the start ensure all are clear on what is intended and then during discussion he/she should regularly summarise points made or agreed. To reinforce everyone’s engagement, a good approach is for the facilitator to ‘call-out’ each person in turn to give their view before a decision is finalised, rather than have a ‘free for all’.

Use break-out groups and other technology tools to boost engagement: To further help keep up participants’ interest and enaggement, be sure to make good use of some of the interactive tools that most video conference platforms come with. In particular, I recommend some use of small, virtual ‘break-out’ groups – best to divide up individuals in advance (less disruption on the day) and don’t let them run on too long. Another very useful tool is the ‘chat’ function, whereby participants can send short messages either to the whole group and/or directly to the facilitator. Examples of other tools include virtual ‘white boards’ and voting buttons, but I would advise not using too many such tools in the same meeting, as more complexity risks technical glitches, confusing some participants or extra delay.

Take frequent breaks: Because sitting and concentrating in front of a screen for any length of time is physically demanding, be sure to divide up your meeting with regular breaks. I’d recommend at least a 10-minute ‘pit-stop’ every 60 minutes or so and a longer (at least 45 minutes) after two or two and a half hours. Encourage people at each break to get out of their chair and have a stretch or walk around the room, as well as get some refreshment.

In hybrid meetings, give extra attention to the remote participants: If your meeting has some people together in a conference room and some others attending virtually, the facilitator should stay a bit more mindful about those remote individuals, to ensure they feel equally involved. Some specific tactics I suggest: firstly, at the very start of the meeing when everyone gives some initial remarks, and then also each time there is a ’round-robin’ sharing of views as a group, go first to those remove participants; secondly, the facilitator should maintain a constant, sweeping eye across both groups of participants, particularly calling out any remote person who looks distracted or agitated; thirdly, emphasize to all participants that they should follow the meeting etiquette of raising their hand if they want to speak; and fourthly, the meeting should, of course, try and avoid long presentations or speeches where a person in the conference room makes heavy use of a traditional flipchart or other off-line materials: far better, of course, for participants to view electronically-shared documents on their laptop screens together.

Virtual strategy meetings are not easy to run, but I hope the above suggestions ar helpful.

Written by Mike P. Owen, CEO & Principal Consultant at The Owen Morris Partnership.

(Copyright of The Owen Morris Partnership 2021).