for Researchers & Teams

Best Practices for SESYNC Virtual Meetings

July 06, 2020 by

Yet another set of recommendations for how to transition to remote work!? Yes! However, this post presents a curated list of strategies specifically to help leaders of synthesis teams who are faced with the prospect of holding one or more Pursuit meetings online rather than at our center in Annapolis, Maryland. Our model thus far has emphasized the value of those in-person meetings; we even designed the physical layout to maximize interaction! However, like you, we’re now adapting. We will continue to provide online computing environments and support for your collaborations, and support new meeting formats in order to help you build or maintain team collaborations and keep forward momentum on research.

Planning and preparation

  1. Revisit the scope of your meeting goals and adjust your expectations. Goals for each meeting or session may need to be reduced compared to what could be accomplished during all-day in-person meetings where team members have reduced other distractions and build collective energy from the group. Reconsider whether activities done asynchronously can replace synchronous meetings or discussion to ensure “face-to-face” meeting time is used most effectively.

  2. When scheduling, carefully consider timezones, fatigue, and adding more structure to your agenda than you would for an in-person meeting. Identify the range of time zones participants will be joining from. Note that there is only 1 hour of the day that allows most of the world (except New Zealand) to participate outside of midnight and 6:30am local time–2:30 GMT. If your team is spread out around the world, consider having breaks long enough to accomodate a meal. Scheduling 3-4 hours of meeting per day may also make it easier to accomodate time zone differences. Let SESYNC staff know when you are holding meetings and whether you would like us to be “on call” to help out when things go pear-shaped.

  3. Consider one-on-one pre-meetings with participants especially if it is your team’s first meeting. This could be facilitated with a questionnaire to gain insight from each participant about what they hope to gain from the meeting, what they hope to contribute, and what they may be anxious about.

  4. Have a technology plan, test it out, and have a backup plan. Virtual meetings are less forgiving if technology is not working so make sure to identify a seperate channel that is a go-to for communication outside of the video call. If you intend to use a new platform or a feature that you are not familiar with (e.g. breakout rooms), set time aside to test it out before your meeting. It may also be helpful to provide content and/or links for participants to download content in case the video quality of shared content is reduced. Reach out to for help or to set up a time to test out meeting settings.

  5. Design your meeting to ensure accessibility and inclusivity. Will participants in different countries have access to all platforms being used? Is there a way to participate fully without high-bandwidth internet connectivity or multiple monitors in a home office? Does your team have deaf or hard-of-hearing participants that would benefit from a service like real-time captioning or video relay services? Consider asking team members in advance whether they are comfortable and willing to use their video during any or all of the meeting. Devise a plan for fielding questions and comments from participants in an equitable manner that allows everyone to contribute, recognizing that multiple modes of communication may be necessary.

During your meeting

  1. Orient your team with a tour of the virtual environment, code of conduct, and what to expect. This may include clarifying whether sessions will be recorded, if there is consent for taking screenshots of the meeting e.g to share on social media. Be clear about how to participate e.g. whether the host or co-host is keeping an eye on the chat window or participants list for questions and hand-raise emojis. Don’t assume that everyone is familiar with the features of any given software.

  2. Consider designating a co-host who is not the presenter to manage logistics during a session. It can be difficult to simultaneously manage participation or handle unanticipated distruptions while delivering content. SESYNC staff may be able to fulfill this role, or a co-lead that can use chat and private messages to moderate the flow of discussion and make adjustments in real time. Consider sharing this responsibility among team members by rotating the co-host role between sessions. Check out the Zoom meeting quickstart page for more details on “host” and “co-host” meeting roles.

  3. Use a shared note-taking document and provide alternate ways to access or download material being presented, such as a link to a cloud-based file system like Google Drive or SESYNC’s file share. Several online note-taking platforms exists including Etherpad, Dropbox Paper, and Google Docs. Determine ahead of time whether the meeting chat will be saved automatically in case there is discussion taking place that you want to preserve. Note that private chat messages between Zoom meeting participants should not visible to the host, however a meeting host can disable private messaging. Private messages may still be visible to the host in the meeting transcript text file.

  4. Promote focus. Realize that there is a danger for e-conferences or virtual meetings to be taken less seriously than in-person meetings because there is no travel involved and participants are generally not removed from their everyday environment. Turn off visual and audio notifications on your computer (e.g. Do Not Disturb setting on Macs or System > Turn off Notifications on PC). Dedicate as much screen real estate to your meeting as possible, and consider sharing only a relevant window rather than your entire screen when sharing content if you don’t need to switch between windows. If possible, consider leveraging hardware to ensure that team members will be able to see your face well—seeing each other helps to create a more personal experience for sessions focused on conversation. Diffuse natural light is the best for illuminating your face, but when it is unavailable or unreliable rearranging several lamps to your desk set-up can be a good substitute.

  5. Create opportunities for informal interaction. Allow a space for participants to share information about themselves, their expertise, and contact methods to each other outside of a round of introductions during live video. This can be at the beginning of a shared note-taking document. Recognize that team members at different career stages may have different needs or desires for networking with colleagues. If it is your team’s first Pursuit meeting, consider devising activities that promote a sense of togetherness–anything from polls during meeting breaks (cutest pet, best Zoom background, silliest hat) to organized Strava events.

After the meeting

Don’t forget to follow up! Welcome asynchronous contributions and provide guidelines on how to do so. Even for team members that are virtually present, it may be more difficult to fully engage during plenary sessions due to time zone differences, hardware or connectivity issues, distractions, or other issues you may not be aware of. Inviting contributions outside of the scheduled meeting time e.g. in a shared note-taking document, Slack workspace for project management, or GitHub issues, provides a mechanism for everyone to more fully engage. Using a software platform for project management and/or task-tracking can help keep momentum going between meetings by showing visible progress towards big picture goals when smaller tasks are accomplished.

Check out More Resources

Return to SESYNC’s page on Resources and Tips for Elevating Your Team Science in an All-Virtual World