Ideas for chairing online committees

I have been thinking a lot recently about participation and organisation for online meetings, committees and other more formal online activities. Probably because I have been spending a lot of time in them! Last week I blogged about some ideas for online meetings and this got me thinking about chairing committees. So hear are a few ideas that I came up with, as with the other posts in this series, many of these ideas apply for face-to-face meetings to, but have become more acute online.

Do we miss in-person committee rooms?!
  1. Be clear on the purpose of the committee. At universities we spend a lot of time in committees and most of them have terms of reference and so on. However, often committees rumble on on a time schedule when we often may not have thought about the purpose of the committee. What is there to achieve and what are its core objectives? These may need to be re-established now the committee is online. Perhaps it needs to be meet less often or perhaps it needs to meet more frequently if the situation is rapidly changing. Being the Chair, establishing the purpose is vital and you may need to revisit this regularly.
  2. What is your role as Chair? Are you facilitating the discussion? Are you there to ensure decisions are made? Are you there to present your view? Steer the work? Keep everyone to time?! If you are clear about your role, make sure that everyone understands that and that you communicate how you are going to run the meetings.
  3. Always have a clear agenda. An obvious one but… Make sure you have a clear, timed agenda, and stick to it! If things go awry, then revisit it and get feedback from members on what you drop in terms of discussion or reduce in terms of timings as the meeting progresses.
  4. Be clear on meeting etiquette. How do you want people to contribute to the meeting? Is it cameras on and or off? Are you going to call on people to contribute, if so you may need to warn them in case they pop out! Or would you prefer to people to put their hands up. Be really clear on this at the outset to avoid awkward exchanges.
  5. Keep your camera on. I had to Chair a committee with my camera off as my computer failed it was horrible! Try not to be put off by all the literally blank faces or photo-less spaces on your screen. Perhaps ask a few colleagues to have their cameras on so you don’t feel alone!
  6. Gain support. Be clear on who is taking the minutes or notes. Its not great to do take your own notes if you are Chair face to face, but impossible online. Can you manage the chat as well or do you need someone to do that?
  7. Be sensitive to interactions and dynamics. This sounds obvious but I have noticed that during online committees discussions can quickly escalate and get out of hand. Often comments that may not provoke such as strong reaction face to face, can cause real upset and distress online. Or people say things online that they would not have said face to face. We are all physical isolated from each other and with cameras off, we cannot read non-verbal clues. Notice if someone rapidly turns their camera off or even leaves the meeting and make time to check-in with them afterwards to see if they are ok.
  8. Be clear on acceptable behaviour. If interactions have escalated and you were not aware of the upset in that meeting, address it at the next meeting, and be clear on how you would like interactions to be addressed in the future. Or if you are aware in a meeting, you can address the behaviour at the time or even stop the committee and take a break.
  9. Introduce people. Yes, those “round the table” sweeps of names can be awkward and even more awkward online but then there is nothing worse than sitting looking at people and not being introduced. Make sure everyone knows each other and introduce new people. We played “introduction relay” at one committee, which wasn’t universally popular (!) but did shake things up a bit! This was where one person introduced themselves and then nominated someone else to introduce themselves. It certainly made everyone pay attention. Perhaps there are other things that you could do to ensure everyone knows each other, such as writing introductions in the chat and reading them out.
  10. Include small talk. Personally I find those committees where you enter and everyone is sitting there staring at the screen or fiddling about with email before the meeting starts super awkward. Even for very formal meetings, a bit of small talk goes a long way. Perhaps commenting on people’s backgrounds, views from windows etc. Anything to break up the silence! Even playing music as people arrive.
  11. Why are we here? For online committees you can include infinite amounts of people and that is great in terms of ensuring people know what is happening but does everyone need to be there? Can people engage in different ways, perhaps via email or collaborative document sharing or virtual polling rather than attending? This might help make a meeting shorter and more focused.
  12. Be comfortable with awkward silences. Due to tech delays and lags, it can be a while before people are able to contribute Ensuring you ask for contributions via a hands-up tool helps, but also give some pause to allow people to turn on their mic/camera etc and contribute. It may feel like a long time but adding a few seconds extra can really help people contribute.
  13. Start late and finish early. Try allowing 5 minutes “entry” time at the beginning of the meeting and up to 10 minutes “exit” time. We would do this in real life to travel between settings but forget to do this online. It can be hard with a big agenda but makes all the difference to people’s engagement.
  14. Keep committees short. In the face to face world committees often run for hours (and perhaps that is not the best use of time but…), online though, very long meetings are very challenging. Yes there is a lot of business but can a lot of this be managed in other ways? Try to keep committees to an hour to an hour and a half. And if you do have to go on beyond that allow decent breaks so people can refresh and move. 10-15 minutes is preferable. This will improve engagement and ensure people are focused.
  15. Include interaction. Can you use polling or discussion tools during the meeting to gather people’s views? This could be a good way of engaging people in longer meetings or ensuring that their voices are heard if you need to keep the meeting time shorter.
  16. Use collaborative tools outside of the committee. Can you use document sharing tools or other ways of engaging people and asking them to comment on papers to help focus the meeting? You could create file sharing spaces and post papers before or after the meeting to encourage participation, and then keep the committee focused on a key topic or discussion item.
  17. Ask for feedback. Engage your committee members in contributing ideas as to what could make the committee more effective, any suggestions around chairing and contributions. Revisit this regularly as things change and people may welcome the opportunity to contribute and suggest new ways of making the committee more effective.

I hope you have found this post useful, if you have other ideas on how to chair online committees, do let me know!

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