Keeping meetings on track can be challenging, especially if you’re gathering a group of professionals who are passionate about the work they’re doing. As more companies rely on virtual meetings to conduct day-to-day business, side conversations happening outside of the room you’re in have quickly presented a new issue. How do meeting organizers keep discussions on track while still encouraging productive conversations? Here are a few tips that can help.
Create an Agenda
You’ve heard that agendas help meetings flow smoothly, but this is especially true when your meetings are virtual. Prior to each meeting, send participants an agenda that includes the start time and expected duration of the meeting, items to be discussed in order, and the names of those who will be leading each topic discussion. This will not only reduce side conversations, but it will set expectations with attendees about how much time of their day will be taken up by meetings.
Schedule Side Meetings
One of the best ways to manage conversation diversions is to suggest a separate time to discuss the topic. “Thank you for bringing that up. Why don’t we set a time next week to discuss that?” Even if the conversation doesn’t involve you, you can suggest those involved schedule a time to talk about the issue. This allows your current meeting to stay on track without devaluing what the participants are discussing. The more you do this, the more it will become ingrained in the culture around meetings moving forward.
Give Everyone a Voice
Instead of stifling the passion behind the side conversation, the best course of action may be to encourage it. When appropriate, schedule time during a meeting for each person to speak. This will allow them to make notes of anything they want to discuss when it’s their turn. You can also offer invitees the opportunity to contact you ahead of the meeting with anything they’d like to add to the agenda. If attendees have an opportunity to take the stage for a few minutes, they’re less likely to interrupt randomly.
Keep Disruptive People Busy
The goal of your virtual meeting should be to make it as productive as an in-person meeting. One way to do this is to assign duties to individuals who will be attending. This is especially true of participants you expect will be disruptive. If they’re busy taking minutes or keeping track of time, they will take accountability for the meeting’s success, making it less likely that they’ll cause trouble. You may even ask a particularly disruptive person to look for side conversations during the meeting and help you keep the discussion on topic.
If issues continue, it may become necessary to have a one-on-one conversation with each person derailing your meetings. However, in many cases you’ll likely find that simply having an agenda, giving each participant time to speak, and suggesting separate appointments to discuss unrelated issues can go far in keeping your meetings as on topic as possible.