Overcoming the Challenges of Virtual Meetings

Virtual meetings are here to stay. We must address their challenges to ensure discussions with colleagues remain productive and valuable. Kim Newton-Woof, AHUA coach and facilitator, offers advice on overcoming the challenges of virtual meetings.

The explosion of virtual meetings

“So, how are you doing?”

This is my first question when checking in with AHUA members.

And some common responses:

  • “I’m so sick of Zoom!”
  • “Being constantly online is exhausting.”
  • “I’m in back-to-back meetings from morning til night!”

These are cathartic rants about the understandable frustration of relying on technology to communicate.

During lockdown, members described a daily explosion of emails, phone calls, and requests to participate in multiple video conferences.

And yet… this was true before lockdown too.

Members were invited to one-to-ones, team meetings, executive briefings, committee and council meetings – and that’s before you consider stakeholder engagement and networking, strategy workshops, development days.

The list goes on and on.

So, why should a shift from meeting face-to-face to meeting virtually – often from the comfort of your own home – be any different?

What unique challenges are being encountered, and how do we overcome them?

Overcoming the challenges of virtual meetings

Our members are facing several recurring challenges when communicating in a virtual world.

Yes, without question, life in lockdown has varied widely, but similar challenges have emerged for virtual meetings.

It’s time we reviewed these challenges together to reflect on how best to overcome them.

Let’s address the elephant in the Zoom.

Challenge 1 – Too many barriers

Questions have arisen around how we can truly connect with each other as human beings in a virtual world.

These connections seem all the more important in a year where increasing levels of anxiety, uncertainty, and isolation are being experienced within our organisations and communities.

This concern is compounded if you consider the perceived impact of face-to-face communication through words accounts for as little as 7%, according to body language specialist Judi James, whilst non-verbal actions account for 55%.

The number of physical and psychological barriers to our communications have grown. Pre-COVID, the only physical barrier between two individuals in a meeting was a desk. Now, each individual has a:

  • Screen
  • Device
  • Headset (or lack of)
  • Internet connection
  • Risk of call latency or lag
  • Video conferencing platform
  • Potential unexpected walk-in from another household member: sometimes two-legged, sometimes four.

Members described how their personal circumstances impacted on their ability to concentrate and be fully present for others.

Many found themselves putting on a brave face while:

  • Juggling the needs of (young) children
  • Juggling the needs of other dependents
  • Being available for emergency personal calls
  • Facing rising levels of anxiety-provoking thoughts and emotions.

Recommended response

How can you communicate in an authentic and effective way during a time of crisis with so many barriers to that communication?

Remember you are human. Human beings are amazing. They’re also messy and imperfect, with an evolved response to uncertainty or fear.


  • Be ready and willing to share your own vulnerabilities as well as validate those of others
  • Be aware of what your people need at that moment in time by listening and (importantly) hearing them
  • Create the space and time for the conversations that matter and take a compassionate approach (ie: empathy plus action)
  • Commit to speaking honestly and openly – be positive without offering certainty when there is none
  • Focus on what matters and what can be controlled
  • Don’t seek perfection and do seek solutions – yet be mindful that not every problem aired requires a solution, it might just need to be heard
  • Remember the old adage that people need to receive a message seven times before they hear it – once is never enough.

Challenge 2 – Too many meetings

“Do we really need a meeting?” was a common question asked by many senior leaders struggling to control their diaries pre-COVID.

Yet meetings with clear and specific focus, bringing together the right people to have the right conversations, are an invaluable and necessary part of organisational life.

Many AHUA members described the rapid proliferation of emergency planning and crisis management teams when lockdown was announced. These team meetings were frequently productive, efficient, had a bias for action and (for many) were enjoyable and rewarding.

Over time, the less helpful pre-COVID meeting habits started to materialise online, often exacerbated by the challenges of the lockdown context.

Members described the ever-increasing numbers joining regular meetings – easy to attend, reassuring to be part of, yet not always necessary or the most (cost) effective use of peoples’ time.

Others observed the same people meeting in the same format, day after day, with only the topic changing.

Recommended response

Where possible, cut the number of meetings you go to.

If you are not contributing (directly or indirectly), do you really need to be there? What’s driving that need?

For those meetings that do take place, keep the agenda short and be clear on the outcome you want to achieve. Focus on what is needed and why. Sometimes what is needed may not be a list of decisions to make and action points to assign, but the chance to stop, take stock and share experiences.

Additionally, encourage the practice of co-creating meeting conditions where people can challenge the process. This will help you all get the best out of time spent together, including calling ‘time-out’ as needed.

Challenge 3 – Too many distractions

The human mind is already wired for a state of continuous distraction. This is before we even start to consider the external triggers that draw our attention.

Types of distraction in a virtual setting range can be:

  • Physical – curiosity about the bookshelves and backgrounds of others
  • Psychological – anxiety about using technology, or being able to maintain a ‘work persona’ in a non-work environment.

In the words of Nancy Kline, author of Time To Think: “The quality of our thinking depends on the way we treat each other while we are thinking.”

Not only does your distraction disrupt your own ability to do your best thinking – at a time when you are faced with increasingly difficult decisions – but it also has an impact on others in the meeting.

You may think your distraction isn’t being noticed… but it is.

As humans, we have an innate ability to detect when someone isn’t paying attention to us. We also have a tendency to react in a way that is not always conscious or constructive.

Recommended response

How can you shift from distraction to focus?

On a personal level, simply notice when your mind starts to wander…

Then shift your attention and refocus on the ‘now’ to enable you and your colleagues to do your best thinking.

And call out others if you start to sense others in the meeting may be distracted or their mind is wandering. Raise awareness to what’s going on and provide the opportunity for everyone to pause and reset.

Challenge 4 – Too many bad habits

Closely linked to distraction is the need for an agreed meeting etiquette. New rules need to be defined for a virtual setting.

Members described what may have been unacceptable when face-to-face, even if not voiced, became more routine in video conferences.

For instance:

  • Checking phones or emails during a meeting
  • Turning up late
  • Turning cameras on and off many times in the same meeting
  • Having side conversations in the chat box.

Recommended response

Never assume there is consensus around acceptable etiquette, or the motivations for why people are behaving the way they are!

Agree a simple shortlist of conditions for your meeting to ensure clarity of expectation and minimal distraction.

Examples of these include:

  • Turn up and start on time
  • Be 100% present – no multitasking
  • Assume that the person is unavailable if their camera is off
  • Finish the meeting early if your business concludes earlier than planned
  • Don’t be afraid to decline a meeting if you don’t need to be there
  • Agree a mechanism for interrupting or taking time-out. For instance, in Zoom, you can go to ‘Reactions’ then select ‘Raise hand.’

Challenge 5 – Too many meetings in a row

Members described the challenge of being mentally present at a meeting, especially when sessions are back-to-back.

Gone were the casual opportunities to catch up with someone before a meeting started, or take time to process the last one, even if only for a few minutes.

Non-verbal cues about how our colleagues are feeling are also unavailable to us. They are hidden beneath the “smile for the camera,” which only reveals the tip of the iceberg. These cues are much easier to spot in physical meetings, interpreted through a person’s behaviour on arrival, and how they sat down.

Members described having very little time to ready themselves for a new conversation, even if formal preparation wasn’t necessary. The impact of no physical move to another meeting location, passing the kitchen or cloakroom on the way, became increasingly noticeable.

More than one senior leader described the discomfort of having to sit through many hours of meetings with no comfort breaks!

Recommended response

You may be on time, but are you ready to begin?

Take a moment to check-in with your participants. Share two or three words that describe how people are doing at that moment in time.

The ‘corona-coaster’ effect has been all too real. Taking time to catch a collective breath and appreciate each other’s different positions is invaluable for supporting staff wellbeing after lockdown.

As well as being a useful temperature check, this checking-in process can also flag any issues to note. For example:

Me? I’m busy, anxious and distracted, because I’m expecting a call from the VC at any moment. I may need to dip out of this call for 10 minutes. Is that OK with you?

Once you have agreed a mechanism for interrupting or taking time-out, remember to encourage the habit of checking-in during the meeting as well.

Eventually, time and practice will offer you a heightened awareness of when people may be distracted, or mentally switching off.

If in doubt, simply ask “How are we doing?” and “What do we need right now?”

Moving forward with virtual meetings

Frustrations with the quality and impact of meetings existed long before lockdown forced us all to interact virtually.

However, the proliferation of video conferencing since March has been both a blessing and a curse.

Your experience of online meetings may have been a lifeline these past months. Alternatively, like many of our members, you may have found it exhausting. The intensity of being on camera non-stop might have been a source of headaches and postural tension.

Whatever your experience, we hope that sharing the above challenges, and recommended responses, will help you create a more effective and sustainable approach to meeting online in future.

Kim Newton-Woof is an AHUA coach and facilitator.