How to Improve Employee Engagement in Virtual Meetings

by Katy Lindsay

This article looks at the importance of engagement in virtual communication.

In this time of physical distancing, we’ve found ways to adjust. Whether we’re attending remote team meetings, going to virtual school or attending online training courses, we’re getting better at using technology such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, BlueJeans or Microsoft Teams to get our message across.

Team meetings, lessons and training have something in common in that they all involve a number of people being led, taught or trained by one person. This person is responsible for facilitating the interaction and ensuring that everyone contributes or learns as required. In all these cases, the team leader, teacher or trainer needs to manage the virtual communication and environment carefully to ensure that people can be heard and that everyone stays engaged.

That’s the theory, anyway. However, some people and organisations are clearly struggling with ways to improve engagement as they try to move to this ‘one-to-many’ virtual environment.

If you're not making virtual meetings interesting, you will lose people's interest

For instance, a friend of mine tells me that schooling is not going very well for her primary school-aged children. Last week they were sent links to several pre-recorded videos of their teacher talking, which they were expected to sit still and watch for 45 minutes. Not surprisingly, her children were completely unable to concentrate for so long, learned next to nothing and became frustrated. They were clearly not engaged by the long video presentation.

This isn’t just about children, though. As an averagely attentive adult, if you’re sitting through virtual meetings and webinars where you’re not required to do much then, you’ll know how easy it is to drift off, pick up your phone and start checking Twitter or reading emails. You may not be frustrated like the primary school children, because you’ve had an enjoyable time swiping through your messages, but you might leave the meeting having gained little more than they did.

Virtual training engagement

A colleague recently attended a virtual training session via webinar for 150 independent trainers looking to transfer their business from the face-to-face to the virtual environment. They were advised to use their standard PowerPoint presentations and to keep questions until the end to avoid the complexity of dealing with interruptions in a live setting. With this approach, it is unlikely that these 150 newly virtual trainers will be much more successful at engaging their audiences than the poor primary school teacher.

Why do I say that? If these trainers can get people to engage in a face-to-face situation, then surely if they use the same material, then it’ll work online? Why wouldn’t it?

Well, for a start, the quality of the material that is shared is only one part of the story.

The leader, teacher or trainer needs to get the group to engage cognitively with and participating in virtual meetings. For instance, analysing the material (breaking it down) or synthesising it with other previously known information or frameworks. Without that cognitive engagement, the person does not really listen, and the material that is being shared may as well have been shown to an empty chair.

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Employee engagement ideas for virtual teams

In face-to-face settings, the facilitator (whether team leader, teacher or trainer) helps people to engage with the material through interacting with them. This may be a non-verbal interaction, catching someone’s eye, nodding in their direction, smiling or making an inclusive hand gesture.

It may be a verbal interaction, asking someone a direct question. Or it may be a request for action, for instance asking for a show of hands. A skilled facilitator will keep the session fluid, getting different people to explore, share and build on each others’ ideas.

If our 150 newly virtual trainers just take their old presentations and deliver them online, they will be bringing only a part of their former approach into the new environment. They will be losing all of that non-verbal, verbal and activity-oriented interaction that made their training successful before.

So, what should our trainers do to make their virtual meetings interesting? Should they just give up?

No. Not at all. But they do need to do something different, something more than they were doing before.

How to create engagement in virtual meetings

Since they can’t engage people with their ‘in the room’ skills, they need to think about how to use the online environment to create engagement some other way.

What might this involve? Well, they can certainly use technology, getting people to use features that their conference software might offer to improve employee engagement, such as virtual ‘raising hands’ or online polls.

I’m often amazed at how much being asked to raise my hand can dial up my level of engagement in a large virtual meeting. Psychologically, it pushes me instantly from being an observer to being a participant.

Alternatively, the facilitator can use breakout rooms to get people chatting in smaller groups.

Or, if breakout rooms are too challenging, they might pause the main meeting for a while and ask people to discuss something in pairs by phone before returning to the main group.

There are plenty of other options for less technically savvy people too. For instance, they can ask people to submit questions, before or during the session, as this has been proven to increase participants’ cognitive engagement. They could get people to spend a few minutes thinking and writing something down before then asking one or two people to share their thoughts with the group.

Or they might create a blended approach, for instance, asking people to take a short break to look something up or maybe do an online learning module before re-joining the group to discuss it. With a bit of imagination and practice, our 150 trainers could soon be as engaging as they were in a face-to-face environment.

Much of this same thinking can be applied to team leaders

As we’ve noted before in our Guide to Remote Working , research on virtual teams shows that remote team leaders need to put much more effort into planning their meetings than they would in a face-to-face situation. They cannot just wing it, as many might typically do, keeping people’s attention by looking around the room, relying on body language to sense when someone has something to contribute.

Instead, the team leader needs to think carefully about how to keep people engaged during the meeting, becoming an active facilitator rather than just a convenor.

Steven G. Rogelberg, author of ‘The Surprising Science of Meetings’, refers to the need for virtual team leaders to adopt a ‘steward mindset’. This involves taking steps to include all of those present at the meeting, spreading the activity across the group. This might start with careful design of the agenda, to ensure that more people get to contribute.

A good team leader with this ‘steward mindset’ will notice who has not yet spoken and will bring them in by name, for instance by asking them if they have any other thoughts they’d like to add.

They may not but, with the right facilitator, they’re happy to be asked. Active collaboration tools can also increase the energy levels in a meeting. For instance, the team leader might ask the team to participate in a written brainstorm using a shared Google docs sheet.

However, Steven Rogelberg points out that time management is particularly important in remote teams. The organisation needs to minimise the number of people sitting passively through non-urgent meetings, scrolling through their phones.

Not only should sessions be shorter, but only people who really need to be there should be invited. People who might usually be invited ‘for information’ can instead be sent a recording of the virtual meeting.

With fewer participants, the team leader will find it easier to manage the meeting while those people who didn’t need to there can put their time to better use elsewhere.


To read more about the human side of leading and working within newly remote teams, we have created a more detailed guide on ‘How to get the best from your virtual teams’.

It looks at a range of aspects of managing remote teams, including the importance of building interpersonal connections between team members. With clear ‘Take Outs’ from each section, we hope that you will find it practical and useful.

Download the guide to learn:

  • The psychology behind managing a successful virtual team
  • How to run productive team meetings online
  • How to adapt your approach for different types of people/personalities
  • Actionable insights to help your virtual team thrive


Download the Guide


About the Author

Katy Lindsay is the founder and CEO of Aptimore, an online learning platform that develops management and leadership skills. She has extensive experience in assessing and developing managers and teams in organisations of all shapes and sizes, ranging from SMEs to global corporates. 

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