How to Connect with Others During Virtual Meetings and Why It Matters

By Megan Brodie, LLMSW, community relations specialist, Michigan Health Information Network Shared Services; a HIMSS Associate Organizational Affiliate and National Health IT Week Partner

During National Health IT Week, champions from across the industry are uniting to share their voices on how health IT is catalyzing change in U.S. healthcare. The following post from a National Health IT Week Partner is one of the many perspectives of how information and technology is transforming health in America.

Megan Brodie

I was drawn to the field of social work because I am passionate about helping others lead healthy, fulfilling lives. For me, connecting with others is exactly what makes me happy in the workplace. When I asked friends, family and co-workers what contributes to a “good day” at work for them, they replied with examples like:

  • I had a nice lunch with a co-worker
  • I was recognized by my boss in a meeting
  • I contributed an idea and it was well-received

Their responses all had something in common: feeling connected to others.

Connection is a key component to feeling fulfilled in our lives, including our jobs, according to Matthew D. Lieberman, PhD, author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. Researchers believe that humans are biologically hard-wired for connection and that a lack of connection with others can lead to a variety of health concerns, including a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, obesity, and depression.

As health IT professionals, we aim to make communities healthier. By using the time already reserved on our calendars for meetings, we can create spaces that encourage people to collaborate and connect with one another to help move us toward this goal.

“Virtually” No Engagement in Michigan (and What We Did About It)

In Michigan, we foster a statewide network for health information sharing, which is made possible by 50+ participating organizations who advise operations for Michigan’s statewide health information network. Members contribute ideas for policies, projects and innovations in healthcare and their input is essential to sharing health information among organizations – providers, payers and more – and ultimately improving patient care.

Nearly all advisory committee meetings are held virtually, without video capabilities, which can make it more difficult to feel connected to others because we can’t make eye contact or respond to body language. In January of 2018, we recognized that these meetings were lacking engagement.

We needed help learning how to cultivate connections among members during meetings. While it was easy for us to assume that silence meant members were multitasking on the other end (according to an article in the Harvard Business Review, this is not uncommon), we did not want to assume that we knew how to encourage more participation and a greater sense of community.

We wanted to understand what we could do to make virtual meetings more engaging for members. So, we asked for their input.

Using surveys and focus groups with MiHIN staff and advisory committee members, we implemented three initiatives to show we are listening to members and invested in fostering connections:

  • Ask who wants to be invited to meetings and why
  • Share what they need to know before showing up
  • Respond to feedback before, during and after meetings

Ask Who Wants a Meeting Invitation and Why

Deliver meeting invites with a purpose. Defining the meeting purpose helps to ensure the “right” people – the people who are knowledgeable and care about the work being done – will show up.

Outdated distribution lists contain inactive email addresses (aka, missed opportunities), which misrepresent who might attend a meeting. People leave jobs, change roles and forget to send updates. Making time to maintain email distribution lists sets the stage for engagement and connection.

To update our distribution lists, we contacted representatives from each organization separately asking them to review who from their organization was represented. We also provided helpful descriptions of who might be a “good fit” for each working group meeting. Understanding the purpose and who might be a good fit encouraged representatives to provide updates. Once the right people were invited, we needed to make sure that they felt prepared to attend the meetings.

Share What They Need to Know Before Showing Up

Now that the stage is set to connect with others, don’t make the mistake of creating an agenda based on convenience. Instead, encourage collaboration by choosing topics that interest the people invited to the meeting. To show people we value their time and input, we ask members to rank possible meeting topics based on their interest and integrate this feedback to finalize meeting agendas.

People are also more likely to speak up in a meeting if they feel prepared. Consider what they need to know before the meeting to join in conversation and deliver it with enough time to prepare. We send out an agenda one week before each meeting and include discussion questions, so people know what we hope to talk about and how to contribute feedback.

While providing guidance and direction helps promote engagement before the meeting, remaining flexible to the ebb and flow of conversation during meetings is essential to building connections.

Respond to Feedback Before, During and After Meetings

Responding to feedback helps create an environment that supports new ideas and collaboration. Give up the rigid script or prepared plan for each meeting and try to let the conversation unfold in an emergent, authentic way. This shows people their participation makes a difference.

Following up on conversations helps to maintain connections among members. During a recent meeting, we explained how members can use existing technology for sending notifications to also send additional information. One member whose organization was already sending notifications was surprised to learn this and asked for a call to get started. Right after the meeting, we facilitated this follow-up call.

Expanding health information sharing in Michigan means investing in discussions like these and making meetings (yes, even virtual meetings), opportunities to ask questions, receive timely responses and create connections.

Overcoming Barriers in the Virtual Environment

Implementing these approaches can help to improve all meetings, even those that happen in person. But virtual meetings have an additional enemy to engagement: the mute button.

Members are often asked to put themselves on mute during virtual meetings and while this is great for eliminating background noise, it creates one more barrier to speaking up. Combine that with not being able to see other people on the call and it is easy to understand why it is difficult to connect in these settings.

Using communication tools that bypass the mute button such as chat features in the virtual meeting platform or polling tools with responses appearing on the screen in real time, can also help cultivate engagement.

Start Connecting

Virtual meetings are not going away anytime soon, so finding ways to connect with others in a virtual environment is a key step toward creating more “good days” at work.

Start connecting by having a clearly defined purpose before a meeting begins, knowing who wants to be in the meeting and encouraging them to attend. Prepare people with materials, listen to new perspectives, respond to ideas and show genuine interest in the work of others.

The three most important things I have learned in this process are:

  1. Make time to maintain email distribution lists to set the stage for engagement and connection.
  2. Consider what people need to know before the meeting to join in conversation and deliver it with enough time to prepare.
  3. Give up the rigid script or prepared plan for each meeting and try to let the conversation unfold in an emergent, authentic way. This shows people their participation makes a difference.

Creating spaces for connection will not only make our work lives more fulfilling – it can help make our communities healthier.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog or by commenters are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HIMSS or its affiliates.

National Health IT Week | October 8-12

Healthcare Transformation | Access to Care | Economic Opportunity | Healthy Communities

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