Tips for Online Meetings During COVID-19

Virtual meetings are different from real life.

COVID-19 Preamble

I’ve got a bunch of technical posts to help people during COVID-19. Click that link to see all of them.


COVID-19 has lead to an explosion in online meetings, video calls and virtual groups. And it looks like we’ll be stuck with them for a while, so lets get familiar with them.

At Wenty Anglican, we’re using Zoom for meetings after church, and for our smaller Growth Groups. At WiseTech Global, we’ve moved our daily team stand-up meetings to Microsoft Teams. Even my extended family has tried video calls with Zoom and Signal. I’ve done a few Skype calls too. And I know others who’ve used FaceTime.

The common factor for all these is video.

In a world where we’re physically isolated, our technology has allowed us to see real-time pictures of our friends and colleges. It’s a poor substitute, but the best we can do.

But these online meetings have different etiquette from in-person meetings, they have all the usual complications you get with technology, and we’re figuring it all out as we go. So lets learn how they work!

Getting Started

First up, let’s all acknowledge that online meetings are worse than face-to-face ones. We’re doing online video meetings because that’s the best we can do, and we haven’t invented Star Wars style holograms yet.

You’ll feel frustrated, isolated, and annoyed from time to time. That’s OK. Because we’re all muddling our way through, technology breaks and face-to-face is better.

OK, now that’s out of the way, how do you get started? (This far into the pandemic, I suspect most have already figured this bit out, but you never know).

Pick a Platform / Technology

Unfortunately, all the different video conferencing platforms are incompatible. So everyone needs to choose one. (Although, nothing stops you using different platforms for different groups. Just install a few extra apps).

Depending on your group, you may find existing platforms / apps people are already comfortable with. For example, in a workplace, IT may have already provided a platform (Microsoft Teams seems pretty popular at the moment). Online gaming groups often use Discord or other real-time chat apps. Lots of people already have WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger on their phones - they can do video calls. Windows 10 devices have Skype pre-installed and linked to a Microsoft account. If you’re in Google’s camp, Hangouts is an option. And, if you’re like me and never made a personal video call ever, you may have no preference (but my preferred messaging app Signal can do video calls).

If you’re doing a two-way call, pretty much any app will be fine. So pick whatever most people already use. Same for small groups (under 4 people).

If you’re trying to meet as a larger group, or there are lots of people who have never done any kind of video calls before, Zoom and WebEx are good options and work well with groups up to 30 people. Zoom in particular, has gone from “just another virtual meeting app” to “the de-facto standard” within a month - so it’s not a bad place to start if you have no idea.

Organise Your Group

Choosing your platform is part of this. But you’ll also need to arrange a time for a first online meeting. And it’s good to figure out alternate communication platforms (phone & SMS are good because they don’t depend on the Internet, but email and a messaging app are a good idea as well).

Some people will need hand holding to get the app installed. Usually, you’d visit them to install any technology required, but that may not be possible during a lockdown. So be patient, give them a phone call and talk them through installation. Phone / tablet apps are easier to install, but aren’t as capable as their desktop counterparts (but something is always better than nothing).

The First Meeting is to Figure the Tech Out

Set expectations low for the first meeting: if everyone can connect, see each other and hear each other - that’s a big win! Probably good to inject some humor at this point as well; there are plenty of COVID-19 memes, share a few good ones.

When people can’t connect, or hear each other, or whatever, be prepared to fall back to phone / SMS / messenger app to troubleshoot. I’ve switched to another platform (eg: Skype) just to help someone connect to Zoom - whatever you need to get it working.

And let people experiment. Maybe someone connects first time on their phone - let them try on their laptop as well to see which they prefer. Or try with headphones and without. Or even try a different room altogether. Meetings may last for an hour or longer, so see how a comfy chair works compared to the kitchen table.

If things go really bad, you might want to try a second “first meeting” with another platform. There’s no shame in that.

Online Meeting Etiquette

Everyone will very quickly work out that online meetings have different rules to ordinary conversations. I’ve learned this etiquette from virtual meetings at work, and now applying them to Bible study groups, family video calls, etc.

Lag / Latency

All video platforms have lag. That is, there is a delay between when you speak and when everyone else hears. Like a long distance phone call.

You can hear this by calling another family member (from another room). You’ll be able to hear them twice - once in real life, and once online.

This is the main technical issue that drives different online etiquette.

One at a Time

When two people try to speak at the same time, you end up with an unintelligible mess of audio (assuming your app doesn’t automatically mute you when someone else is speaking).

So first rule of etiquette: one speaker at a time.

Because of lag, two speakers happen more often than you’d like. You think it’s OK to talk, and someone else does the same. But the lag means you’re both talking a split second before you can hear each other - until you’re both talking at once.

So it’s pretty important to wait your turn. Or work out a way of passing a “talking stick” around.

In face-to-face meetings, you can have small conversations within the larger group easily. You can whisper to a friend and “tune out” people in other conversations. This happens all the time at parties and receiptions.

But it just doesn’t work in a virtual meeting: within any meeting, only one person can talk at once.

Have a Leader / Director

One way of sticking to the one speaker at a time rule is to have someone as a director. Their job is to give each person a turn to talk. And make sure others don’t talk over them.

For smaller meetings, you can do a “now it’s Fred’s turn…” or “Sally, do you have any comments…” or “we’ll hear from Bloggs, then Fred and last Sally”. Some platforms let the meeting “host” mute participants, and that can be a good way to enforce this rule in larger meetings. For family groups, you just have to take turns and be nice.

Have a Plan

Once consequence of one speaker at a time is that everything takes longer than face-to-face. As a way to keep on track, it’s good to have an agenda or plan for your meetings. And it’s good to let people know before hand - so they can prepare or just be aware.

This doesn’t have to be a formal agenda, just a basic list of things to cover.

For my online Bible study groups, this means I share the Bible passage in advance. And we follow a regular pattern of 1) saying hello and seeing how we’re going, 2) read Bible, 3) take turns sharing from the Bible, 4) share prayer points, 5) pray, 6) after meeting chit-chat.

Work stand-up meetings are similar to face-to-face stand-ups: each person talks about what they completed yesterday, what they’re planning today, and if they need particular help for anything. Our team leader plays the role of gatekeeper.

Family calls are less structured, just make sure everyone gets a turn to talk about what’s been happening in their little world.


Face-to-face meetings happen somewhere. Perhaps a meeting room at work, or a living room at home. We make sure these areas are clean and tidy for our meetings.

Same applies to virtual meetings.

The most important environmental thing is noise. One person’s background noise will kill the meeting for everyone. And you’ll be surprised how sensitive microphones can be - my daily work stand-up meetings have a running joke about what my kids are up to, even when there’s a closed door between them and me! You may be able to work around noise by muting yourself when you’re not talking, but that doesn’t help when you are. Find a quiet room and keep other people (especially kids) out.

Related to this is two people calling into the same meeting in the same house. You should either a) call in on a shared device from the same room, or b) call from separate devices in different rooms. Different devices in the same room picks up background noise and creates nasty audio feedback (screeching noises).

Second to noise is visual: your camera will capture what ever is behind you. A plain wall looks very one dimensional, but a garbage tip is equally unappealing. Find something interesting and place it behind you for some character: a family picture, movie poster, vase of flowers, bookcase, whatever. If you can’t find anything, some platforms have a “virtual background” feature, so you can pretend you’re at the beach.

Oh, and wear clothes. Seriously. Whatever you’d normally wear to this kind of meeting, wear the same in a virtual meeting.

Connect Early

It’s good to connect a few minutes early. There are sometimes technical glitches that need to be solved. Maybe your webcam is disconnected or your headphones aren’t quite plugged in. Easy enough to fix, but better to fix them before eating into actual meeting time (especially if you’re the host).

And if everything is working well, then you’ll have a few minutes for chit-chat.

If you’re the host, you need to connect a few more minutes early!


Unlike (or perhaps just like) face-to-face meetings, it’s really easy to get distracted during a virtual meeting. After all, you probably have a computer right in front of you. And if you are waiting your turn on mute, its really tempting to browse Facebook or your email or whatever.

Try extra hard to keep your attention focused on the meeting. (Afterall, if its rude to use your phone in a work meeting, it’s just as rude in a virtual meeting).

Make the meeting full screen. Turn off your laptop / phone. Take notes. Whatever keeps your attention focused.

Online Group Dynamics

All meeting have group dynamics. Ideas bounce around the room, the leader / facilitator can open up discussion or close it down, and so on. A pair of louder participants can dominate if they are opposite each other (so seating choise is important). While a shy person may never speak unless they are asked directly. And body language can communicate as much as people say verbally. Even something as simple as saying “Hi Bloggs! How’s your day“ as each person joins can set the mood.

And none of that applies to online meetings! Well, it applies differently.

There are less non-verbal cues, even with webcams in play - people aren’t always looking closely and get distracted more easily. There’s no such thing as seating positions, everyone is equally “in front” of you. The person who’s loud in a face-to-face meeting may suddenly be quiet, while the shy nerd of the group is suddenly the most outspoken online.

Something as simple as addressing people from the start of the sentence can help: “Bloggs, what do you think about…”, instead of “what do you thing about…., Bloggs?”. You may have been able to look at someone to direct a question, but even with your webcam, you’re looking equally at everyone.

As a leader, it’s a good idea to address each person individually and give everyone a chance to speak. Go around the “circle” of faces on your chat screen.

Lastly, a warning: online environments can bring out the worst in people. No idea why, but the mere suggestion of anonymity or the temptation that the avatar on screen is a robot rather than a person, and some people can turn feral. If your meetings are small closed groups and everyone has video of themselves, then you should be OK. But the moment things turn toxic, the leader / facilitator MUST clamp down on unacceptable behaviour (while praising the good). This may include using the ban hammer.

Ask for Help!

This is new for many of us and we’re all just learning. So if you run into trouble, ask for help.

If its a technical problem, ask your friendly local nerd. If its a problem with how the group is running, talk to your leader (or another leader). There may be online forums outside your group where there are people who can help. Or just stick your question in your favourite search engine: there’s probably 20 videos already answering your question.

But don’t be afraid to ask (and, as a leader, give opportunity for people to ask).

Tips Hosting Public Groups (large)

Wenty Anglican runs Zoom meetings with over 20 participants (some of which are families connecting on the one device). That’s well over my threshold of “large”, which is somewhere between 8 and 10. It’s also quite diverse in technical ability - some are highly skilled and have considerable online meeting experience, others are doing this for the very first time and find email challenging.

Here are some things we’ve learned after a few large church meetings on Zoom:

  • Open chat time can work, but is usually pretty chaotic. As long as you’re not expecting to tick items off an agenda and are prepared to be patient, it’s not too bad.
  • It’s good to have two hosts. One host is managing the people in the group, the other is dealing with the technical side. That includes muting people, renaming people, vetting guests, and so on.
  • If one person is presenting, they should mute everyone else, do their thing, and then unmute as required for questions / comments.
  • You really need a facilitator (at least). They can direct questions, pass the talking stick around, and play traffic cop. Usually, that person is also leading / hosting the meeting, but I don’t think it’s essential.
  • Turn screen sharing off for participants. It’s not needed and people can abuse it.
  • Consider if smaller groups (eg: Zoom’s “breakout rooms”) may help. Group meetings larger than 10 people are bigger than a natural “circle of conversation” at a party, so making smaller groups can help.
  • Ensure there is at least one security feature active if your meeting is publicly advertised. See below for more details, but the goal here is to place some barrier between Zoom bombers and your meeting, while still allowing the general public to attend.

Tips Hosting Private Groups (small)

Wenty Anglican and WiseTech Global both run small groups which I participate in.

Some tips:

  • Having some time at the start & end of the meeting for general chat is helpful. Just five minutes can help keep people connected and sane while stuck at home. At work, having a Friday afternoon meeting dedicated to general chat is helpful too (even if virtual beer o’clock isn’t quite the same).
  • Turn screen sharing off for participants. It’s not needed and people can abuse it.
  • Put a password on your meeting if its possible for the general public to join (eg: Zoom). This isn’t required for internal meetings like Microsoft Teams.
  • Have an agenda. Bible study groups usually have questions or a regular flow. Business meetings should have a list of points to address or visit before the meeting finishes.
  • The host should consider muting participants. And participants should consider keeping themselves on mute unless its their turn to speak.
  • One way of structuring the meeting is to visit each person. WiseTech does this at their daily stand up meetings.
  • Do something fun to lighten the mood. Most church groups have a few extraverts who will inject some humour. Even the nerds at WiseTech will include a (bad) joke at the end of meetings. Share something you’ve been doing during the pandemic - gardening, knitting, fighting with kids, jigsaws, painting, etc.
  • Decide when the next meeting will be. This is very common in the corporate world, the last agenda item is “next meeting” and will summarise what we want next time around and when we’ll meet. Most church groups meet weekly, so “see you next week” is enough.

Technology Tips

Unlike face-to-face meetings, getting the technology working well can make or break online meetings.

  • Put your device in landscape mode. That means sideways (horizontal), not up-and-down (vertical). Even on a phone, most people will watch a meeting in landscape, and anyone on a laptop or computer will have a widescreen view.
  • There’s a big difference between phone / tablet apps and desktop / laptop apps. Most phones / tablets will show video from 4 other participants, while their desktop counterparts can show an unlimited number. If you’re using your phone / iPad / tablet and finding the experience lacklustre, try your laptop.
  • If you’re the host, you really need to use a laptop or desktop. The mobile apps aren’t up to scratch.
  • If multiple people are connecting from one place, they either need to a) use a shared device without a headset, or b) use separate devices with earbuds / headset in separate rooms.
  • A decent quality headset can help. Even cheap earbuds can be better than the built in microphone / speakers on cheap laptops. If you’re sharing a device, consider buying a decent webcam with built in microphone.
  • Avoid moving your device or sitting it on your lap / hand. Video feeds are best from a fixed location - figure out a good place before the meeting starts.
  • Consider lighting and audio. I’ll go into more detail about A/V setup in a future post, but don’t join the meeting in a dark, noisy room - quiet and bright are the way to go!
  • Having a good quality Internet connection is important. If you’re stuck on ADSL, you may want to join via 4G / LTE / mobile data. If you know parts of your house have bad WiFi, find somewhere with better signal. This is doubly important for hosts as their bad Internet affects everyone else.
  • Hosts: Zoom lets you name your meeting. Please do that! It will hint to participants they’re in the right place. And sorry, “My Meeting“ is not good enough.
  • For hosts in particular, practise in advance! Technology is fickle, but the more familiar you are with it, the better prepared you will be. If you’re planning on using a new feature, try it out with a friend / family member a few days before hand.
  • Having alternate communications available can be helpful if / when things go wrong. A quick SMS or WhatsApp message can be the difference between someone joining or missing out.
  • Hosts: Publish both links and meeting IDs. Many platforms will generate a meeting ID and a magic link; publish both of them. One or the other may be easier for each participant (or at least gives people a different option if one doesn’t work). Try to use the same meeting ID for each meeting, as it helps people re-connect. Using a link shortening service can cause confusion, and typing in an 8 digit meeting ID is probably quicker anyway.
  • Unfortunately, many “work from home” technology items are in short supply at the moment. You may need to wait a few weeks before a webcam or headset is available.

And don’t forget to check out official help websites if you run into trouble:

Security and Zoom

Zoom has exploded in popularity in the last few months, and had the usual security dramas you’d expect with such an explosion. As someone who cares about security and prefers Signal as their messaging app, Zoom is anything but perfect - it’s certainly not good enough for discussing secret, confidential or sensitive things (so government and businesses beware).

But for family catch-ups, church meetings and public webcasts it’s good enough.

Unfortunately, Zoom bombing is a thing. So here is the absolute bare minimum you must know for a secure Zoom meeting:

  • You must use a password OR the waiting room. Both provide a barrier to prevent random or uninvited participants.
  • You must disallow participant screen sharing. Zoom bombing happens when an abusive person joins and shares their screen with obscene or offensive pictures. So turn that option off.
  • If you’re hosting a public meeting, it’s strongly recommended to designate someone as a bouncer / gatekeeper. Their role is simple: admit people who are allowed, and kick anyone abusive.
  • You must disable join before host for public meetings. Again, you must have a bouncer present. Always.

Before you start your meeting, you can set a password, the waiting room and disable join before host:

Options for your meeting: password, waiting room, join before host.

But I can’t see any way to disable screen sharing until you begin the meeting:

Once you start the meeting, you can disable screen sharing

More security information:

Other References

If my article hasn’t got the information you need, try one of these:

(My article is based on both my experience and the above).


This whole virtual-meeting thing is a bit of a pain. Hopefully, these tips will help you make the best of difficult times. And we’ll be able to stay connected even when we’re isolated at home.