Preparing for Virtual Meetings When Face-to-Face Gatherings Get Cancelled

As COVID-19 has forced meeting planners to postpone or cancel events, viable alternatives should be considered. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, we've seen many high-profile events (Google Cloud Next, Aruba Networks' Atmosphere'20 Las Vegas) shift from in-person to virtual gatherings. Training programs, conferences, conventions and meetings have been cancelled left and right. Virtually all employees (and indeed, entire organizations) are working from home. The trouble is, many have no existing structure or processes for remote collaboration.

While nothing can quite replace the unique benefits of face-to-face gatherings, virtual events — if thoughtfully done — can accomplish surprisingly powerful results. Here are suggestions for making that shift.

Tips for Hosting Successful Virtual Events

Earn CMP Credits
Earn CMP Credits
Listen on-demand to our webcast on the best practices for virtual events. Learn from the experts, including Nancy Settle-Murphy, how to engage attendees watching from elsewhere and create a parallel experience that speaks to them. Each webcast is equivalent to one CMP credit hour. Listen now!

When meeting face-to-face is not an option, encourage managers and employees to ask themselves how else they can accomplish the same business goals. The initial response — and many times the correct response — will be: "There is simply no substitute for face-to-face interaction."

Various business units and departments need to ask themselves which objectives cannot be met without face-to-face meetings, and why not. Challenge assumptions and push boundaries. Brainstorm alternatives and test them with others outside of the group. For example, your initial assumption may be that the project team needs to work face-to-face at least once a month to iron out differences and create shared solutions. But by examining this a bit more closely, it may become clear that by diligently following a new process for reporting issues via a shared portal, chat thread or email, and by brainstorming solutions via weekly facilitated conference calls, your team can forego the monthly meetings in favor of quarterly meetings.

Or perhaps your new management team has just been appointed, and your new goals and success metrics have just been outlined. You are heavily dependent on each other if the team is to succeed, and you have little time in which to accomplish your goals. Team members come from several different locations and disciplines. Most of you have never met. You need to meet face-to-face to get to know each other and to begin to build trust. In this case, you may be right: Meeting face-to-face will be essential to helping this new team to coalesce quickly. However, logistics or rules established by your organization or industry may require that you meet virtually until you, your organization and/or the relevant authorities deem that it's relatively safe to travel without concern.

Explore Face-to-Face Alternatives

If you conclude that face-to-face meetings are just not possible right now, the viable options will depend on many variables — such as the desired outcomes, how high the stakes are, the perceptions and predispositions of the participants, familiarity participants have with each other, geographic locations and cultural differences.

Consider the following options to augment your in-person events or to replace them altogether when necessary. 

Virtual Meetings

Virtual meetings should be carried out with deliberate planning and excellent facilitation. If your group must rely more heavily than before on virtual forms of communications, make sure the meetings are thoughtfully planned. Questions to answer in the planning of virtual meetings include:

Video Conferencing

This alternative makes sense, especially for times when witnessing nonverbal communication will contribute to the groups' overall objectives:


Email communication can help foster and sustain open communication, if used judiciously. Questions to answer might include:

Real-Time Interaction Virtual Platforms

Web-based meeting apps, plus audio/video (whether you're using one app or multiple apps simultaneously) can be a powerful way to share information, coordinate discussions and make group decisions. To what extent technology such as this can be used productively depends on a number of variables. Among them, consider the number and role of participants, company culture, access to and comfort in using technology, degree of proper preparation and overall effectiveness of the groups' ability to collaborate. The previous checklists are easier to apply to some groups than others.

Given the restrictions on face-to-face business events right now, this is a good time for organizations to rethink how, why and when they meet, both for now and in the longer term. Organizations need to be clear as to what objectives really mandate the need for face-to-face meetings, and which can be met through alternative methods. Principles and guidelines regarding "business-critical" travel will help managers apply rules and policies consistently across the company. 

While face-to-face interaction will always be the preferred choice for creating new relationships and repairing those that have become fragile, other options — if used thoughtfully and with careful planning — can be surprisingly effective in achieving a wide range of objectives.

Nancy Settle-Murphy is president of meeting facilitation company
Guided Insights. A renowned expert in the fields of virtual leadership, remote collaboration and navigating cross-cultural differences, she is the author of Leading Effective Virtual Teams. She has more than two decades of experience in facilitating and training global teams, with clients including Kronos, TripAdvisor, the National Park Service, IBM, Chevron, Biogen, Partners Healthcare and the National Institute for Children's Healthcare Quality. She will be co-presenting a webcast on "Welcoming the Virtual Attendee" on April 8, 2020 at 2 p.m. EDT. Register here.