Strengthening family bonds and keeping growing families together and harmonious over generations can prove to be challenging even for the most dedicated families. A regular and organized family meeting is one of the most effective ways to achieve these goals. Family meetings can help families communicate better, deepen connections and have fun. Many plan extended family meetings during summer months in part to take advantage of relaxed schedules and temperaments; however, in-person meetings don’t always work for everyone, especially those with very young children or who are in poor health. We believe that by following our top 10 tips for a successful virtual family meeting, in years when the family is unable to gather in person, you may be able to accomplish as much, if not more, over video.
1. Focus on the positive. There are real benefits to each family member appearing in an identical rectangle on a screen. No one has “home-court advantage,” and each box is the same size. Participants may be more relaxed joining from home, and a cat walking across the screen can humanize even the sternest CEO. Family members who tend to politely decline meetings due to scheduling or distance may make a surprising return to the fold. This is not to suggest that the usual family leaders will wield less authority, but the initial setup puts everyone – except potentially those without a firm grasp on video technology – on a level playing field, which brings us to the next tip …
2. Democratize technology. Consider using part of the original travel budget to ensure all members are joining with similar technology, and send or lend devices to those who need them. (We call this care package the “family meeting in a box,” the additional contents of which are described in a later tip.) If some members are dialed in or on small screens while others are viewing the meeting on large screens where they can see the whole group at once, you will spend the first 30 minutes of the meeting discussing what each person sees. The family will be exhausted before the meeting has begun. Hold a short practice meeting one week prior to the real meeting in order to make sure the technology works for everyone. If appropriate, allow the “kids” to troubleshoot for the controlling generation – this can create reciprocal learning opportunities and new peer relationships that may have taken years to develop otherwise.
3. Be authentic. Leave time at the beginning of the first day’s agenda to check in with everyone. Because you are not physically in the same location, it’s not easy to know what is going on at home for every family member or what they were doing five minutes before logging in to the meeting. Consider beginning by asking each participant how they are doing and what one goal is that they have for the meeting. Let the family member speak, and let everyone else listen. Not only will this start the meeting authentically, but it will also provide an opportunity for real sharing and connection.
4. Open the agenda. To the extent the “elders” or usual control people set the original agenda, take a fresh look well in advance of the meeting. Consider opening the agenda up for discussion by asking every family member to list the top three items they would like to address. This is good practice in all family meetings, not only those held over video, and creates a shared sense of ownership.
5. Be mindful of time and pressures. Much has been written on the exhaustion caused by video meetings.1 Break up the new agenda by topic and have no one section last longer than an hour. Cover everything the family needs to address in bite-size portions over time, not through one marathon meeting. Because you are not all physically in the same location, remember to choose a meeting time that is fair and appropriate for every family member and time zone. Those with small children may prefer to meet after the kids are in bed. Some members might be facing increased work pressures, marital tension or health issues. Some families might all just be better versions of themselves first thing in the morning, while others don’t get going before 10 a.m. Make sure to choose the time that works best for as many family members as you can joining the call. You may want to survey your family members in advance to ask what time of day is preferable and to solicit areas of interest for the agenda. Perhaps different family members can be assigned ownership for facilitating different agenda items based on the survey results.
6. Family meeting in a box: bring people together in multiple ways. In addition to the video, consider “serving” the same snack at the break by sending a care package to each household the week of the meeting. If you used to begin family meetings with coffee and pastries or end with a happy hour or dinner, consider keeping the tradition alive by providing recipes well in advance, so everyone can look forward to the same shared experience before or after the more formal content. Provide coffee mugs or wireless chargers with the family name, meeting year or family mission to use during the meeting and to recall the good work well after it is over.
7. Outside presenters should be well known and well prepared. If you plan to involve an outside resource, make sure you know them, and they know you, very well. It is OK to bring in a new resource to present to the group, but if this is a person or group who isn’t already well known to your family, they should have individual calls with each participant in advance of the meeting in order to identify any hot-button issues and come to the group with appropriate content, tone and buy-in. Always, but especially as you invite experts to engage, focus on the amount of monologue vs. dialogue. The attention span for listening to monologue is even shorter on video than what it would be in person. People will check out quickly if there isn’t a reason to continually engage. Consider using questions and poll features if the technology will not be too distracting.
8. Focus on family. Research shows that when you’re on video, you tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time gazing at your own face.2 Change your video settings and hide yourself from your view (so others can see you, but you aren’t staring at yourself). This meeting is to connect with others, and removing the option to look at yourself more closely replicates an in-person meeting. A related tip is to encourage everyone to try to sit somewhere comfortable with an indistinct background. If it feels like everyone is seated in the same neutral room, as opposed to 10 different rooms, overstimulation is minimized. Lastly, avoid the temptation to multitask. It is important to practice respectful habits and listen without distractions.
9. Show gratitude. At the end of the meeting, consider asking one family member to name another and share a quick sentence or two on why they are grateful for that member and for his or her contribution to the meeting. The only response that family member is permitted to share over the video is thank you, and then he or she should repeat the exercise with a new family member. Continue until everyone has shared and everyone has been thanked. Gratitude magnifies positive emotions and can decrease stress, and we can think of no better way to close a meeting than with gratitude and appreciation.
10. Know when to cancel the meeting. Sometimes, despite best efforts and intentions, the meeting should be postponed or canceled. When the agenda is too thorny or family dynamics are too complex, consider one-on-one meetings until you can once again gather in person. We are happy to talk through the issues with you if you are not sure whether your meeting should go on. Flexibility is key.