Planning the agenda and (reasonable) timing:
The importance of an agenda in a virtual meeting

Setting a clear agenda is important for any meeting to be a productive and efficient investment of time. However, this is even more important in a virtual environment, to ensure that meeting attendees maintain focus, remain present and accountible, and contribute to achieving the meeting objectives.

When setting the agenda for your virtual meeting, you could consider the following:

1. Goals of the meeting

Understanding what you need to get out of the meeting helps you to set an appropriate agenda. Is this a meeting of a workgroup, or a committee? Are the goals to complete or progress a specific piece of work or project? Understanding what you need to get out of the meeting will help in defining the discussion points and action items.

Remember – be realistic about what you can achieve in one meeting! Setting too many or unrealistic goals will mean that your meeting attendees may not be prepared for the full scope of the agenda, that discussion on topics is rushed and loses value, or that the meeting runs over and loses efficiency.

2. Plan time around your agenda

Understanding what you would like to achieve in your virtual meeting will help you to plan your time better in order to reach your objectives, and make every minute of your meeting productive.

It is common for virtual meetings in general to be planned in blocks of one or two hours, or even longer – remember that in virtual meetings, it is easy for meeting attendees to lose focus, and for productivity to dwindle – therefore, in this environment, it is crucial to plan time around what you would like to achieve. An easy way to organise your thinking and set timing for your meeting is to apply a structure such as this:

Remember that it’s not bad to end a meeting earlier than planned, especially at times where people need to move from virtual meeting to virtual meeting, and need to get work done or have biobreaks or food between meetings.

Don’t forget: the importance of biobreaks

With all our meetings, retreats, and events becoming virtual, it may seem logical to simply apply the agenda you had planned for your face-to-face meeting to your virtual one.

It is important to remember here especially to consider the differences between virtual and face-to-face meetings, and plan breaks accordingly. In a face-to-face meeting, it is easy for participants to communicate that they need a break, grab a coffee, or simply leave to visit the restroom – this is not the case in a virtual setting! Ensure that your agenda provides your attendees with the time that they need to feel physically/mentally comfortable to be a valuable participant in discussions.

3. Prepare your meeting attendees

Now that you know the purpose and timings of your agenda, thinking about what preparation you would like your attendees to do before the meeting in order to make the meeting productive. Are there materials to read beforehand so that decisions can be made, and actions agreed? Think about each agenda topic and what is required of participants.

You should make sure that both the agenda and any associated tasks are communicated to meeting attendees in a timely way, so that they can take part in a way that achieves your goals. The volume of pre-reads should be realistic for people with a very busy agenda. You could organise your thinking in this way:

4. Planning your attendees around your agenda

Now that you know your objectives, your timing, and what is expected of attendees, it is important to consider your attendees. Do you have the right people in the discussion in order to meet your objectives? Do you have the decision-makers that you need? Do you have attendees who can provide any specialist knowledge in order to support discussions and achieve objectives? The more people in the meeting who don’t have a specific role in relation to your planned agenda make the meeting less productive and with less focus on what you plan to achieve.

Remember too, that participants should be prepared for the role they will play in your meeting aligned with your agenda. If you have planned that participants should be speakers, presenters, or lead discussions / agenda topics, you should ensure they are aware of this and prepared for requirements. If a presentation is being held, make sure the meeting host has the slides, or that you have briefed the presenters on how to share the screen or operate your meeting’s remote control for screen sharing.

5. During the meeting – stick to your agenda! Timing is everything

If you have planned and communicated your agenda well, then your meeting participants should be fully prepared for the meeting. To keep a meeting on track, you should ensure that you – or another attendee – takes responsiblity for keeping discussions within the time that you have planned on your agenda. Your attendees will be prepared for this, having seen the timings you have planned beforehand. Depending on your meeting environment, there are several options to ensure that your discussions remain on track: you could establish a strict “cut-off” rule according to the schedule, or you could give a 2-5 minute “heads-up” before the scheduled time to move to the next topic. Communicating whichever method you have decided to your meeting participants at the beginning of the meeting will ensure that participants are mindful of this, and don’t feel cut off, or interrupted, so the meeting can progress smoothly.

If you have planned your agenda well, it is likely that you have planned your topics around priority discussion areas – however, sometimes conversation can lead to discovery of related actions or discussion points that require attention. However, stick to your agenda – if these additional topics are important, link them to an action: do they warrant a separate meeting? Can the issue be resolved by a meeting attendee outside of this meeting, and an update brought back to the group? You should listen for these carefully and make sure that, once you spot them, you can assign an action to these so they do not interfere with the objectives you have set for this time.

Don’t be afraid to call… jellyfish!

Research has suggested that despite a well planned agenda, the right attendees, and a great meeting environment, the number one barrier to meeting productivity is participants veering off-topic and discussing things that are interesting but not relevant to the meeting goals.

If this sounds familiar, read more about the “Jellyfish Rule” and how you can apply it to make the most of your well-planned agenda!

More Resources:

Table of contents

  1. Goals of the meeting
  2. Plan time around your agenda
  3. Prepare your meeting attendees
  4. Planning your attendees around your agenda
  5. During the meeting – stick to your agenda! Timing is everything
  6. Don’t be afraid to call… jellyfish!
  7. Additional references

See also the WECAN Virtual Meetings Resource Center

License terms

This is released under Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license. You may share (copy and redistribute) and adapt (remix, transform, and build upon) this. However you must give appropriate credit to WECAN, a license notice and a link to the original material. For example “Adapted from (title of this document, link to this document) of WECAN under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0“. If you build upon this material, you must distribute your version under the same license as the original (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Written by Julia Tolley, 11/6/2020, V1.0. If you have any suggestions for changes or amendments, we would appreciate your email to [email protected].