Many National Science Foundation and other research projects include advisory boards as a mechanism for obtaining expert guidance. Virtual advisory meetings are an alternative to the common practice of a two-day, fly-in meeting that occurs once a year. We share insights from our 5+year experience of hosting virtual advisory board meetings for CIRCL and offer suggestions for building a strong advisory community.
Why go virtual?
- Save travel time and money.
- Protect health and the environment.
- Receive more relevant and actionable advice.
Shorter Duration, More Frequent Meetings
We recommend hosting a virtual quarterly meeting for 2-3 hours each time. The more frequent, shorter duration meetings offer benefits:
- Virtual meetings are more convenient, so easier to get more advisors to participate.
- Shorter duration enables greater focus and intensity, avoiding the difficulty of sustaining engagement in long online meetings.
- More frequent meetings help advisors remember the basics of the project.
- More frequent meetings build connections among advisors and the research team.
- More frequent meetings allow for raising dilemmas when they are relevant and the project team can take action; in a typical-three year project, an annual meeting is often too infrequent to provide guidance that can be incorporated into work.
- Schedule the meeting 2-3 months (or more) in advance (the larger the group, the more time needed).
- A month before the meeting, decide on 2 or 3 questions, issues, or dilemmas about which you are uncertain, would welcome input, and could take action within the next quarter as your focus.
- Two weeks before:
- Identify pre-read materials for advisors to review that gets to the heart of each selected issue.
- Choose a discussion leader who can quickly orient advisors to the issue; don’t just have the PI speak to every issue.
- Intentionally plan for the meeting to be a space to receive feedback from the advisors rather than presenting to them.
- 10 days before:
- Remind attendees of the meeting.
- Ask them to review the agenda topics and questions and the pre-readings.
- Find out who will not be attending (so you are not waiting for them).
Important: Let your advisors know that you are providing an honorarium not only for the meeting time, but also for 1-2 hours of pre-reading and any requested follow-up.
- Create an online agenda (web page) with links to each resource or document, including all pre-reads (which can be noted at the top).
- Design the agenda to encourage inclusion, interaction, and connection.
- Begin the meeting with time for welcoming, news, and updates (while people arrive).
- Clearly list the question, issue or dilemma for each section of the agenda.
- Choose a project leader to present and introduce it clearly. Don’t just have the PI present everything. Let the advisors get to know the team and let your team learn this aspect of being a PI.
- Having multiple discussion leaders (one for each question) makes the meeting more interesting.
- Plan a 10 minute break (at least 1).
- Provide as much time for back and forth conversation as possible.
Ways to strengthen connections among participants
- If your research team does not know your advisors well, devote time to get to know them. This may need to be done in other phone calls.
- If your advisors don’t already know each other, dedicate time so that they can learn about each other; introductions are appropriate at first, and later ask advisors to share their own updates, to talk about a favorite paper they recently read, or to share what they thought about a conference recently attended.
- Create a way to have casual conversation for a few minutes during the meeting (either beginning or during breaks, but not at the end because people will leave).
- Check to see if there are opportunities to meet face to face, such as at conferences, or invite advisors to stop by your lab or school during their travel.
During the meeting
- Having a separate camera on each project team participant, rather than a view of people at a table, makes everyone feel more equal and engaged.
- Stay on time. Have a timekeeper.
- Other roles: a note taker and a monitor for the text chat area if you have one.
- Ensure team members give short presentations (enforce time limits) so advisors can discuss with you.
- Remind advisors what you want from them and why you want it.
- Don’t talk more than 30-50% of the time; during discussions, make this a smaller number.
- Use wait time. Don’t fill space with your own talking, instead let participants know you will wait for them to think and talk. It can be good to give everyone 2 minutes to think about an issue before anyone speaks.
- Use both the text chat and audio features to engage participants. For example, you can ask advisors to begin brainstorming in chat and then discuss themes that arise.
- Be sure to have a team member monitoring the chat to make sure questions or comments from chat are addressed.
- Ask advisors who have not spoken if they have something to add or give the option to email thoughts later (use email as an alternative for someone who might not be comfortable speaking, not to save time).
- Have the whole research team be active listeners. A private text chat among researchers can identify remarks that should be pursued more thoroughly, through follow up questions.
- Sometimes it can help to give advisors time without project staff in the web conference so they can prepare their thoughts before discussions (staff log out for 10 minutes and advisors can discuss amongst themselves before sharing with the team)
- At the end of the meeting, ask what could have been better in the meeting to improve for next time. What should you keep doing, stop doing, or consider doing differently?
After the meeting
- Archive the notes and share the link with advisors
- Discuss action items and assign them to leaders on the team
- Thank the advisors and let them know 2-3 things you will do because of the meeting
Remember, the most important thing advisors give is their expertise; you should work to get as much input from each one of them as possible in these virtual meetings. In addition to whole group advisory meetings, virtual meetings are great for smaller group sessions with 1-4 advisors on a specific topic and many of these tips can be applied.
We have found that well-run virtual meetings can be very satisfying for the project team and for advisors alike. They can both build relationships and advance the work.