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There are various reasons to hold a PPI meeting online or over the phone, rather than face-to-face. Various tools and software packages make this possible including holding a teleconference, Zoom, GoToMeeting and Microsoft Teams. Make sure to use those tools that are compliant with your university's GDPR.

Tips and tricks:

  • Keep it simple
    Try to use software and tools which make it easy for public contributors to connect. Tools which allow participants to join with a single click on a link are preferred. Try avoid anything that requires participants to download software. Where possible, share "how to use" guidances in advance of the meeting with all participants, especially with public contributors.
  • Send documents in advance
    Make sure you send documents well in advance to public contributors, preferably at least 1 week. Where possible, also provide some questions you would like to discuss prior to the meeting so people can prepare. If this isn't possible, discuss availability with public contributors and agree on different timelines to receive documents. Ask participants if they would like to receive paper or digital copies of documents. 
  • Take on a stronger chairing role
    As it will be more difficult to read body language (or not at all) during virtual meetings, it is important to take on a stronger role as meeting chair as the usual (non-communicated) cues, on i.e. who wants to speak or doesn't understand what is being said, won't be available and people might struggle to interject. Ask people from whom you haven't heard for feedback, especially if they are public contributors.
    A suggestion would be to create brightly coloured "can I speak" cards. When using webcams, people can show the card so the chair can distribute who talks. Alternatively, the 'raise hands' functions in meeting software could be used. This might especially be helpful in bigger groups.
  • Don’t chair and make minutes simultaneously
    As mentioned above, virtual meeting require more chairing to ensure you have a smooth meeting and gain valuable information. As such, consider asking a colleague to join the meeting to take notes for you as it might be difficult to do both at the same time. Many online tools will also provide the opportunity to record your meeting, so you can type up notes from the recording. You might want to test this functionality before your meeting.
    You could also consider asking an additional colleague to provide technical support for any participant who struggles to access or participate in the meeting.
  • Welcome people to the meeting
    Virtual meetings can be new to people. Make sure you welcome them to the meeting and confirm their technology is working to make all participants feel at ease. You might want to reserve a short slot on your agenda to allow everyone in the meeting to briefly introduce themselves to all participants. Even if you have met before in person, this can be helpful for everyone to familiarise with each others' voice. Also mention the expected attendants in the agenda to inform everyone on who will be present at the meeting.
  • Encourage people to say their name
    Not everyone might be familiar with each others' voice. Make sure that you remind participants to share their name before they start their response, especially in teleconferences.
  • Choose appropriate software
    Not all public contributors might be familiar, confident or willing to use online tools. As such, make sure to choose the right method for all participants. If someone has no, or very limited, internet access, provide a teleconference option or an online option which allows dialing in. Be aware that, if some participants dial in and others make use of video calling, you want to keep a level playing field for all participants, so don't show any slides or documents you haven't shared in advance with those dialing in. Where feasible, make video conferencing optional so those concerned about their privacy, or with inadequate devices, won't feel excluded.
    Also keep in mind that some tools might be user-friendlier for large groups or provide more interactivity, like offering break-out options or polls. Choose the right one for your meeting.
    Ensure that whatever software you are using is compliant with the GDPR regulations of your university.
  • Mute and unmute microphones
    Make sure to remember everyone on the call to mute their microphones when they are not speaking. Some videoconference tools will allow the chair to mute everyone’s microphone. Also remind people to unmute their microphone if they want to respond.
  • Promote the opportunity widely
    Making use of virtual methods to involve public contributors in your work might allow people who are usually not involved in research to become involved. Try to advertise the opportunity to become involved in your research via newsletters of relevant charities/ community groups, social media and other virtual tools. If budget allows, you could consider a paid advertisement for the opportunity via social media to reach new audiences. It might not be recommendable to share the link to your meeting widely to avoid overcrowding and ensure you are aware who is participating in your call and provide safeguarding for participants.
  • Adjust the agenda accordingly
    Virtual meetings can be more exhausting that in person meetings. As such, try to avoid lengthy meetings and shorten agendas where possible. Include breaks in virtual meetings like you would usually with longer face to face meetings.
    You can consider giving people individual tasks to do during these breaks to allow people to distance themselves from the screen for a short time.
  • Have a backup plan
    Technology can fail. Make sure that you have a plan B, i.e. individual phone calls or a conversation via email, in place in case your virtual meeting won’t work out as imagined due to technological difficulties.
  • Provide support
    Holding virtual meetings might be a new experience for some public contributors and they might feel anxiety or feel negative about it. Provide support by sharing how to use XXX techonology” guidances and offer the opportunity to talk discuss software in advance of the meeting via a phone call to explain everything and make the public contributor feel comfortable about using the technology. Communicate the technical requirements in advance and check whether everything works before the meeting. If external circumstances make you change your meetings to go online which might impact the mental health of participants, such as a pandemic, you might want to check in with your public contributors how they are feeling in a light matter. You would also need to keep safeguarding in mind, especially when working with vulnerable members of the public or when highly sensitive experiences are being discussed. Ensure that you can signpost people to support if requested.

 Guidances

There are various guidances and best practices available on holding virtual involvement and engagement meetings:

 

Literature

There have been articles and blogs posted where researchers describe their experience using virtual tools.