Virtual lab meetings have become commonplace for many researchers across the globe as we all have had to navigate an ongoing pandemic.  Virtual lab meetings are also useful when collaborators are in distant locations.

Virtual lab meetings come with their own set of difficulties.  It can be hard to maintain the attention of attendees or to have meaningful dialogue in this format.  Screen- and data-sharing can also prove problematic. Even just the logistics of getting everyone in the same place at the same time using the same platform can be a struggle.

If you are looking for ways to streamline this process, engage your colleagues and collaborators in meaningful scientific discourse, and make the virtual lab meeting space even better than an in-person meeting, check out what we think are the 5 most important things to consider when running a successful virtual lab meeting.

1. Create – and share – an agenda

Lab meetings can take many forms.  One person may be giving an extensive presentation of their research findings, sharing their grant proposal specific aims, or practicing a talk.  Other times, all attendees may be giving brief updates on their respective projects.  Or perhaps your meeting is more of a journal club, discussing one or more recent publications in your field. 

Whatever the format, it is best for everyone to be on the same page before the meeting.  Send out an agenda in advance with all the relevant information: who is presenting and what attendees need to be prepared to present or contribute, papers or data attendees should be familiar with prior to the meeting, and what topic(s) will be covered. 

This agenda can be sent by email or on a shared platform such as the LabArchives ELN for Research.  The great thing about sharing it with LabArchives ELN is that the agendas from all lab meetings can be saved and notes from the meeting itself can be edited via collaboration. That way if attendees have different takeaways from the meeting it can all be collected for everyone’s benefit – and to avoid any potential differences in understanding.

Think of the agenda as an agreement.  Everyone agreed to show up at the designated time to address the agenda. It isn’t respectful to then completely deviate from that plan.  While no meeting will adhere perfectly, setting the agenda in advance makes it easier to return to it when things get sidetracked. 

2. Schedules, invites, and reminders

Using LabArchives Scheduler or another shared resource application to schedule and invite lab members allows for easier scheduling without the need for 10,000 email exchanges to find a suitable time.  It is also a great idea to have a consistent schedule such as the first and third Monday of every month so people can plan accordingly to be available for those times and to have their data, presentation, or deliverables prepared in advance and ready to share.

Make sure to send out calendar invites to the virtual meetings as opposed to just sending the Zoom link or other virtual platform event information in the body of an email. This will allow the attendees to immediately and seamlessly import into a calendar rather than hunting for that information through their inbox the morning of the meeting.  Also send a reminder the day before or morning of.  With the sheer volume of virtual meetings we are all attending, it can be easily forgotten or missed.

3. What to do with those first 5 minutes

It may be tempting to get straight to the business of presenting data.  Whether discussing a paper or proposed specific aims for a grant, reviewing recent research findings, or troubleshooting protocols, the point of a lab meeting is to leverage the intellectual strengths of each attendee to extract valuable input from various perspectives.

To foster this engagement, it is best to allow for some personal dialogue during those first few minutes.  If your research group is not accustomed to this tradition, consider starting out each lab meeting asking for any updates on “lab business”.  Colleagues can share upcoming deadlines, manuscripts in progress, major research findings or otherwise.  Additionally, as the principal investigator – or whoever is leading the lab meeting – you can share some personal news to encourage others to do the same. 

Especially in virtual meetings where the ability to meaningfully engage can feel limited or awkward, this allows attendees to break the ice and become more comfortable speaking on the virtual platform.  This also makes all members feel more valuable and likely to contribute.  Undergraduate and graduate students have meaningful input that a senior researcher or PI might not consider.  Encourage their contributions by welcoming them into the conversation early.      

4. How to share data during – and prior to – the meeting

Both Zoom and Microsoft Teams have screen-sharing capabilities.  However, these technologies allow for only one user – who must be designated as a host – to share their screen at a time.  This can make it cumbersome in a meeting where multiple people want to present their data. 

To augment these features, the LabArchives ELN allows for live sharing and updating of data, images, and presentations.  A presenter or attendee could easily reference a specific shared page or entry and other attendees can look at those data in real time without having to switch who the presenter is or who is sharing their screen during the Zoom or Teams meeting. 

Additionally, the ELN can allow the presenter to share meaningful data or presentations prior to the meeting to get everyone on the same page so that the meeting time itself can be used for useful discussion. Zoom and Team recordings can be archived by uploading them into LabArchives ELN. 

5. Keep meetings as brief as possible.

Meetings are a huge time investment for the presenters and attendees.  While we do not suggest rushing meetings, it is important to be respectful of everyone’s busy schedules.  If the meeting was scheduled for only an hour, it should end at an hour. 

Similarly, avoid tangents or personal conversations that crop up during the meeting itself.  While a tangent may be interesting or even relevant, a tangent can quickly become an unproductive distraction.  If this occurs, whoever is leading the meeting should disrupt the deviation gently. “That is an interesting consideration.  Once you’ve had a chance to formulate a hypothesis, please share your findings with everyone on the shared ELN and we can revisit this at our next meeting.”  Refer back to the agreed upon meeting agenda and get back on track. 

 A few final thoughts:

  • Does it need to be a meeting? Having every single person in your research group stop for an hour or two to engage in a virtual lab meeting adds up to a lot of man hours.  Sometimes it is critical and valuable to move research forward, troubleshoot technical hang ups, and hash out the details of grant proposals and manuscripts.  Other times, asynchronous sharing of data and using online platforms such as our LabArchives ELN to securely share and communicate data are a much better use of everyone’s time. 
  • Many of these same tips apply to in-person meetings as well. 

o   An agenda sets the tone prior to the meeting and allows everyone to come prepared to engage and contribute, regardless of the meeting format. 

o   Consistent meeting schedules, reminders, and invites ensure everyone is there and on time. 

o   Breaking the ice with a few minutes of lab or personal business will get everyone talking and ready to engage. 

  • Managing distractions and tangents and keeping close to the agenda are important for fruitful discussion.