Working Remotely: Part 2, Online Meetings
Updated: Jun 25, 2020
Have you ever been in a meeting where you have no idea what was agreed upon, who disagreed, what the next steps are, and the whole meeting seemed like a waste of time?
Perhaps some participants only had audio even though slides were shared, one person showed up 15 minutes late, one person got another call and it took several minutes before someone got his attention so that he could mute, and the list of challenges goes on. This article is undoubtedly opinionated. Some of the opinions may reflect my frustration with inefficient meetings, period, but the ineffectiveness of poorly conducted face-2-face meetings is even more prevalent in online meetings and there are some new challenges introduced as well.
I'll make a separate article covering my experience with various tools, so I'll only discuss the essential goals here.
Here are some key features I look at in the meeting tools.
Present video of all participants
Ability to mute participants
Most online meeting tools support all the above, and even many of the free tools have more than adequate support.
Rules of engagement
You may not agree with my recommendations below, and various meetings may have different structures based on context, but whatever rules are in place have to be shared and communicated.
If you have a daily standup and you expect everyone to spend max 1 min to give status and that more in-depth discussions be scheduled for separate meetings, then make sure everyone in the meeting knows what you expect. You'll learn they appreciate the firm structure.
The rules of engagement MUST include preciseness. I've worked in many countries and companies. As a result, I've been exposed to many different meeting cultures. My favorite meeting cultures I experienced working for a company Sweden where an 8:30 scheduled meeting started at 8:30:00, and everyone knew to be there and ready by 8:29:59. You would not even dare to walk into a meeting at 8:31.
Maybe the strictness above is too much for your corporate culture, but the more precision you can enforce, the better (and the more pleasant the meetings are for everyone). I've worked in companies where 10 minutes late is the norm, and 15 minutes late is acceptable. Why not then set the meeting for 8:45 instead of 8:30 and then expect everyone to be on time.
The rules should also include:
Do we use video or is being on the phone OK?
Do we mute when we don't speak?
Do we require an agenda prior to the meeting?
Should we produce minutes from the meeting?
When is it acceptable to interrupt?
How do we ensure that everyone's voice is heard?
It is important to stress that not every meeting is created equal. It is perfectly OK if the daily standup has a different structure from a strategic planning meeting. My point is just that the rules of engagement should be explicit and shared.
Structure of meeting
The recommendation below is for a planned meeting with a clear goal (as opposed to a daily status meeting or an ad-hoc crisis meeting).
Select the participants. This may seem like an obvious item, but in my opinion, most meetings end up missing someone or having more people than useful
Plan the agenda and if required discuss it with key participants
Contains a list of attendees including which of the participants are required and which are optional
A clear agenda with at least proposed time slots
Links to any material that may help the participants prepare
If not explicitly known, include the rules of engagement for the meeting
If the participants do not know each other, include a virtual introduction in the agenda. Make sure you include the expected time limit for each introduction. I’ve been in meetings where one person took 30 minutes of a 60 minutes meeting to tell us about themselves (even when 5 people had gone before and set a precedence by using 30 seconds each)
Prepare a template or starting points for the minutes. The template has the topics listed from the agenda and a place to write the notes. We use shared documents, ideally shared through tools such as Google Doc or Office 360, so that anyone in the meeting can contribute during the session.
Start on time.
Keep to the agenda, that includes keeping individual topics to the dedicated time slots.
Share the notes during the meeting. One of the goals of the meeting is always to complete the minutes. If you are using one of the collaboration tools that allows for collaborative editing, have the participants that is responsible for the outcomes write the conclusion in the minutes. If not, make sure you ask during the meeting if you have captured the essence of the conclusions.
Wrap up the meeting with going over the meeting notes and ask if anyone has objections.
If required, schedule the followups and assign responsibility. The followups must be part of the minutes.
One goal is that the meeting notes completely cover the conclusions and lists all the recommended followups.
Pretty much all the recommendations above are valid for face-to-face meetings as well, but are even more important when remote.
A common question I receive is, should you require that the participants are on video? I don't know if you can require people to be on video, but I think you should at least strongly encourage everyone to be on video. Research shows that a lot of communication is visual (e.g., see this research from UCLA (https://cyberpsychology.eu/article/view/4285/3330).
A common thing that happens in meetings I participate in is that the facilitators share their screen, and it turns out that many of the participants only have audio. For my online meetings, I demand that everyone can see the screen. Yes, there are exceptions where someone is stuck at an airport or in traffic, but those participants have to expect a diminished return and a severely reduced influence.
In this article, I've discussed how to conduct online meetings. I've focused on the more formal meetings as they tend to have a more complete set of suggestions. In the next article, I'll cover the more day-to-day collaboration and my suggestions for how to organize that work.