For remote teams, meetings are essential to building relationships, communication, and collaboration. But virtual meetings can also be one of the biggest time-wasters for remote teams.
Which of these situations sound familiar?
Virtual meetings don’t have to be this way.
Our recent Networkplaceless conversation focused on building and facilitating more effective virtual meetings. Mark Tippin of MURAL, Waikit Lau of RemoteHQ, Megan Eddinger of Workplaceless, and all of our attendees shared experienced advice. Here are some critical steps you can implement today to make your virtual meetings productive and engaging.
Not all meetings are necessary! Virtual meetings should be time reserved for productive interaction: discussion, solving problems, collaborating, connecting personally, and providing feedback. Clearly articulating the objective for each meeting can help you decide if the work required to achieve that objective warrants synchronous collaboration. An effective virtual meeting is one in which participants interact to get work done. As Mark Tippin from MURAL notes, the worst type of meeting is a meeting to talk about the work that needs to get done. Delete these from your calendar now.
Make sure that the people invited to the meeting are the people who really need to be there. Ask yourself:
Tippin also shared the idea that calendars have become “weaponized meeting technology,” meaning they don’t require senders to provide context and they can’t gauge the personal capacity of invitees to take on a meeting at a given time. For example, you may feel excited to have found that lone one hour block when everyone can theoretically attend, but you shouldn’t put the meeting on the calendar without personally checking in with your teammates. Overbooking calendars can lead to frustration and burnout on teams. Leaders must lead by example and encourage team members to speak up if they are overbooked with meetings or allow the option to decline meetings when their presence isn’t needed.
Teams are most efficient with their time together if they’re leveraging blended meeting structures, a combination of asynchronous pre- and post-work and synchronous meeting discussion. It’s important to select the right format and tools based upon the purpose for your virtual meeting.
Many remote teams default to scheduling live meetings with everyone via a video call. At Workplaceless, we advocate for video conferencing options, like Zoom and Teams, to help establish context like body language that can be missing or misinterpreted via phone or written tools. However, with the increase in Zoom fatigue, video conferencing may not always be the best option. Sometimes casual phone calls, especially for frequent 1-on-1 check-ins, can be a valuable way to build rapport with a colleague without the formality of a video presence.
If you decide a video call is best, there are many virtual meeting providers from large scale, like Zoom and Teams, to customizable, like RemoteHQ or Whereby. Each platform offers different benefits and could prove useful depending on the objectives you have for the meeting.
In addition to the conversation platform, selecting a virtual meeting tool to help guide the conversation is important. Your reason for gathering can help clarify what tool might work best. A Google Doc or MURAL keeps the conversation on track, while the game-oriented features of Klaxoon may help to shake up your routines or energize your team.
At Workplaceless, we incorporate MURAL whiteboards in almost all of our team meetings. Each MURAL is sent out in advance of the meeting to serve as our “single source of truth” for aligning on the agenda, documenting conversations and decisions made, and outlining actions to be taken after the conclusion of the meeting. For recurring meetings, we build on to the same MURAL so we can easily refresh our memories about previous conversations and decisions already made.
All meeting owners must create and share an agenda prior to the meeting. The agenda should include all the information needed to attend and participate, including the required participants, start and end time, location (e.g., Zoom room), objectives, expected outcomes, and breakdown of the meeting flow.
Clearly outlining the flow of the meeting can also help determine just how long the meeting needs to be. Consider keeping your agendas to end 5 or 10 minutes before the hour to allow for employees to take much needed breaks away from their desks between meetings. We question whether productivity and engagement can be maintained in meetings over two hours, and anything over an hour requires a 5–10 minute break in the agenda.
The agenda should also reference any asynchronous prework that is expected of attendees to complete or review in advance of the meeting. We also recommend using your project management tools to specifically assign prework. As Waikit Lau from RemoteHQ notes, meetings can be powerful opportunities for brainstorming or creative problem solving. However, brainstorming meetings that don’t involve any prep work or don’t allow attendees to arrive with an initial point of view can be counterproductive.
Writing agendas and taking notes support two best practices in remote work: maintaining a “single source of truth” to keep information in one place and using documentation to ensure a transparent and accessible work environment. Meeting attendees should, ideally, abide by a shared team boundaries agreement. We encourage teams to create an understanding that attendees will decline meetings that do not contain an agenda.
We cannot emphasize the importance of the role of meeting facilitator enough. It’s a critical skill that we recommend not only for professional virtual facilitators, but also for any virtual meeting leaders. Facilitators ensure that the meeting stays on track, participants are engaged, and the conversation is moving in a productive direction..
Every meeting should also have a notetaker. Don't have one person who is always the designated notetaker. Rotate notetaking duties from meeting to meeting, or even change roles during the same meeting if there are many agenda items. If your team wants an alternate solution, Otter.ai offers a product that captures notes automatically during live meetings.
Facilitator and notetaker aren’t the only roles for a meeting. Assigning additional roles gives meeting attendees a job to do to, and keeps them engaged. Additional roles can include: icebreaker leader, timekeeper, parliamentarian, or decision maker.
Once meeting attendees arrive, help orient them to the tone of the meeting. Everyone’s days are filled with balancing priorities, so it’s important to take a moment to allow participants to reset before delving into the discussion at hand. Here are some ideas for helping attendees get acclimated::
Part of establishing the tone of the meeting is to create space for people to share their current mental state and encourage a transition to being present with intention for the conversation ahead.
Clearly outline the expectations of participants before, during, and after the meeting. These expectations could be: reviewing materials before the meeting, not multitasking, participating actively, and completing any agreed upon action items after the meeting has concluded. When it comes to meeting expectations, it’s essential for the meeting owner and facilitator to lead by example by arriving at the meeting on time and respecting ending times, as well.
We want your time together to be effective and the participants to be engaged, but even with the best intentions and good planning, it doesn’t always work out that way. If a participant “zones out” or is asked a question and hasn’t been paying attention, Tippin recommends that they say “I was in Hawaii.” This serves as an explanation about their mindset that doesn’t waste time and allows them to quickly dive back into the conversation (no scuba gear needed).
Additionally, if your team is new to asynchronous prework, you may want to add 5 minutes of grace time to the beginning of the agenda to allow individuals to catch up on their meeting-related tasks.
The goal of a meeting is to come to conclusions and decisions as a group. Facilitators should plan to leave time at the end of meetings to clarify and document decisions, assign owners to action items, and set deadlines. Summarizing the takeaways at the end of the meeting gives participants a final opportunity to clarify any lingering questions and sets everyone up for successful follow through on their action items.
After a meeting, meeting owners should send an email or a video recording (we highly recommend using Loom) summarizing takeaways and decisions. Remember those individuals you didn’t invite to the meeting, but who still need to know what happened? Send them your recap video. To ensure that people have actually read or listened to your updates, require a follow-up task, such as responding to a question. Assign these, with deadlines, in your project management tool.
Implementing the best practices we’ve outlined here will set the stage for more effective virtual meetings, but it’s not a “set it and forget it” plan. Your team will change, your projects will evolve, and it’s important that the way you approach virtual meetings improves as well.
Tippin shared that the teams at MURAL have scaled rapidly over the past year, and the processes that worked for them previously weren’t necessarily the best as they scaled. They’ve had to iterate and test to determine what’s working best now.
Waikit Lau of RemoteHQ emphasized that he does occasional retroactives with his team about their synchronous meetings. Are they spending too much time in meetings? Are they feeling included and engaged? Are decisions clear and actionable? As you work to improve your processes, it’s important to get feedback from your employees about whether the steps you’re taking are effective.
Here are a few things to consider as you iterate and optimize team meetings:
Virtual meetings can be efficient, productive, valuable, and inspiring—but it takes work. The teams that put in the effort will reap the rewards.
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Whether you’re thinking about the efficacy of your virtual meetings for the first time, or iterating as your team grows, we are here to help.
Our Optimizing Virtual Meetings Workshop is the perfect opportunity to bring your team together to optimize the way you use virtual meetings and plan retreats.
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