The Remote Leaders Quick Guide to Great Online Meetings
With the rapid impact of COVID-19 being felt all around the world, our workplaces have changed dramatically.
One of the biggest impacts has been on that necessary (though rarely loved), institution – THE MEETING!
Where once people used to lob past your desk or wander into a room and meet face to face, many or our workplaces are now being run remotely.
As we all adapt to this new remote normal, there are a whole bunch of different challenges:
- People unable to connect or dial in
- Poor internet or phone connections and calls dropping out
- Awkward pauses while everyone waits for someone else to speak
- Attendees are more easily distracted and likely to disengage
- Where once you could interject naturally, now only one person can speak at a time
Fortunately, there are solutions to all of these frustrating issues!
If you are responsible for chairing an online meeting via phone conference or video call, the following tips will help ease your team into this new way of working:
Great Online Meetings Quick Guide
- Online meetings can be better than face to face!
- Of meeting purpose, attendees, duration & outcomes
- Of the need to keep them as short as possible
Be Organised & Prepared
- Send agendas and pre-reading 2 days before meeting
- Start & finish on time
- Use headsets
Be Early & Ready to Go
- Get on the call ~5 minutes early to check technology and focus on being present
- Start by verbally greeting the group
- Ask attendees to adjust volume, camera angle and light
- Turn off distractions and focus
- How technology will be used
- How the meeting will run
- Use last 5 minutes to recap decisions, actions and next steps
- Invite questions and comments especially from those who are quiet
- Commit to answering questions raised but not addressed after the meeting
- Have a Backup Plan in case technology fails
- Watch the time and stay on track
- Focus on what matters most
- Encourage ideas to make future meetings even better
- Acknowledge and diffuse the discomfort
- Look at the camera, (not your face!) to make eye contact with everyone
- Use humour and encourage small talk as people join the meeting
- Create a safe, inclusive, respectful and honest space
The Quick Guide Explained
1. Be Aware...
Of the need to drop the belief that ‘remote meetings aren’t as good as face to face’. In fact they and remote teams can be more engaging, efficient, cohesive and productive.
Of the meeting necessity, purpose, duration and desired outcomes. For attendees to participate effectively these must be clearly communicated so everyone knows why they are attending, how long for and what's expected of them.
Of who really needs to attend. Cap your numbers at 6 - 8. Virtual meeting dynamics aren't conducive to big meetings. While you can technically have 100+ on a call, this generally only works well for webinars or training. If it takes too long to 'go around the table' for a check-in, people will become bored and disengaged.
Of the need to keep it as short as possible. Remember people working from home are likely juggling multiple concurrent responsibilities. If they are also caring for young children, their ability to stay connected and fully engaged in the meeting, especially if it's for more than half an hour, may be limited.
People fatigue more quickly and are distracted more easily during remote meetings. If your face to face meetings used to go for 2 hours or more, they need to be streamlined or split into multiple shorter meetings to enable breaks.
2. Be Organised and Prepared
Send out agendas and pre-reading at least two days in advance. Even if it’s an informal daily check-in meeting, following a set agenda provides a structure your team will already be used to.
Remind attendees that the meeting will start and finish on time. When people join an online or phone conference 10 minutes late it is much more disruptive than when they quietly slip into an office meeting room late.
However, late arrivals are sometimes unavoidable. Advise the protocol you want everyone to follow if this occurs. For example, do you want them to verbally announce their arrival which may interrupt the flow of the meeting? Or will you, as the chair, check in for any late arrivals between agenda topics which is less disruptive.
Ask attendees to use a headset to minimise background noise. The sounds of dishwashers running, kids playing or dogs barking are distractions that can be minimised.
3. Be Early and Ready To Go
One of the biggest stressors of running online meetings is technology fails. You're madly trying to dial the number or log in, knowing that everyone is waiting for you!
Get on the call at least 5 minutes early to test your equipment and direct your focus to being 100% present for the meeting.
Verbally greet the group at the start of the meeting to show you are online or on the call, and to announce that the meeting is starting.
Ask people to adjust their microphone volume, camera angle and light (for video calls) so everyone can hear and see everyone else clearly. Looking at someone's chin or silhouette caused by strong back light can be a big distraction!
4. Be Explicit
Begin by advising everyone how the meeting will be run and establish remote meeting norms. This can include:
- Turn off all distractions – phones on silent; email and all other windows closed to maximise bandwidth and help participants stay present and focused
- How the technology will be used – eg cameras on/off; use of ‘chat’ and Q&A functions
- Ask attendees to ‘mute’ when they aren’t speaking, ‘unmute’ when they are and to be concise
- If the meeting is to be recorded, advise when the recording is being started
- Agenda topics to be introduced by the topic leaders; time allocated for each topic
- Each person will be invited to comment and ask questions in turn, at the end of the presenter's introduction
- Individual topics or concerns not relevant to the collective meeting purpose will be noted and addressed via separate 1:1 conversations (in the old days we used to say, ‘Let’s take that offline’).
Use the last 5 minutes of the meeting to recap decisions and actions; confirm next steps and/or meeting times and dates and thank people for participating.
5. Be Pro-active
Invite those who are naturally quiet to share their observations and questions. Be comfortable with and allow for more silence and pauses. With virtual meetings, it usually takes a little longer for people to start speaking.
Acknowledge questions that are coming in via chat functions. If there isn’t time to answer all questions on the call, assure people that their questions will be taken from the transcript or call recording and answers provided via email.
Have and advise the Backup Plan – if connection is lost during the meeting, people will want to know what they should do. Provide multiple ways to connect including phone, email and alternative technologies like WhatsApp.
Watch the time – it passes more quickly when you are the chair! If it looks like you’re going to need to schedule another meeting, advise attendees early that this is what will happen, rather than going way over time.
Keep the conversation on track when it diverges or gets repetitive. This is when other attendees will become distracted and lose focus which is often hard to detect when you’re on a phone or audio only call.
Focus on what’s most important. Rather than trying to explore all ideas or concerns on a particular topic, it can be useful to ask, “What matters most about this?” or “If there was just one thing we must address or decide before this meeting ends, what would it be?”
Encourage feedback from participants (either on the call or afterwards) including ideas on how we can make remote meetings work even better. Teams will soon fall into their own rhythm based on what works best for them.
6. Be Human
Many people will feel initially uncomfortable as they learn how to use technology. Acknowledge the discomfort and awkwardness, reminding attendees that we aren’t the only ones in 'learning' mode. Teams all over the world are grappling with this right now.
If you’re on a Video Call, look directly at the camera when you speak. This ensures you’re making eye contact with everyone on the call. If the call only has one or two people attending, move their faces up next to the camera so you can see their faces.
Online or phone conferences are often more task, process or transaction focused than face to face meetings. Particularly during these times of uncertainty and heightened anxiety, it’s important to use remote meetings to strengthen emotional connection.
Humour is a wonderful humaniser and connector and if you can laugh at yourself as you figure out which buttons to press when, you’ll release the discomfort others are feeling.
Encourage small talk while you’re waiting for people to join the meeting – the weather, sharing experiences and funny stories create cohesion and strengthen connection. Something as simple as inviting everyone to bring their tea or coffee in their favourite mug will help everyone connect.
Create a safe, inclusive and respectful space. This includes inviting questions; encouraging people to say more and express concerns that haven’t been addressed.
To encourage honesty, ask open questions for which there are no right or wrong answers:
- What have you achieved and what are you proud of?
- What are you struggling with and what help do you need?
- What do you think I or others need to know?
- How might that work?
- Where do you stand on this topic?
The Online Meeting Opportunity…
Moving to remote meetings is the perfect time to do a stocktake of all the meetings you attend. Those which are no longer relevant can be deleted from your calendar.
For meetings which must continue, take time to review the meeting’s purpose, necessity, attendees and format. Review meeting behaviours and reset any which, when changed, will make the meeting even more effective online.
Take time before launching into the Agenda to agree what needs to happen for everyone to effectively contribute and gain maximum value by attending. This will ensure new meetings are highly effective from the beginning.
Rest assured, while no one knows what the post COVID-19 future looks like, we will all adapt to online meetings.
Remember, that's exactly what we did when computers took over from typewriters, email replaced faxes and mobile phones went from being a luxury to a necessity.