As mentioned in my tips for working from home article, I’ve been working remotely for nearly three years. In those three years I’ve been in countless meetings, both productive and unproductive. Meetings, both in-person and remote, are hard. Remote meetings pose some additional challenges but they also offer some unique benefits.
Below are seven tips that will help you have successful remote meetings. I wrote this article focusing on remote meetings but many of these tips will improve your co-located meetings as well.
Have an agenda
If you are organizing a meeting, you should make sure that the meeting has an agenda. The agenda doesn’t have to be a long, complicated document; it can be as simple as a list of topics and goals.
Why should you have an agenda? An agenda helps focus discussion by providing an outline of what the meeting is designed to cover.
Send out your agenda with the meeting invite. This gives invitees time to think about the topics and helps prevent people from showing up clueless. It also provides an opportunity for an invitee to excuse themself or suggest an alternative person if they don’t believe they will contribute to the meeting.
Start and end on time
You should start your meetings on time. You should end your meetings on time or early. If you are not starting and ending on time then you are not being respectful of your attendees time. The lack of punctuality contributes towards people dreading meetings.
If you are running out of time, wind down the meeting. If more discussions need to happen, reflect and see if more time needs to be scheduled with the entire group or if only a subset of the group is required.
Use video chat
Even if you don’t work remotely, you’ve probably had to dial in to a group audio chat. This is almost always a terrible experience. Without body language, it is near impossible to tell when someone is about to start speaking and, as a result, there are awkward pauses while everyone waits for someone else to speak and everyone speaks over each other. It is terrible.
This is why I recommend using video chat. Video chats let you see the other people on the call and this allows you to pick up on physical cues. These cues vastly improve communication in the meeting.
Co-located attendees should use their own device
Sometimes you’ll have a mixed meeting, some attendees are remote and others are together in an office. The co-located attendees should each use their own device to connect to the meeting.
Co-located attendees sharing a single device is non-optimal for many reasons. It is often hard for all the co-located attendees to be captured by the camera in a way that enables the remote attendees to reliably view them. Sharing a single microphone also makes it so some co-located attendees are easy to hear and others are barely audible.
Using a single device also makes it harder for all the co-located attendees to view the remote attendees. Without a clear view of the remote attendees, the co-located attendees often accidentally exclude the remote people by focusing on discussions between the co-located group.
Hopefully you have invited just the right people to the meeting and everyone is engaged in the discussion and paying attention. Realistically this doesn’t happen. Computers are incredibly good at so many things and one of those things is distracting the user.
When you are attending a remote meeting, minimize what can distract you. Close your email and hide the chat program. Put your phone out of arms reach. Try to focus intently on the meeting. If you find yourself not paying attention and not contributing, take this as a signal that you shouldn’t be in this meeting. If nothing on the rest of the agenda seems like it requires you, then leave the meeting and be more selective about what you join in the future.
If you notice other attendees not paying attention, gently call them out on it. This can be done by soliciting discussion from them or by being direct.
Have a shared artifact
This is one of the more important tips in this list and it is one of the areas where remote meetings have an advantage over in-person meetings.
When the meeting starts give everyone a link to a shared document that everyone can edit (for example a Google Doc). It can be useful to seed this document with the agenda. This shared document can be used to capture whatever you want. I’ve found it useful to capture options discussed, pros/cons lists, and follow-up actions. Writing in the shared document helps solidify ideas and gives the group a reference both during and after the meeting.
With in-person meetings, this shared artifact is often a whiteboard. Whiteboards are immensely useful but are barely editable by more than one person at once and are harder to reference after a meeting. I know I’m not the only person who dislikes trying to decipher terrible whiteboard handwriting captured by someone’s phone.
Except for when drawing diagrams, I’ve found the Google Docs style shared document used during a remote meeting more effective than using a whiteboard in an in-person meeting. You can always use a shared document in an in-person meeting as well but then you are requiring attendees to have a laptop open and that is an invitation for distracted attendees.
Hopefully you are having a meeting to influence an outcome and not just hear everyone talk. As a result, you should be assigning follow-up responsibilities as the meeting progresses. Make the follow-up actions explicit and assigned to an individual. You can capture these responsibilities in your shared artifact.
Meetings can be difficult. You should do what you can to make them more successful. If you are being invited to a meeting without an agenda, ask for an agenda. If you’re in a meeting and you can tell someone is constantly distracted, try nicely calling them out on it (either privately or in the group). If there isn’t a shared artifact, make one and suggest it to the group. Meetings don’t have to be terrible. We can make them better.