Productive (remote) meetings

We’ve all been in unproductive meetings – an hour of your life where afterwards you’re not really sure what happened – some things were discussed, but nothing decided. Nobody got any followup actions. Some people stayed silent, others talked a lot but said little. Sadly, these are all too common and for busy teams, a waste of valuable time.

Some meetings (especially in the current global health crisis) could be done asynchronously – either as an email message for one-to-many information dissemination, or perhaps as a threaded conversation on an IM platform for many-to-many or many-to-one updates.

When you have to discuss or decide something, an interactive conversation is inevitable, and right now this is almost certainly going to be over a video call, which brings some problems that a physical meeting in the same room would not have.

Before the meeting

Limit the attendee list to people who actually need to be there. It might be tempting to invite more people when there is no upper limit to attendees (unlike in a physical room), but that will only make the meeting harder to manage, as well as use up others’ valuable time.

Good meetings should always have an agenda – a list of talking points that support the objectives of the meeting. This should ideally be sent on the invite (along with any pre-reading) and everyone will find it useful if you time-box each point. You should plan for the usual problems in virtual attendance, so start with:

1. Is this thing on/can you hear me/that’s a cool background (5 mins)

Then list out the talking points with a rough time estimate – this will allow you to control the flow of the meeting. An informative announcement only needs a few minutes to answer simple questions, an item requiring a decision needs plenty of time allocated.

Rather than include a catch all ‘any other business’ item, ask participants to suggest specific topics ahead of time for inclusion in the agenda where possible.

As a courtesy to everyone, plan the total meeting time to be less than the allotted time (for example 55 minutes in a one hour meeting slot) to allow some respite from back-to-back meetings, and then crucially (and often forgotten) – include an agenda item to summarise what has been agreed and any followup actions at the end:

6. Agree actions (5 mins)

Update the meeting invite with the agenda as and when necessary.

The role of the facilitator

To actually facilitate a good meeting using video calling platforms is only slightly different than facilitating a physical one – the biggest problem (other than connectivity and audio quality) being that during the course of discussion, the non-verbal cues people give off when they want to interject may not be obvious. There is however one plus point : a side conversation between participants is impossible.

Chairing: This is your meeting – welcome everyone as they join and introduce anyone who may not know the other participants.

Time keeping: Start the first item promptly and try to keep to the timings on the agenda.

Crowd control: After you have made you initial remarks and opened the agenda item out to the group, moderate the conversation. Be alert to everyone on the call – if someone signals verbally or non-verbally (or with a virtual hand raise if the platform supports it) that they’d like to make a point, but cannot get a word in, jump into the discussion and allow them to comment.

There may be a tendency of some participants to dominate the conversation – if the decision making seems to be one-sided, politely interject and bring other attendees into the discussion (for example – “Bob – if I could just stop you there – John has been looking at something similar – John can you walk us through what you’ve got so far?”

If the discussion gets too detailed, suggest that this be explored in depth outside the meeting.

If the conversation veers off topic significantly, remind participants of the agenda, and suggest that the meeting either focus on this topic at the expense of the current agenda, or discuss further as an item in a subsequent meeting.

Summarisation: Throughout the proceedings, verbally summarise and record your understanding of what has been agreed – not just for yourself, but for all those attending. If what is being discussed is unclear, get people to re-iterate their points. As the conclusion of the meeting (the last agenda item), collectively agree on the actions from the meeting.

Minuting: Take rough notes by hand as the meeting progresses, and transcribe them immediately afterwards and circulate them along with any actions.

Followup: Almost as important as the agenda and meeting itself – there’s no point in agreeing on some actions if they never actually get done, so chase up the owners of those actions a few days afterwards, especially if they relate to a subsequent followup meeting.

The role of the attendee

As an attendee, read the agenda (if there is one) when you accept the invite – don’t just click ‘Accept’. There may be some pre-meeting preparation you are expected to complete – make time to do it ahead of the meeting (not 5 minutes before it starts!).

Immediately prior to the start of the call, make sure your workspace is quiet, free from distraction and your headset or microphone and speakers are working. Stay on mute if there is any background noise and only un-mute when you wish to speak.

When in attendance, maintain alertness – there may be a temptation to quickly read new messages or do something else when you are not directly engaged the discussion, but you may miss a key point. In a video call, keep (virtual) eye contact by observing those talking (but don’t get too interested in the books on their shelves, etc.!).

You may find it helpful to take notes on paper rather than electronically to keep the screen focused on the meeting – whatever works best for you.

One thought on “Productive (remote) meetings

  1. Excellent post Steve – couldn’t agree more, particularly to having an agenda.

    Others are great at this, but personally I don’t really like being put on the spot in a room (virtual or otherwise) full of people, so I really appreciate knowing what’s coming so I can prepare something genuinely valuable to bring to the table in advance, rather than thinking “wish I would have said that” afterwards. ?‍♀️

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