I was chatting to a fellow ‘Company of One’ about running a workshop to improve customer engagement. I was going through how to keep people engaged, getting everyone’s views and actually getting some outcomes. Then he mentioned that two of the participants would be in Perth and another two in Melbourne. The software that the company prefers is Zoom. This highlighted one of the issues facing a lot of organisations today. Remote Meetings and workshops. If conducting meetings and workshops in person wasn’t hard enough. Now we are running them with a remote workforce.
The Challenges of Remote Meetings
The following list of challenges isn’t extensive
- Technology – yes it makes it possible and yet it goes wrong and causes frustration
- Engagement – There are different distractions when you aren’t locked in the room with others.
- Participation – It’s harder for people to contribute. Crowd control needs even more of a focus.
- Sharing ideas – It’s harder than quickly drawing something on the whiteboard. Though it is possible and the outcome can be better. It just takes more thought.
- Understanding participants – This could be because of bad connections, lack of body language or language barriers.
- Timezones – With remote workforces around the country and around the world. It’s hard to set a time that works for everyone.
I don’t have a solution for all these problems. A solution to alot of them is good standard meeting practices.
Define your purpose
This is important for any meeting that you are having. Basic principles are
- Agenda – distributed before the meeting, you might even like to update it while the meeting is going along as a live document
- Participants – being selective on who is needed to get the outcomes you are looking for
- Style – One on One, One to many, small group, large group, group to group
- Communication method – Videoconference (online or traditional), teleconference, text-based chat. (check out my article for silent meetings for more info on text-based chat)
- Materials – Paper, post its, certain documents, templates, software
If this is an ongoing status meeting, how would you like to cover where are we at and where are we going? Zapier gets everyone to write a short bio of what they have done this week, what they are doing next week. Sharing this in a google doc which they read in silence at the beginning of the meeting.
The roles should be set, shared and defined before the workshop or meeting. Here are some roles to consider. You can assign them to individuals for the whole meeting or different people for different parts.
- Leader – In charge of crowd control.Highlighting decisions and action items. Moving discussions along and ensuring everyone has a chance to talk.
- Scribe – The note taker of the meeting, ensures the capture of all action items and decisions
- Time-keeper – Running the meeting on time. They can use an inbuilt timer which displays on the screen for video conferences. Or a bell or beep for 1 min on teleconferences reminiscent of the old debating days
- Local leader – Might be required if the meeting is group to group. They are in charge of booking the room and making sure everything needed is available.
- Tech checker – Might be nice to have if the leader is a bit busy. Helps and checks to ensure everyone has access to the technology before the meeting. Checks the access permissions to any files. They are especially important for new tech.
- Groups – If you need to break people into groups for an activity do this before the workshop. This gives them a chance to decide how they are going to workshop together.
- Participant – Let people know what the exception of them is and what they need to bring to the meeting.
Knowing your technology
There are two important aspects of technology. The right solution for your meeting purpose and outcome. The ability for everyone to have access and be able to comfortably use the technology.
Some things to consider when choosing the combination of technology for the meeting.
- Do you need to share screens?
- Do you want everyone to work on the same document at the same time? or just view it?
- Do you want to record the meeting? Video or Audio
- Do you need to have a virtual whiteboard? Or can you ensure that everyone can see the one in the room?
- Do you want people to see each other? Is it always realistic with the connection available? Or timezones the people are in?
- Will you need participants to vote on things? do you need interactive elements?
- Are you going to have text chat tools running alongside video or audio?
- How are you going to document it? in a minutes document or straight into a project management tool? Where are the commonplace people can go to get the meeting outcomes?
Remember that technology is technology and having a plan B is a must.
There are some very basic rules for successful communication. Each meeting, company, style and size will have an effect on what rules you need. Document whatever rules you come up with and share them with the meeting agenda ask for feedback. Review them after the meeting looking at what worked, didn’t and why.
- Mute when you aren’t speaking
- State your name when you speak – this helps with tech delays as well as identification
- Arrive on time – Some teleconference systems broadcast when people arrive or leave. This can be disruptive and off putting
- Don’t interrupt others
- Direct questions to individuals
- Have an order for turn taking
- Method for indicating that a person wants to speak
- Assume positive intent in communication
- Make sure that everyone can be seen or heard at normal size and levels
- Everyone can see everything that is being shown or talked about
There are some other cool ideas out there for improved communication. They would be great for in-person meetings too.
If one person is remote everyone is remote
There is a problem with the group to remote. Many companies such as Trello, Litmus , Mailchimp and Seer have solved this inequality problem. They made the decision that if anyone is remote then the meeting is online, i.e. one person one screen/phone. This is to iron out the power differential when there is a group and others are remote.
Super cards by Collaboration Superpowers
I have been to an Agile meetup where they tried to explain how these worked in real life. It didn’t go well. I can see the benefits. I personally prefer the “super cards”. Here are a couple of articles explaining them if you want to check them out.
- Love.Life.Practice – Using Hand Signals for Better Meetings
- Gov.uk Digital Services – Platform as a Service team takes even-handed approach to meetings
Also for a laugh check out the additional ones in Gavin Haynes article in the Guardian New Hand Signals Bringing Meetings Order
Build in social time
Start the meeting early so you can encourage the chatter that happens as people arrive. Kick off the meeting with a bit of a round the ‘room’. Asking what people have been up to, what the weather is like at their location etc. Keep it to a couple of sentences each. Celebrate the small things. Also if there has been a great success make sure that everyone gets to celebrate with cake or in some other way. At the end of the meeting only turn off the communication once everyone has had a chance to say good bye.
You might want to set aside a ‘water cooler’ meeting each week. This encourages team members to get together to just chat about non work related topics. Otherwise encourage everyone to connect someone else in the team each week for a chat.
Size of the group
I have attended some very large teleconferences for large incidents. The business found it was the best way we found to disseminate information quickly. They were heavily controlled and directed meetings. To get the best outcomes during the meeting, key personnel discussed topics before and after the meeting. Sometimes these meetings could have been a lot smaller. But often they did need the 40+ people who dialed in or were in the room. Running at any time of the day or night due to it being a 24 hour business. I wouldn’t recommend these types of meetings unless it is crucial.
Of course the size of the group is dependent on a lot of things. A group of 6-9 is good if everyone is on single screens, think the opening of the Brady Bunch. Two groups in separate offices on traditional video conference can support a few more people. Remembering the more people the longer the meeting.
Length of time
For a meeting aim for as short as possible to get the outcome you need. Restrictions on time for each person to ask questions helps focus the outcomes. Time the discussion. If it looks like there is no outcome move the discussion out of the meeting for action or further research. For a workshop don’t try to replicate what you would do for an in-person workshop. Break it up over days as continuous screen time is very draining. Keep the exercises very short. Use templates to speed up the documentation and focus the discussions. Remember to give people time for breaks. Also have a system for people to BRB.
No matter the length or type of meeting always allow for wrap up time. Use the time for action items, next steps, thank yous and good-byes.
Embrace some quiet time
As I explored in my last blog post quiet time is important. Try and include some in your remote meetings as well.
You might like to choose to do solo brainstorming ( A Yale Study found that this method gave more solutions that were feasible and effective). Each person brainstorms by themselves during the meeting in silence. Then shares their ideas with the group at the end.
Practice makes progress. So use the technology and techniques of remote meetings often. Don’t forget to try out your backup plans sometimes. Good Luck
If you want to read a more informative document I recommend
Mural’s The Definitive Guide to Facilitating Remote Workshops
Other more general remote ebooks
If you want a great infographic here is one by Hubstaff