Conducting Productive Remote Meetings

16 minutes, 12 links


Updated September 6, 2022

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Meetings definitely follow Newton’s first law—an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion. If you aren’t proactive about making your meetings better, they’ll stay mediocre. If you aren’t proactive about canceling or iterating on meetings, they will stay on folks’ calendars for eternity.Lara Hogan, management coach; co-founder, Wherewithall*

Meetings that are unstructured or disorganized can easily end up in awkward silence, or as a tedious waste of time, because conversation doesn’t flow quite as naturally over video chat as if you were to gather a group into a room.

Here are some sensible starting points for productive meetings for remote teams:

  • Schedule the meeting ahead of time. You can make routine meetings more convenient by scheduling recurring calendar events with the relevant agenda, video/conference-call link, and invitees added directly to the calendar event.

  • Keep it short. This means 15 minutes for a stand-up, or an hour for a project kickoff meeting or retrospective.

  • Have an agenda. Providing a very clear, specific goal and an agenda with time limits for each topic will help ensure the meeting stays on track.

  • Brainstorm beforehand. Research shows brainstorming individually ahead of time and using the meeting to discuss findings is more effective than reacting to new ideas on the spot.

  • Limit attendees. Keep it to those who need to be there. With more than 5–8 people, the quality of the conversation begins to erode.

  • Don’t skip the chitchat. To facilitate this, you can encourage everyone to at least start with their video on, and make time (about five minutes) for small talk or an ice-breaker question. This helps people connect and builds psychological safety, making for more effective meetings and happier, healthier teams.

  • Write it down. This should be a common expectation for distributed teams, both for shared context and for understanding. Depending on your communication expectations, there may be a specific person assigned to record notes or minutes on the meeting, or everyone may be encouraged to add to a shared document with reflections, or both. This way, anyone who couldn’t attend—due to schedule conflicts, sick days, or time zone differences—is able to catch up asynchronously. It’s also important for team members who were at the meeting to have a reference point later on: “Is this what we said the plan was?” “Didn’t someone ask me to do something by the end of the week?” Now you know.

  • Use a visual anchor for project meetings. Screen-sharing features allow everyone to look at the same roadmap, task tracker, or design brief at once. Having a meeting leader share screens allows everyone to view documents and keeps everyone on the same page. Similarly, tools like Google Docs and Notion use avatars to show who’s working in a given space at a given time, allowing participants a visual virtual presence as well, which can be helpful when collaborating on notes or a specific project during a meeting.

  • Make separate space for bonding. It’s helpful to create specific meetings and/or forums for non-work related chat, like remote company Hotjar’s bonfire meetings. Visit Remote Company Culture for more on the importance and practicalities of creating these spaces.

  • Use the cadence that works for your team. Project meetings might happen at least once a week; stand-ups are typically daily. You can always adjust by meeting more frequently at first, and reducing the frequency of meetings as the team becomes more effective. You needn’t be afraid to iterate and figure out the right meeting type and frequency for your team. (See Establish a Predictable Cadence for more detail on this.)

importantIdeally, you can also designate someone as a meeting facilitator, who ensures that everyone is being included in the discussion and can get their point across, whether they are in the conference room or not. Lara Hogan, leadership coach at Wherewithal, has written extensively about hosting better meetings and facilitating them. She makes an important distinction between leading a meeting and facilitating one:

When I’m facilitating, I’ve asked others beforehand to take other roles (note-taking, or presenting information, or something else), so I can focus on making sure that we’re staying on track and meeting the goals of the meeting. As a facilitator, it’s primarily my job to read signals from folks who are trying to get a word in and can’t, or looking disengaged, or something else. When I’m leading, I’m instead doing things like sharing information, or asking questions - more actively participating in the meat of the meeting.*

It took the CEO of fully distributed Zapier noted more than six attempts before they “finally found a meeting structure that drives meaningful discussion and visible results for the business.”

Remote Meeting Hygiene

One defining practice of effective remote teams is that they push as much synchronous communication to asynchronous channels as possible. This means limiting meetings to only the truly necessary. It’s important for remote teams to continually evaluate their meetings to assess whether they are effective and productive, and to track how those needs change over time. The worst meeting is the meeting that’s just there on everyone’s calendar every week that everyone hates and that has no clear purpose or useful outcome.

importantThis may seem obvious, but if you decide to cancel a meeting, it’s imperative to remove it from everyone’s calendar immediately! Otherwise people will wonder whether it’s still happening, and won’t be able to have certainty in planning their own schedules around it, leading to confusion and reduced productivity.

Should Everyone Join Remote Meetings Separately?

An emerging recommendation for teams with hybrid configurations is to have all in-office team members attend video meetings from their own desks as if they were remote as well. Trello uses this as a rule, for example; if one person is on a video call, then everyone is on a video call. This approach can work well for small teams or those that have few co-located employees, but it begins to break down with scale or as headquarters facilities reach their limits. Teams that share an open office impact their neighbors with noise if they take calls from their desks. Conversely, background noise in the office can also interfere with the audio in the meeting, making the experience bad for everyone.

Meetings should work for both employees who work from the office or remotely, but many recommendations focus on making remote experience better and ignore office workers. Going around the office chasing conference rooms from which to dial in, or being subjected to neighbors’ calls all day, aren’t great experiences either. Resentment in teams can develop when office workers don’t have access to the same flexibility to work, or have to make extra accommodations for peers who do.

importantMany of the difficulties in remote collaboration arise from trying to force in-person practices in a virtual environment, and vice-versa. Rather than making a blanket recommendation that ignores the context of your team, it’s best to focus on the challenges of hybrid meetings and solve them individually. Some of these challenges are:

  • Uneven participation. The asymmetry of hybrid meetings leads teams to adopt solutions like “everyone dials in” as an attempt to level the field for everyone. Remote attendees sometimes struggle to get a word in a meeting where most attendees are in the same office space. Interrupting remotely is uncomfortable, and difficult if there’s network lag, especially when co-located folks are talking over each other. When participating is difficult, remote attendees become observers rather than participants, making these meetings dreadful.

  • Poor audio/video quality. The quality of remote meetings is highly dependent on the quality of the equipment and tools used to host it. Conference rooms with poor acoustics, bad microphones, home offices subject to leaf-blower noise or loud coffee shops are all examples of poor environments for remote meetings. Companies sometimes ignore the actual cost of wasted time that can be mitigated by investing in good A/V setups in the office and for remote workers. When A/V setups aren’t great, asking everyone to dial in can make meetings worse.

  • Background chatter. As a remote worker, it’s quite an unpleasant experience to be in a meeting and be subjected to background discussions or jokes by colleagues who are in the same physical space. Not being included is isolating and frustrating. This also happens in hybrid or remote-only environments when you witness your other remote colleagues clearly distracted by chat messages or other interactions that aren’t related to the meeting. Mitigating this is much more challenging, because it requires that all attendees commit to focusing on the discussion at hand, and not disrupting the conversation.

Asking all meeting attendees to dial in can help level the playing field, as long as folks who are in an office have access to spaces where they won’t disrupt others. Solving this problem will depend on your local context, your office space, and access to good soundproofing or high-quality headsets that are optimized for phone calls. When facilities aren’t readily available, moderation and allyship in meetings can help mitigate the negative effects of uneven participation.

Allyship in Meetings

If facilitators aren’t feasible, or your organization doesn’t have explicit rules about hosting good meetings, raising awareness of allyship in meetings can still help even out participation between remote and in-office team members.

In the context of remote meetings, allyship requires office workers to use their position to open up spaces for remote participants who are operating in conditions that could negatively affect their ability to participate and be heard. Allyship usually requires a power or privilege differential; and allies can leverage that to bridge the disadvantage created by participants not being physically present.

In other words, office-based workers can support their remote colleagues by advocating for them in meetings when they can’t contribute because they’re not in the room.

story “As a distributed team member I often feel that I have a certain amount of ‘coworker nagging credit.’ How often can I ask people to speak louder, move closer to the mic or stop tapping on the table before they get annoyed at the situation and therefore indirectly at me? How long should I wait before calling a teammate to check if everyone is late or if I am in the wrong video call? What should I do when I’m trying to share my thoughts with the team but they seem to ignore me? Maybe they can’t hear me or maybe they don’t care about what I have to say? It doesn’t matter what my title or role is, when I’m not physically with a team which is meeting in person, it’s hard to not feel like I am bothering them. So it’s an amazing feeling when someone in the physical room is checking with me. By doing that (especially when done privately), they acknowledge that I am not a burden, that they care about my situation, and also that they can and will do their best to fix the situation if needed. Finding a moment to jump into the conversation can be hard if the rest of the team is excited, loud, and doesn’t leave breathing room for me to be heard. Having someone notice that I might want to share something or haven’t said anything in a while and have them acknowledge my presence and ask if I want to share with the group is very empowering. Being an advocate for remote coworkers boils down to two things for me. It helps me feel that I am not a burden to the team, and ensures that I feel included and valued like everyone else in the meeting.” — Matt Aimonetti, co-founder, Splice

Some tactics that allies can use are:

  • Watching for remote workers’ facial expressions that may indicate they want to participate, and open space in the meeting for them to do so. If there’s a shared group chat, privately confirming if they indeed have the desire to participate can prevent putting people on the spot publicly.

  • Letting remote participants know that you can interrupt on their behalf if they send you an instant message. Agreeing on a hand gesture system, like app studi Infinite Red does, also can make the meeting experience better. Tools like Zoom have non-verbal feedback features for meetings, too.

  • In cases where meeting attendees are uncomfortable participating, allies can offer to ask questions on their behalf.

  • If background chatter or discussions happen in the conference room, allies can ask folks not to engage in this behavior or can amplify any important messages.

  • Inquiring if the audio quality in the room is good, and moving the microphone closer to the interlocutor if needed, to improve everyone’s experience.

  • Creating a shared document to write any items that pop up on a whiteboard, or even sharing pictures or their own laptop’s camera when the whiteboard is being used. Snapping a few photos of any drawn artifacts to share on the team’s group chat is also helpful.

  • If you’re in an all-hands or other large group meeting, it helps to remind folks to ask questions using a microphone, or to ask hosts to repeat questions before they answer, so that remote attendees don’t miss the context. If interrupting is difficult, and there’s a shared chat, you may consider typing the question in a channel instead.

importantThe tactics above are useful during a meeting, but sometimes people can’t attend meetings. In this case, ensuring that the meeting is recorded and distributed for absent members can be helpful for both remote and co-located folks.

There is likely a point where even allyship in remote meetings breaks down, notably if you have a lot of people in the same room and a lot of people dialed in. But if you have a meeting with more than about 8 people, you’d be better off questioning the nature and purpose of that meeting; having 12 or more people all talking over each other on separate Zoom screens is rarely productive.

Video Calls, Hardware, and Conference Rooms for Remote Meetings

When it comes to A/V setups there’s no one-size-fits-all configuration that’s best for remote teams—your setup depends on whether your team is fully distributed or has a hybrid configuration.

Remote meetings via video should be stable, reliable, accessible, and not get in the way of getting work done. Video calls will be as good as the tools you invest in, including video conferencing software, hardware like cameras and microphones, and physical spaces like home offices, conference rooms, or meeting booths. When it comes to software, Wirecutter recommends Zoom as the best video-conferencing service after comparing 19 different options (it’s what we use at Holloway as well). Hardware and physical spaces are trickier, and will depend on the size of your organization, budget and needs.

If you have a fully distributed organization, individual needs are what matter. In this case, it’s important that all employees have access to a good camera, lighting, headset or microphone, and high-speed internet. Scott Hanselman, a software engineer at Microsoft, wrote about his quest to find the ultimate remote-worker webcam setup on a budget, and Wirecutter also has a guide for video meeting hardware.

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