This section was written by Juan Pablo Buriticá.
When meetings are the norm—the first resort; the go-to tool to discuss, debate, and solve every problem—they no longer work. Meetings should be like salt—a spice sprinkled carefully to enhance a dish, not poured recklessly over every forkful. Too much salt destroys a dish. Too many meetings destroy morale and motivation.Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO, Basecamp*
in distributed teams is expensive. Getting people together comes at the cost of attention at scale. As Basecamp CEO Jason Fried says, if you’re in a room with five people for an hour, it’s a five-hour meeting. For this reason, distributed teams should strive to rely on meetings only when the outcome warrants it.
Being in the of others has a place in collaboration. When we meet, we get access to such unique collaboration properties as:
Speed. By being in the same time and space, virtually or otherwise, we can collaborate in real-time. Questions can be answered quickly and information can be shared instantly.
Emotional content. When we’re in theof others, we gain access to additional information we may not otherwise get from asynchronous media. , facial expressions, and gesticulations can amplify the message that is being shared.
Improvisation. Quickly sharing ideas and discussing in theof others can spark ideas and inspire others in a way that collaborative documents or emails don’t. Jazz happens in the moment.
When a situation arises that can benefit from these properties, it’s time for distributed teams to consider having a meeting, depending of course on the time zone availability of different team members. In most cases, teams will consider asynchronous methods first.
importantAnd remember that although the purpose of most meetings is to make decisions, not all decisions need to be made in meetings.
The following are some examples of situations where distributed teams will want to consider using meetings over other collaboration methods:
Resolving conflict. When conflict between two or more people arises, meetings can bring about faster, more agreeable resolutions than asynchronous attempts. When resolving conflicts, being able to witness guide on handling disagreement can help in situations of conflict (also see Managing Conflict in Remote Teams).and body language can be crucial to understanding someone’s emotional state, and the faster back-and-forth allows more perspectives on the issue to be shared. It’s easier to ask questions in real-time, which allows both sides to demonstrate empathy and their desire to reach agreement. This
Solving problems and brainstorming. Getting together in real-time to brainstorm has been found to help the generation of ideas. Before coming together to solve a problem, you may want to consider that letting individuals come up with ideas alone first can produce better results.
Learning and introspection. Spending time together in a live meeting can be beneficial when you need to evaluate quarterly results or the way the last work cycle went. Running retrospectives synchronously can help teams reflect on the work done and determine how they can use that knowledge to move forward.
Planning. A plan is a collection of decisions that outline how a team or organization expects to execute. Converging on a final agreement that outlines the next step to take can happen faster during planning meetings, where alternating modes of command, consult, and consensus can happen at high frequency.
Emergencies. A team responding to a site outage or other kind of emergency can stay in sync faster if they’re on a call rather than monitoring email or chat, because real-time information exchange flows faster and allows people to evaluate data on the fly.
Making decisions. When all asynchronous collaboration methods fail to drive to an outcome in the decision-making process, you may need to hold a meeting to decide. Your company’s decision-making philosophy and approach largely dictates why and when—with what cadence—you do need to get together synchronously; this does not always need to be in person. When you do meet to decide, a clear decision-making process will help you reach an outcome.
For an organization that values focus and understands the cost of being present, defining when not to meet can be even more important than when to do it. Some examples of when meeting may not be necessary include:
Providing status updates. Inquiring if projects or objectives are on track shouldn’t require theof team members. The organization can instead adopt an “on track” default method, and build a reaction process for when this stops being the case. Using dashboards and regular status reports over email or other mediums can help make the organization observable, without requiring people’s presence to understand the status of work.
Because it’s scheduled. A meeting being on the team’s calendar isn’t sufficient enough reason for everyone to accept an interruption, or to stay late/work early if they’re outside of a time zone overlap. If the meeting doesn’t have a purpose, an agenda or explicit outcomes, we recommend you not hold it.
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, 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, 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 virtualas 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 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.)that works for your team. Project meetings might happen at least once a week; are typically daily. You can always adjust by meeting more frequently at first, and
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.”
One defining practice of effective remote teams is that they push as much 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.
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 in meetings can help mitigate the negative effects of uneven participation.
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 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,can offer to ask questions on their behalf.
If background chatter or discussions happen in the conference room,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.
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 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. 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
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.
Remote employees who have a dedicated home office with a door that can protect them from home life, can choose between having a microphone or a headset, depending on how likely it is that background noise will impact the calls they attend. When background noise can be an issue, using a headset optimized for calls (not music) like the Plantronics Voyager will make the experience for both parties much better. If headsets aren’t feasible, you can also consider using noise-canceling software like Krisp. (See more detail on home-office setup in Setting up Your Remote Office.)
importantRemote companies will want to plan for some form of stipend or other way of reimbursing employees for any necessary equipment or other supplies they need to work from home. In some states, this is legally mandated.
Most companies are not fully distributed; in these cases, what companies need to consider is a configuration that works for both co-located and remote workers. Stack Exchange wrote about their challenges creating a space for a 50% distributed team in 2015. With the rise of open offices, HQ employees find themselves scrambling for conference rooms to meet and remote workers play “conference call bingo” while the meeting starts.
When you are considering conference room and remote setups, focus on creating the best possible environment for synchronous collaboration. Can people hear each other well? Can they see everyone’s facial expressions? Is all information equally accessible to everyone who will participate in the meeting, either in the office or remotely?
cautionTrying to cut costs in your hardware and conference rooms will impact your hybrid teams’ productivity and workplace experience. Five minutes spent fighting with hardware on a five-person meeting translates to almost half an hour of wasted time and for distributed teams, the A/V setup becomes the equivalent of a physical office, so it’s worth giving it an equal amount of attention.
importantIf you use Zoom as your video conferencing provider, you should consider enabling Zoom Rooms for your conference rooms, which makes it easier to book conference rooms with Zoom links, join Zoom meetings, and share screens with anyone in the meeting. Zoom also provides a thorough hardware guide that is compatible with their setup and may also work with other software providers.
To make any conference room work well for video conferencing and synchronous collaboration, consider investing in the following.
Your conference room should have a camera that allows remote participants to see everyone clearly. Instead of mounting it on top of the display, consider mounting it under the displays so when meeting participants look at the display screen, remote participants experience eye-level contact instead of a sense of looking down at the room. Wide-angle cameras allow you to capture the entire room, and some have variable zoom. Ultimately, the size of the room will determine what kind of camera you should get and you may want to try a few and get a remote worker to give you their perspective on placement and video quality.
There are some 360° cameras available in the market (for example, Owl Labs and Kandao), but—at least at Splice—we found that people would rather look at the display screen when someone was talking or there was a presentation displayed instead of the camera, making it a worse experience for remote workers because it seemed like everyone was looking away from the camera. At the very least, be prepared to experiment a bit and figure out what works for everyone on your team.
For collaboration with remote individuals, consider having two displays—one where you can see people’s faces and another one for presentations and screen sharing. Before you add dual displays, be sure to examine if your video conferencing software and hardware support it. Chromebox for meetings supports dual monitors, and Zoom Rooms also supports multiple displays with different configurations.
Small and medium rooms can get away with integrated microphones and speakers like the HDL300 system. Larger spaces for training or all-hands meetings may need professional-grade speakers which can be ceiling-mounted and calibrated for the space.
importantSound is complicated, and we recommend that anything beyond a small conference room is set up by professionals, or you’ll end up paying for it in team productivity.
Just like with speakers, small rooms can get away with integrated mic/speaker setups that are high quality. Microphones should be omnidirectional, meaning they can pick up audio with equal gain from all directions. Podcast and studio microphones are not the best choice for conference rooms, or you’ll find yourself having to move the microphone depending on who is speaking. Depending on the ambient noise and acoustics of the room, sensitive microphones can provide a degraded experience for remote employees by picking up background noise. MXL microphones are professional grade and specifically designed for meetings.
The distributed Splice engineering team are big fans of The Catch Box, which isolates background noise in shared conference rooms, and ensures people can’t talk out of turn. It isolates background noise when there are chatty folks in the NYC conference rooms, and also ensures that people can’t talk out of turn. Whoever is in possession of the cube has the word. It was also very useful during all-hands meetings to ensure questions were heard by remote and in-person participants equally.
Acoustic treatment for conference rooms is the ultimate upgrade for distributed team experience. By treating room surfaces with different materials, the diffusion and absorption of sound of the spaces is improved, resulting in better sound capture for microphones and improved participation for remote workers when they’re easier to listen to as well. If you’re interested in room acoustics, here’s a thorough room acoustics guide.
importantPhysics are complicated, and you may do more damage to the acoustics of a room by going DIY, so consider hiring a professional for this as well.
Rooms designed for remote collaboration should consider the camera and display placement. Tables with a triangle-like shape are better than rectangular tables because they allow for everyone’s face to be exposed to the camera. Circular tables aren’t ideal, since someone may end up with their back facing the camera, leading to a poor experience on the other end of the call.
Remote work breaks down when we try to mirror physical processes in the virtual world. Instead of trying to skeuomorph our way into collaboration, we should focus on the outcomes of any process we use and find alternatives that can help us achieve these outcomes.
Whiteboarding is the process of drawing on a whiteboard on a wall (typically with dry-erase markers) in order to visualize ideas or concepts. It can be used to demonstrate or explain something to other people, or more collaboratively as a tool for brainstorming and coming up with new ideas.
Notably, we call this technique “whiteboarding” because it’s rooted in a physical process that is simple and easy for almost anyone to use. When trying to show someone a complex or hard-to-follow idea or process, our natural instinct has long been to grab a writing instrument and say, “Let me show you…”
It’s effective because it combines all the benefits of in-person interaction—such as facial and emotional cues and rapid and collaborative discussion—with visual information that is easily updated, deepened, and improved. A quick in-person whiteboarding session can help map out an operational process, diagram a technical architecture, or explore pricing and packing ideas. For in-person interaction, whiteboarding is an amazing Swiss Army knife.
importantBut, in-person whiteboarding lacks one thing that remote work is increasingly skilled at creating: an asynchronous . A physical whiteboard is designed to be easily erased, and usually is—on purpose or accidentally. If you want to iterate further on some whiteboard idea, you have to take a picture and recreate it somehow online, or draw it on the board again later on. There is a better way.
Many early approaches to for remote teams amounted to ways to share one person’s actual whiteboard (or the whiteboard in a conference room) with others via another screen. This approach is tantamount to sending around the picture of a whiteboard. In an unsophisticated remote setup, the office employees will work on the physical whiteboard, take a picture, and circulate it to the remote workers in chat, where they can’t actually contribute to it, and it’s often hard to read. When operating in in a distributed environment, it helps to (metaphorically) throw the physical whiteboard out the window and start over.
In general, we’ve largely conflated with brainstorming. So let’s focus on brainstorming instead, and start from first principles. You’ll want to ask yourself these questions when you have the itch to whiteboard something:
What are you trying to achieve?
Who needs to be involved?
What information do you need?
How could you most easily represent, alter, or adjust that information?
What do you want to do with it once you’re done?
When it comes to brainstorming, fully distributed teams have one advantage in that everyone is forced to use a digital tool. For example, while a marketing team might use sticky notes on a whiteboard to generate ideas for social media campaigns, what they’re doing is collecting a set of ideas that can be easily moved around, grouped, and categorized during brainstorming. In that case, a remote team might choose a collaborative project management tool that supports kanban-board functionality that many teams are already familiar with, such as Trello.
Sometimes, you simply need to get some really basic ideas down first for people to react to, which you might do in a collaborative document like Google Docs, Dropbox Paper, or Notion, which makes it even easier to move content around in chunks. A team meeting to brainstorm can all be in the doc or tool at the same time, working together to adjust and iterate.
importantRemote brainstorming requires an even greater focus on in meetings. The person running the meeting should ensure everyone gets a chance to speak, ask questions, and contribute. It may help to assign one person as facilitator to be responsible for ensuring that the end result reflects everyone’s ideas and input.
The output of an initial session might then move into a different tool where you can better visualize or draw ideas if needed, such as tools like Miro or Mural that take some of the physical principles of whiteboards and virtualize them. Modern design tools like Figma or Sketch with Abstract also make distributed design collaboration much more effective by treating design iterations like ’branches’ similar to software. This allows multiple people contribute and keep track of current state and past iterations.
Even with tools like Miro or Mural, there are cost and experience implications for how remote brainstorming might work for an entire team. These tools work best when people have physical equipment like iPads plus Apple Pencil or a Jamboard (which can be remarkably expensive), and you’ll want to consider whether it’s worth the investment to ensure your entire team is equipped to participate equally in brainstorming activities.
The clear upside to remote brainstorming is that each step of the way, you’ll have an asynchronous that you can share easily and as widely as needed.
importantWhile we can’t cover all the ins and outs of brainstorming techniques here, one key tactic that is important and likely intuitive to experienced remote teams, is to have people brainstorm individually first before you get together as a group. Research shows that asking people to brainstorm individually before the group gets together generates more unique ideas than brainstorming as a group first.* In groups, people are subject to and might converge on one idea too quickly without healthy debate.
“How We Overcome Location Bias When Brainstorming With Remote Teams” (SuperAwesome)
“Remote Whiteboarding” (Medium)
”6 Types of Meetings That Are Actually Worthwhile” (Atlassian)
“How to Stop Wasting Your Time—and Everyone Else’s—in Meetings” (The Economist)
“How to Make Meetings Less Terrible (Ep. 389)” (Freakonomics)
“How to Run an Effective Meeting” (The New York Times)
“Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration” (Harvard Business Review)
“Group Conversations” (GitLab)