Today, more than ever, companies are shifting to remote working on a big scale. However, remote working can disrupt how organisations operate. Major issues reach from technical readiness to impacts on company culture, and productivity. How can remote teams collaborate in an effective way?
As the switch to remote working is being made swiftly in the face of current events, there are many companies and workers who lack the needed experience in how to best manage remote teams. In fact, 60% of Europeans had not worked a single day from home office in 2018, according to the OECD.
At Sherpany, we have long-lasting expertise in helping leaders become more agile through mobile meeting management. And working for Sherpany means for us that we all have the possibility to work at least one day per week from our home. Remote working is in our DNA. Now, in these uncertain times, we want to share our expertise. This article shows how to run effective virtual meetings in times of increased remote working.
A remote meeting clearly has its particular challenges when compared to a traditional, in-person office meeting. Here are three of these challenges:
Skype, Slack, Hangouts, and Zoom are just a few examples of virtual meeting technologies. When assessing potential online meeting tools, make sure they offer video and audio, screen-sharing, and possibly recording, so that you can make your remote meeting available to everyone if needed.
Being physically together in the same room might make effective collaboration and communication easier. Small talk at the beginning of a meeting can be an icebreaker and seeing nonverbal cues can prevent misunderstandings. In a virtual meeting, how can you ensure a group is communicating effectively? A key to remote meetings is to ensure open collaboration and psychological safety. People have to feel safe to speak up and share their opinions, which favours also the quality of your decision making.
People in virtual meetings tend to feel less accountable for meeting outcomes. After all, you can hide your multitasking much easier than in an in-person meeting and virtual meeting participants are generally less involved. This is why we encourage people to share their webcam, so they feel more involved and accountable. Beyond that, a well-crafted meeting agenda with clear goals helps people focus on what should be achieved in the remote meeting.
Despite a few particular challenges of remote meetings, we argue that location is not a key differentiator for meeting effectiveness. So when you doubt about the value of your virtual meetings, the real issue is most likely how you manage your meetings all-together – no matter if in-office or virtual. In fact, unproductive meetings are a huge problem in today’s corporate world. Generally, people are spending too much time in bad meetings. This has huge consequences: An unproductive meeting culture leads to slow decisions, negatively affects employee well-being, and ultimately causes enormous costs.
But meetings matter: they have the potential to increase employee engagement, coordination, innovation, productivity, and teamwork, all contributing factors to an organisation's agility that is needed in our unpredictable business world. Certain factors of meetings are especially important for remote working teams. As their members have no in-person engagement, they rely even more on good team meetings that create a sense of belonging and increase coordination. Without good meetings, inexperienced remote workers may feel personally and professionally isolated and demotivated.
The good news is that meetings can be improved. While most of the following tips apply both to in-office and remote meetings, we also include specific best practices for virtual meetings. This article has its focus on formal meetings, which are characterised by their structured approach and their objective-driven focus (e.g. on decision making). Follow this step-by-step guide to find out how to run effective virtual meetings. It follows the three main phases of meeting management: pre-meeting, meeting, and post-meeting.
Ask yourself: To meet or not to meet?
There are certain key questions you should ask yourself prior to scheduling the next meeting. A central one is if a group meeting is actually necessary. Virtual meetings, in particular, are scheduled with one click and have no direct costs associated. Unfortunately, ‘meeting by default’ – the fact that many meetings are scheduled without further considerations – is a contributing factor to an unproductive meeting culture.
This is why you should think strategically and identify the next necessary steps to proceed with your project. Consider that meetings are not the only instrument available to move a topic forward. Today, technology allows us to work and collaborate in a more dynamic way that takes less of our coworkers’ time.
Create an agenda for your virtual team meeting
A clear agenda is the most important factor for meeting effectiveness. Break your meeting agenda into stand-alone items that each have clear goals. Defining concrete agenda items and allocating a time to them allows you to plan the meeting deliberately. Clear goals set a precise direction for the entire meeting process and foster a focus on achieving these goals. Keeping the focus is particularly challenging in remote meetings, so make sure to have a clear agenda for every virtual meeting.
Assign meeting participants and roles
Assign for each item on the agenda an item owner who is in charge. This person identifies the most relevant contributors and decision-makers. The idea is that participants are only involved in the agenda items to which they can meaningfully contribute. As a result, people waste less time in meetings and the virtual meeting itself becomes more fruitful and dynamic. Meeting science shows that meetings with less participants tend to be more productive.
These specific meeting roles can or should – depending on the type of meeting – be assigned:
Agree on virtual meeting ground rules
To have a productive meeting, participants need to follow certain meeting ground rules. Although many of them are common sense, it makes sense to define them before the meeting and share them with everyone. The meeting etiquette lays the ground for how you manage the virtual meeting space and how the team is expected to collaborate.
Here are the ten virtual meeting ground rules you can use to build your team’s guidelines:
Gather all the relevant meeting information and background materials in advance and share them with all meeting attendees. Communicate how the participants are expected to prepare, including distributed tasks with clear deadlines. Make sure you arrive well-prepared to the meeting and that you make personal annotations on the meeting documents. Thorough preparation increases the chances of an effective virtual meeting.
Move items forward before the meeting
Use technology to asynchronously engage with your peers on agenda items. Ask for clarification on the agenda and pre-discuss controversial topics with the adequate participants. By moving topics forward already before the remote meeting starts, your team reaches a shared understanding of agenda topics and the most important challenges to tackle. This allows you to focus better on the most pressing issues that need the team’s full virtual presence during the meeting.
Virtual meeting ice breakers: Make attendees feel comfortable
When working in the same office, team members have informal conversations, which increases their feeling of trust and their openness. Thus, attendees are more likely to feel comfortable and share their opinions in meetings – even on controversial topics. Unfortunately, remote working teams do not have this opportunity. So what can you do?
Be proactive and create opportunities to make people feel comfortable communicating with each other. Take a few minutes (and reserve this time in the agenda) at the beginning of your virtual meeting to get the team closer. You can either have every team member briefly talk about their professional and/or personal lives, small talk, or have someone ask a funny question to everyone. You will soon get a feeling for what works best for your team. Also, remind participants of previously agreed virtual meeting ground rules.
Engage people and ensure fruitful virtual collaboration
Keeping participants engaged and ensuring fruitful collaboration is a particularly tough challenge in remote meetings. So, how can you increase buy-in from virtual meeting participants? Actively ask a specific person a particular question and proactively call on people to share their opinion. This active and addressed communication has three main advantages in virtual meetings:
For fruitful collaboration to take place, signal with your hand or say ‘question’ or ‘comment’ before making your input. Also, make enough pauses and do not speak too quickly.
Another tactic to get people engaged is to give them different jobs and rotate regularly: minute writer, time taker, organiser of the introduction round, or a guardian of the ground rules who intervenes if they are being disregarded. Be creative. The more participants interact with each other, the better will your meeting productivity be. You want to avoid passive listeners in your virtual team meeting.
Keep a focus on achieving your meeting goals
Stick to the agenda and always keep the focus on previously-set meeting goals. You have to find the right balance between accomplishing the agenda and ﬂexibly accommodating questions, concerns, and side notes as they arise. Intervene when too much time is spent on irrelevant issues and stop negative complaining cycles immediately.
Define action items and write minutes
Close every agenda point with the definition and allocation of clear action items.
|How to define and allocate clear action items|
|What?||We define a specific follow-up action to be taken|
|Who?||We assign a person who takes ownership to accomplish it|
|When?||We determine a deadline by when the action should be executed|
Write effective meeting minutes and include the defined action items in them.
Distribute the meeting minutes immediately
Publish – and approve if needed – the meeting minutes and the action items immediately after the meeting. Make them easily available for all people involved. Minutes increase the likelihood that attendees will honour decisions and agreements made during the meeting. Thus, the minutes are a primary tool for ensuring timely and successful follow-up actions.
Give feedback on meeting performance
Collect and give feedback on the meeting to create a foundation for continuous improvement of your remote meetings. What did go well? What could have been better? The information flows into regular meeting retrospectives, in which teams define focus points to improve their meetings until the next retrospective. Regularly evaluate your virtual meetings against the three dimensions of organisational productivity:
How can we increase trust and respect in our team?
Do we need training in how to run effective remote meetings?
Do we follow virtual meeting best practices?
How can we get continually better at how we manage our meetings?
How do we use technology in our meeting processes?
How can we exhaust the full potential of technology?
Remote working teams face particular challenges when it comes to ensuring effective collaboration. Successful meetings are therefore key. They not only improve team communication but also increase employee engagement and happiness. Seeing that more teams than ever are turning to remote working, more knowledge about how to run effective virtual meetings is needed. Fortunately, it is not rocket science. Follow the steps in this guide and bring your virtual meetings to the next level.