Meetings are a challenge for any kind of business. You have to set them up, use communication systems that work for everyone, stick to the agenda, and hope they’ll be fruitful.
Meetings can be even less productive when you’re working with remote employees. But still, they have to happen from time to time if you want to get things done.
I’ve had the privilege of working with remote employees from over 10 different countries in the last few years – all in different time zones and all with different aspirations, cultures, quirks and agendas.
So let’s take a look at the key things I’ve learnt from this experience that will help you conduct a meeting effectively, regardless of where your team lives.
Create communication rules
If you’re managing a remote team, you’ve probably been in this situation before:
- You’re about to start a new project
- You need to communicate and give instructions to multiple remote employees about the roles they will play in executing that project
In this scenario, you may feel like it would be easiest just to get them all on a call, right?
Maybe, maybe not. The call itself might only take 20 minutes, but the effort that goes into setting it up is huge. You have to schedule the call to coincide with everyones time zones, decide how you’ll communicate, potentially deal with everyone’s internet connectivity issues and the rest. Then when you get to the call, you realize you only had a few words to say to each worker before hanging up.
In this scenario, sending a few brief emails would have saved you and everyone else a lot of time and effort.
There are tons of different ways to communicate with remote teams today. As the leader, it’s your job to decide: What should be kept to email? Skype? Basecamp? Slack? [Insert Tool Here]?
If you think it will be difficult to communicate about a certain topic on one of your usual platforms, then ask yourself: Is it important enough to be on a meeting agenda?
Just because it will take you some time to communicate something through another medium doesn’t necessarily mean setting up a meeting is a better option. You could also opt to shelf the topic until you have a list of several different things you want to speak to your team about. Then schedule one meeting to tackle them all.
Don’t skimp on your preparation
If you do decide a meeting is the best way to tackle a topic, now you have your work cut out for you. It’s your job to prepare in advance and ensure the meeting is productive for everyone.
You’ll need to:
- Decide who should attend
The more people you invite to a meeting, the more difficult it will become to schedule it in the first place. And if you’re doing a conference call, not everyone can talk at once.
Add too many people to the discussion, and some will be left in the background instead of participating.
Try to limit your number of attendees to key decision makers or employees directly involved in the project. This will help your meeting stay on-task.
Using a calendar scheduling app is a must for this task. The last thing you want is a string of 25 reply-all emails discussing a time to talk.
There are plenty of popular scheduling tools out there that make it easy to setup a remote meeting with several attendees:
If your team lives around the world, I recommend choosing a tool that will automatically translate the meeting times into each person’s local timezone. My choice is ScheduleOnce.
- Do your research and inform your attendees
Next, you’ll need to do your research for the topics on the agenda.
Figure out what you want to discuss and identify any supporting documents that will be helpful for the meeting. You should provide all of this information to your attendees well in advance, so they have time to read the material and prepare.
One of the biggest challenges of conducting a meeting with remote workers is keeping them engaged, especially if some of your meeting attendees are in the same physical place.
You’ll usually find that the people that are physically together are leading the discussion while the remote participants listen quietly in the background.
This issue makes sense, especially since 80% of communication comes from body language:
It takes a little bit more setup time, but if possible you should opt for video over voice calls, so that everyone can participate and you can get the most out of your time.
Use Skype, Zoom, or another video conferencing tool to personalize the call and communicate like a face-to-face meeting.
Not everyone feels comfortable with video calls all the time, so it’s up to you to create a supportive environment for your employees and contractors.
You will likely get more buy-in for a video call if you assure your remote workers that everyone can attend the meeting in their pyjamas, in their living room, or with a pet in their lap. At-home workers love this kind of freedom in their schedule and you should cater to it, while still promoting better communication with video.
Kickstart the meeting with purpose
Work meetings aren’t necessarily the place to catch up with your remote workers. You can use Facebook Messenger to chat about more social things some other time.
So after reconnecting and building some initial rapport, you should kickstart the meeting by discussing its purpose. That will get everyone’s mind in the right place.
Start the meeting on the front foot by answering these three questions:
- Why is this meeting going ahead?
- What outcomes do you want to achieve?
- What key questions do you need answered?
If the conversation ever starts to stray in an unproductive direction, you can always steer it back to these 3 points. This increases the chances you’ll actually achieve your meeting’s goals in the time allotted.
Focus on the important stuff in the meeting
As part of your preparation for the meeting, you already researched what you’ll discuss and distributed this information to the attendees.
Assume they have read this material and are prepared. Don’t waste time on explaining the information during the meeting, this is what the preparation is for. You’ll be punishing the people who actually prepared in advance.
Instead, use the meeting to discuss the implications of this information and come to a decision on the topic so you can move forward. Simply go through a brief overview of the three points discussed above, but don’t go into detail. Of course, welcome attendees to ask questions if they’re confused or need more information.
The more time you can spend on the important stuff, and not on “getting everyone up to speed”, the more effective your meetings will be.
Let others speak
Just because you called the meeting, doesn’t mean you need to be the one doing all of the talking.
You should ask questions and let others speak… it’s not a soapbox. Make them feel important and give them the responsibility to make decisions for themselves. If you didn’t need their input, you probably shouldn’t have called a meeting in the first place.
Make an effort to ensure each of your attendees appears on your big screen at least once. No one should be invited to a meeting just to listen and not contribute.
Confirm commitments and next steps
At the end of your meeting, you should always confirm what the next steps are for everyone so they can continue to be productive.
Even if you didn’t ultimately resolve the issue, people should be prepared to take the next steps to continue tackling it after the meeting.
The best way to do this is to address each attendee individually (briefly) to agree on what they will do next on the issue.
Ask for verbal agreement that everyone is happy with the next steps and their roles in what needs to happen. This habit is a great way to reinforce what each attendee needs to do next, remind yourself of the key outcomes that have come from the meeting, and create a sense of group accountability for execution.
Always finish on time
Setting up a remote meeting can be a challenge, but that doesn’t mean you should hold people indefinitely until you achieve your meeting’s goals.
No one particularly wants to sign up for a meeting that starts at 2PM and runs indefinitely. Be respectful of people’s time and other commitments. Have a clear start and end time to your meeting and stick to it.
This is easy enough to do if you add the event into your computer’s calendar with a clear start and end time:
Then you’ll see a notification pop up when your meeting should be adjourned. If you use the right scheduling app, it will do this automatically for you.
Don’t forget the follow up
One of the biggest pitfalls of any meeting is forgetting to follow up. It’s easy for people to engage face-to-face or over the phone, agree to their commitments, and walk away feeling great about the meeting that has just happened.
But what makes sure that the next steps will actually get done?
After your meeting, send a follow up email to all attendees with the following:
- A thank you message for them attending
- A brief overview of the key points discussed in the meeting
- A summary of the agreed commitments, next steps and estimated deadlines
This simple email is a great way to reinforce what needs to happen next and ensure it gets done. It also creates a common understanding for everyone involved about who is accountable.
When you have remote workers, you can easily go months without discussing anything on the phone or face-to-face. Task management and messaging tools have made it so easy to communicate and get things done without meetings.
But you’ll still need to conduct a real-time meeting from time to time. If you want to make it worth the effort for you and everyone else who attends, then remember to:
- Only invite key players
- Use helpful scheduling tools
- Prepare and inform your team about the topics in advance
- Stay on topic
- Let everyone contribute
- Confirm the next steps
- End your meeting on time
- Follow up with everyone via email
This will ensure your meetings are always easy to schedule, productive, and your attendees are happy with the outcomes.
What tips do you have for running effective meetings with a remote team?