7 steps to more productive remote meetings

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Close collaboration in a physically distant world

Since the national lockdown as a result of the coronavirus crisis, many entrepreneurs have needed to adjust to new ways of living and working. Even with the relaxation of some of the more stringent lockdown measures, most people continue to avoid face to face meetings. Though few of us miss the traffic and commuting, the reality is that the remote meetings that now fill our diaries are often not as productive and useful as we’d like them to be.

While Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and other tools make it easy to connect online, virtual meetings can be chaotic in the absence of the protocols and body language cues we are used to in face to face meetings. Here are a few ways that you can make remote meetings more efficient and effective.

  1. Think about whether a meeting is even necessary at all.
  2. Set an agenda for the meeting.
  3. Start and end on time.
  4. Set the ground rules for the call. 
  5. Consider recording the meeting.
  6. For meetings with bigger groups, appoint a moderator. 
  7. End with a recap and a summary of the next steps.

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1. Think about whether a meeting is even necessary at all

Many people in business find that they spend so much time in boring and unnecessary meetings that they don’t get around to other things they need to do. The only way this has really changed in the pandemic is that the face to face meetings have been replaced with endless requests for voice and video calls. And perhaps that’s understandable because working from home can be lonely if you’re used to the bustle of an office.

However, time is precious and it’s wise to ensure that any meetings you want to host will deliver value for all the participants. Some of the questions to ask before you request a remote meeting include:

  • Have I completed the groundwork for the meeting?
  • Do I need feedback to progress with the task I’m completing for my colleague or client?
  • Would it be more effective to gather this input in a real-time conversation than via messaging or email?
  • Do I have clear, achievable objectives for the meeting?
  • Is the meeting a respectful use of the other attendees’ time?

There is, of course, nothing wrong with setting a time for a virtual drinks or coffee meeting where there is no agenda besides an informal chat, provided you set clear expectations with the other attendees.

2. Set an agenda for the meeting

Preparation is the key to getting the best possible results from any face to face or virtual meeting. It’s helpful to draw up an agenda for the call or videoconference and to share it with the other people invited ahead of time. This helps everyone to prepare for the meeting; if someone feels they are not the right person to take part, they can refer you to a colleague instead.

Your agenda could include a list of everyone expected to participate, and their roles; the topics for discussion and the time slots allocated to them; preparation work attendees will need to do for the meeting; and the expected outcomes. It usually works better to keep virtual meetings relatively short and directed—it’s difficult to keep attendees focused for longer than 60 minutes, and 20-30 minutes is often enough time.

3. Start and end on time

When it comes to larger meetings, getting everyone into the virtual meeting room at the same time can be a bit like herding cats. Those that arrived on time will invariably sit waiting for five or 10 minutes while someone tries to ping the colleague who has not pitched up. Where possible, it makes sense to get going with discussing the work with the people who are already there. And unless the meeting is about something truly urgent or you are genuinely near a break-through in the discussion, the scheduled end-time should be treated as a hard-stop.

4. Set the ground rules for the call 

In the opening minutes of the meeting, it can be helpful to set out the basic protocols you’d like everyone to follow. If you’re the host and you’re presenting, you can let attendees know whether you’d like them to use the raise hand function or the chat window to ask questions and indicate whether you’ll answer questions during or after the presentation. It’s also important to discuss mute protocol (generally, everyone besides the presenter should mute in large meetings) and whether you’ll use video or just voice for the call. Given that many of us are still working from home with lockdown hair and in our informal clothes, people will appreciate a heads-up ahead of time if you’re hosting a video call.

5. Consider recording the meeting

Most collaboration platforms allow you to record voice and video from your meeting, which can be useful for sharing with people who couldn’t attend and for keeping a record of important information that emerged from the call. If you take note of the times when important topics were discussed, you can easily fast-forward to the right place in the recording when you need to refer to the info.

6. For meetings with bigger groups, appoint a moderator

Once there are more than three or four people in a remote meeting, you’ll generally need a facilitator to keep everything on track and to ensure that quieter members of the group get a chance to speak. The facilitator’s job includes managing the agenda, ensuring everyone gets a chance to provide their input, and keeping the meeting on topic.

7. End with a recap and a summary of the next steps

The last two to five minutes of the meeting should focus on a recap of the discussion and the next steps each member of the group should take. If you led the meeting, you can follow up after the call with a summary of the agreed action steps and any supporting documents people may need to do their tasks.

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