11 min read

Make (Remote) Meetings Work

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Tried-and-true strategies from a team that has worked remotely for years.

In case you missed it, there is a discussion happening over on LinkedIn News right now under the hashtag, #MakeMeetingsWork, that is well worth paying attention to. The central question of it is one you’ve probably struggled with yourself: How do we get the most out of our meetings? 

This was already a question that troubled corporate leaders for decades, before 2020 drove us all out of the board room and onto Zoom. As more and more companies investigate a future where they continue to stay remote at least part of the time, they have a whole slew of new challenges they must overcome in order to answer it. 

At PVM, we decided to go through some of the answers that respondents gave and pull out the most recurring and interesting pieces of advice that appeared. We’ve been a remote company since our founding a decade ago, so we have a pretty good idea of which parts deserved a spotlight. So, if you’re wondering how the discussion resonated with a company that really knows its stuff, feel free to consider the following your definitive roadmap for squeezing every drop of efficiency and creativity out of your remote meetings.  

1. Use a Tier System to Determine if a Meeting is Needed in the First Place 

Before scheduling any meeting, always ask yourself: Does this absolutely need to be a meeting? And if yes, is everyone I’m planning on inviting necessary for this? 

Keith Ferrazzi of the Greenlight Research Institute recommends assigning degrees of importance and urgency to any goals that might be achieved by a meeting and using the resulting tier system to guide a path forward.  

  • For low-urgency items, try other avenues first: phone calls, emails, instant messages, etc. Methods such as these should always be the first plan of attack.  
  • At the next level is the subject of this blog: remote meetings. Even when scheduling these, it’s important to be mindful of the value of your employees’ time. How many people really need to be there? Will you get a better ROI if you let them work on their regular tasks instead? This is not to say that you should neglect to invite people to meetings where they can obviously glean value from regularly interacting with colleagues, but these days, you’re more likely to invite people to too many meetings rather than too few. It’s a good idea to curb this problem wherever you can. 
  • At the highest tier is the in-person meeting. By reserving this measure for goals of the highest importance, you create a culture whereby your employees know to really bring their A-game where it is needed the most.  

2. Prepare with an Agenda 

In 2008, Harvard and the World Health Organization recommended that surgeons add a very old-fashioned tool to their lineup: a checklist. Their research found that this simple method could reduce the risk of death by medical error by 40% or more.  

At the time, though, surgeons were slow to adopt the practice. Despite the well-documented evidence to the contrary, many insisted that they were already following all the steps that would appear on a checklist and didn’t need one to remember those steps. To some, such a simplistic approach felt juvenile and demeaning for someone who had worked so hard for their PhD; surely, they thought, if there was any group of people who had proven themselves too responsible to need a checklist, it was them. It took a lot of convincing to turn the tide on how this practice was viewed in the field.  

All of which is to say: a meeting agenda is not exactly a revolutionary idea, but you should treat it like one. Your company might be wildly successful, and your employees might be the most talented and hardworking in the field, but don’t let those achievements fool you into thinking that keeping up the basics is a waste of your time. A meeting agenda will force you to organize your thoughts before you get anyone else involved, and it shows respect to your meeting’s attendants by giving them plenty of time and information with which to prepare to offer their best insights during the meeting.  

Many, many respondents on the #MakeMeetingsWork thread mentioned not having enough time or enough information beforehand as a detriment to their own preparedness, and, by extension, their own productiveness. This is clearly a problem that is far too common considering it has such a simple and obvious solution: develop and send out that meeting agenda!  

3. Take Advantage of People’s Talents by Assigning Roles 

Who is the most organized person in the company? Who is has the best presentation skills? Who is the fastest typist? Aside from just the jobs that you hired them for, your employees bring a broad array of soft skills and personality types to the table; you would be remiss not to use this to your advantage by giving them roles in meetings that play to their strengths. Here are a few ideas of what we mean by roles. 

  • Presenter: There’s a good chance this one might be you. This is the person who is going to introduce and explain the purpose of the meeting at a high level, especially the emotional or narrative core of it. 
  • Discussion leader: Another more accurate title for this role might be “diplomat.” Let’s be honest; creatives and engineers often butt heads when trying to solve a tough problem through open discussion. To keep heads cool on the team, find someone calm and empathetic and put them in a position of power over the course of the conversation; this person will ensure that everyone feels heard and can collaborate effectively. 
  • Data person: There’s something special about a powerfully analytical mind. Companies have many valuable uses for this type of employee. But have you been applying their skill sets to your meetings? If you haven’t, you’re missing out. Collaborate with this person before the meeting to make sure that you have data that is both comprehensive and comprehensible for the team to work with. 
  • Note taker: Honestly, how much of a description does this one need? Have someone detail-oriented who types fast take notes during the meeting, organize them, and prepare a debrief to send to everyone after the fact.  
  • Chat moderator: A relatively new type of role given that it only applies to remote meetings, but one that has quickly become indispensable. If your meeting has a large group, and most people are going to spend most of the meeting muted, they’ll want to participate via the chat feature on a video streaming app. The chat moderator monitors the chat box to ensure that everyone is staying respectful, and can also collaborate with the Presenter or Discussion Leader to make sure that the questions and ideas of the group are being addressed. This role is ideal for someone with strong focus in potentially chaotic environments for long stretches of time. 

4. Open with Audience Participation 

When a stand-up comic walks out onto the stage, what’s the first thing they do? Before even the first joke, they probably exchange just a couple of words with the audience. It could be a quick one-on-one hello to someone in the front row, or it could be a bombastic callout of the name of the city where the show is happening for quick and easy cheers. Whatever it is, the comic never just stands there and tells jokes; they acknowledge that the audience is there, and that their presence is a part of the routine. This is no accident: people laugh more when they have a sense of togetherness, and that’s what the comic wants to foster first in order to make sure their jokes land. 

A lot of meeting leaders make the mistake of launching into preamble before they open the floor to discussion. But remember, most meetings are not—and shouldn’t be—just an info dump. You brought these people together because you want them to participate. If you want them to be maximally engaged from the first word, have them all answer a question first and then dive into the subject of the meeting.  

At PVM, we have a favorite question to open with, especially when there are new faces around: Who is your favorite superhero and why? At this point, the superhero genre is so timeless and so ubiquitous that everyone will have an answer, and chances are their answer is going to be relatable.  

Alternatively, Ferrazzi recommends what he calls a “sweet n sour.” This is where everyone talks about one good thing and one bad thing that is happening in their lives. This practice creates a safe space in the meeting, where people feel they can be vulnerable and build connection with each other, which is exactly the set of conditions that nurtures collaboration and creativity. 

5. Know Your Tools 

Teams, Zoom, and Google Hangouts are not perfect recreations of a board room, but they aren’t meant to be. These apps offer specific tools that can add order and depth to a meeting experience, and you should be familiarizing yourself with all of them and making the very most of them. Here are a few of the basics. 

  • Raised hand & chat: This was already discussed in the earlier section about the chat moderator, but it bears further description. The chat box is an excellent way for employees to silently put their questions and comments to the team without disrupting the current speaker; this is a massive advantage over in-person meetings, as no interesting thought need go unrecorded. For those who feel they need to articulate themselves verbally instead, there’s the raised hand button, and you should encourage your employees to use it liberally. 
  • Screensharing: Yes, yes, we all know to share our screens to give presentations. But how much are you using it for other valuable functions? Share your screen with a word document or paint app open to show the results of a brainstorm. Share your screen to show where in a code set your employees can find a particular bug to fix. Share your screen to show your employees how to share their screens in the meeting app. Why tell when you can show? 
  • Breakout rooms: Breaking people up into smaller groups is a woefully underutilized creative exercise. Teachers know well that breaking their students into groups can have massive advantages for the whole class. You probably remember many instances of this from your own education. It gets the introverts to take part, it gets the creative juices flowing, it forces students to talk to each other (and learn from each other) who might not have otherwise. It is a well-documented phenomenon that breaking large groups into smaller groups to take a crack at the same task will come back with more answers and be more vocal than if they had only worked as a large group. Breakout rooms are a fantastic tool for generating the same effect online. Give it a try sometime; you’ll be amazed by the results.  
  • Personal icon: It’s good to see people’s faces, and sometimes it really is important to have the camera on. That being said, some people are just shy. Even in person, when they’re not looking at a live feed of their own face, they have difficulty communicating because they’re so self-conscious. This is where remote meetings have yet another advantage: for introverts, it might be easier to talk from behind a static image. In fact, you can even foster even more of a culture of creativity by allowing them to use something fun as the icon they use (for example, Liz might use a lizard as her picture). By bringing just a touch of that uniquely online sense of anonymity and whimsy to your remote meetings, you might find that the quiet ones feel more comfortable than ever speaking their minds. So at least some of the time, let them be camera-shy if they want. 

6. …But Don’t Let Them Be Voice-Shy 

The danger of remote work for introverts is that it very easily enables them to follow their worst impulse: disappearing into the woodwork. You don’t invite them to meetings to just sit and listen; you want their input. 

So, tell them that. 

Know ahead of time who the quiet ones are and take the extra steps to get them talking. Reach out to them the day before the meeting and tell them how highly you regard their opinion, and how much value they can contribute to the discussion. That step alone is enough to get most of them to speak up.  

And if nothing else, make sure you (and/or your discussion leader) call on them specifically during the meeting. As the conversation unfolds, ask yourself: “Have I heard all the voices here yet?” People want to speak when they know others want to hear them, so be sure to facilitate a strong culture of listening. Not only will your introverts be thankful for this—you’ll be thankful for their exceptional point of view! 

7. End on a High Note 

You want your employees to look forward to meetings, rather than rolling their eyes and dreading them. Even if the meeting doesn’t go the way you’d hoped, go above and beyond a simple “thank you for coming.” Acknowledge that people didn’t just give their time; they set aside mental real estate for the project and dedicated thought and energy to it. Communicate to them how grateful you are for the passion they brought, or for the preparation they did, or for how much faith you have in their ability to tackle the tasks at hand. The end of a meeting should be like the end of a football team’s huddle; when the team breaks, they’re walking away enthusiastic and confident about the work they’re about to do.