To build best-in-class teams, beat the competition, and, ultimately, create the next big thing, organizations are hiring talent from all across the world, making teams increasingly distributed. Some companies open hubs in booming cities to attract professionals from the region. Others, many of them leading tech companies like Automattic, Buffer, and InVision‚ prefer to create fully distributed teams, allowing their employees to work from anywhere.
While face-to-face meetings are relatively simple, virtual meetings require one or more tools that allow people to connect. For some people, using a phone for professional communication can work just fine, but product and design teams often need much more. To facilitate conversation, they can use audio and video conferencing tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Whereby.com as well as collaboration tools like Miro and Dropbox Paper.
Although choosing the right tool and setting a clear agenda to save your coworkers’ time might be challenging, there are many benefits of remote meetings:
— They are focused. Good remote meetings are usually organized when it’s absolutely necessary, so the team can focus and solve a problem together.
— They are result-oriented. On successful calls, nobody wants to waste time, and unlike with face-to-face meetings, it’s harder to reschedule or walk away without a clear plan or list of action items.
— They are well-structured. A remote meeting with a clear format, agenda, and set expectations allows everyone to prepare, think of the possible scenarios, and, ultimately, make sure that their voice is heard.
When you organize a remote meeting, the pressure is very high and everyone expects it to be highly productive. Unlike meeting face-to-face (especially if your team is distributed and the calls are regular), you can’t walk away without a clear plan or agree to talk through something informally later.
— Can I solve the problem asynchronously in Slack? If you need to have a conversation with someone who is likely to have a solution, consider creating a chat in your preferred messaging app. If your problem is urgent, it might make sense to first introduce the idea in a message and then schedule a meeting. This is especially true for remote teams working across different time zones, because it’s harder to schedule a meeting quickly. Some collocated team rituals like daily standups can also be turned into writing exercises in a specific channel.
— CAN I USE A SHARED KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT TOOL TO SOLVE MY PROBLEM/ANSWER MY QUESTION? If you are using Confluence or another tool for team wikis, consider checking it first, particularly if you have a problem related to your team’s processes or the company structure. Even if you don’t find an answer, you might figure out how to approach your problem in the most effective way. At Miro, we use Confluence to store formal guidelines and collect our teams’ lifehacks and best practices.
— Can I solve this problem during an upcoming meeting? Your team likely has a set of recurring rituals for discussing different types of challenges. For example, if you work in Sprints, consider discussing an upcoming challenging task during Sprint Planning.
— Can I create a process that will eliminate this type of meeting? Some meetings can be eliminated with the right process. For example, during a call with a designer, consider formalizing and structuring your briefs so they are clear and don’t require much – if any – follow-up.
Sometimes you need to schedule a meeting to solve a specific challenge, but in general, it’s good to establish a set of recurring meetings. This will help your team establish a consistent process and align around a shared goal.
— Daily remote meetings. As we mentioned before, daily meetings to check in with your team and identify potential obstacles can be turned into asynchronous exercises. But sometimes it makes sense to schedule daily remote standups, especially if you are working on a challenging project with a strict deadline, where good planning and fast iterations are critical.
— Weekly or bi-weekly remote meetings. Depending on the length of your Sprints, you can schedule Sprint Planning and Retrospective sessions once every week or two, or conduct regular check-ups to discuss interdependencies. At Miro, team leads also have weekly one-on-one meetings with every member of their team, and teams meet every two weeks for objectives and key results (OKR) check-ups.
— Monthly remote meetings. Depending on your company’s processes and pace, you might want to schedule meetings that focus on problem solving or decision making for a specific ongoing project. If you are trying to keep a remote team engaged and motivated, consider incorporating something creative; for example, do a brainstorming session before kickstarting a new project.
— Quarterly remote meetings. If you use OKRs, consider scheduling a kick-off meeting at the beginning of each quarter to discuss the previous quarter’s results and top initiatives for the upcoming months. If your team works in Program Increments, consider having quarterly PI Planning sessions.
— Annually remote meetings. Once a year (or more frequently), many organizations host all-hands meetings to review the previous year and align around goals for the future.
To make sure that a remote meeting brings you closer to your goal as team, there are many factors you should consider. Whether you are an administrative assistant preparing for the annual shareholders event online or a UX researcher booking time to present research findings, we recommend thinking carefully about the following aspects of a meeting:
— People. It’s difficult to hold a remote meeting with a large number of participants and make sure everyone contributes to the conversation. Invite only those without whom you can’t move forward. Consider using a responsibility assignment matrix (also known as RACI) to understand your teammates’ responsibilities, and don’t invite “consulted” or “informed” colleagues. Increase the number of participants as you become more skilled at hosting remote meetings.
— Scheduling. When you are planning the best time for the meeting, consider time zones and people’s working hours, as well as available conference rooms (if some of your teammates work from an office). Make sure that every participant gets an invite from your preferred calendar tool. Keep in mind that some participants might be employees but others could be contractors who may not have access to corporate tools. Set a clear time limit for the meeting. This creates a sense of urgency for the team and helps them stay on track.
— Agenda. Gathering together for a remote meeting takes effort, so don’t waste time. Have a plan with specific items to cover and stick to that plan. Share the agenda ahead of time so that everyone can prepare. In our team, we usually include an agenda in our Google Calendar invite, but you can share it in a document, email, or any other format that works for your team.
— Technology. Check the basics first. “When we are hiring people who are going to be distributed, we [ask] things like, ‘Do you have bandwidth to work? Can I talk to you on a video call?’” says Jessica Tiwari, VP of Product Management at Upwork. Then you can think of your technology stack for the meeting. You can apply a combination of tools, where each tool relates to a certain task, but make sure they match. For example, you can select a business phone system or conferencing software like Skype to establish a connection, combine it with a real-time collaboration tool like InVision to work on designs, and use a variety of methods (e.g. polls and chat) to collect input. Test your technology before the meeting and have a plan B in case your preferred tool doesn’t work.
— A shared space. The biggest benefit of a physical meeting is face-to-face interaction, which is a result of sharing a certain space. But a shared space is more than a meeting room. It can also include shared flip charts, chats, screens, and online whiteboards. A combination of different shared spaces positively influences remote employees’ presence in a meeting.
Depending on the format, length, and frequency of the meeting, its structure can be totally different. It can be a quick stand up or a long Design Sprint exercise. In any case, here are some general best practices that will help you stay focused and get the most out of your collaborative session.
— Introduce everyone and present your agenda. The video camera doesn’t necessarily show every speaker throughout the meeting, so make sure to introduce everyone. Managers at OnPoint Consulting post pictures of audio-only attendees on the wall, so everyone knows who’s on the call and people are more open and willing to participate. This rule is especially important for new or fast-growing teams.
— Use an icebreaker game to fuel your team’s creativity. Icebreakers insert fun and laughter into a meeting – invaluable components. A little laughter creates an open and relaxed atmosphere that is critical for any form of ideation. Icebreakers encourage participants to communicate and interact differently than normal, which will be useful and set the right tone for the meeting.
— Give people things to do. Split the roles between attendees: facilitator, timekeeper, and scribe. This helps involve participants in the meeting. For a recurring meeting, rotate the roles among participants. Playing games before the meeting can help engage participants.
— Set clear expectations for the desired result Of the meeting. Do you want to determine the next steps for a project? Do you want everyone to comment on your roadmap for the upcoming months and share their concerns? Don’t end the meeting without stating your intention clearly and making sure that the goal of the meeting is accomplished.
You will notice that organizing a remote meeting is similar to organizing a face-to-face meeting. Remote meetings often have more technology involved, though, which means you have to be extra careful and consistent.
— Send a follow-up (or multiple follow-ups). Remind participants about the main points of the meeting. This increases the effectiveness of the meeting and reinforces its importance.
— Check that action items are in progress. In remote working relationships, it’s vital to clarify and center performance objectives and expectations on outcomes. Discuss expectations during the meeting, follow up via email, and don’t forget to track them after the meeting is over. You can use your team’s preferred task-tracking tool, whether it’s JIRA, Atlassian, or something else.
When we meet face-to-face, it’s much easier to read each other’s intentions, emotions, and body language. Here are some of the best practices that will help you be mindful and respectful.
— Use eye contact. “When engaging people across different offices, we strongly favor video conferencing over phone calls,” says Richard Jhang, CEO of consulting firm StratMinds. It’s important to be able to see eye-to-eye and read each other’s body language.
— Share the meeting rules in advance. Whether it’s a brainstorm, project update, approval session, or any other kind of recurring meeting, establish rules and circulate them to participants before the meeting. Uncontrolled meetings lead to chaos, where everybody is speaking at the same time or someone is dominating the conversation. Nancy Halpern, Principal at KNH Associates, suggests developing meeting rules to limit each person’s speaking time and prevent anyone from dominating.
— Be courteous. Avoid side conversations and background distractions. Just like in high school, when you didn’t like someone whispering behind your back, side conversations can be confusing and leave people out. Stay on topic and make sure everyone is focused on what’s being presented.
— Ask participants to contribute. Asking directly for input really helps team members feel engaged. And remember, audio-only participants can only clearly hear one person at a time, so try not to speak over each other. Michael Sueoka, Head of User Experience at The Mobile Majority, considers it vital to make every person feel like they have the ability to contribute to the project. Here are a few examples of engaging hooks:
1. Are you happy with the result?
2. What interests you the most and why?
3. What is your favorite/least favorite part of the project/solutio?
4. If you could change anything, what would it be? Why?
5. What’s one thing that could increase your satisfaction with this project, and why?
Here are some tools that can help you organize remote meetings and keep participants engaged, from scheduling tools to collaboration platforms (both for document sharing and more freeform whiteboarding tools). To learn more about the tools that are available for remote teams, check out the post on Collaboration Superpowers.
Google Calendar. A convenient tool with a lot of time zone management features for G Suite users.
Lucid Meetings. Lucid describes their product as a tool that “helps you schedule times, send calendar reminders, agree on an agenda, log action items, gather user feedback, and use or create your own meeting templates.”
World Time Buddy. A convenient world clock, time zone converter, and online meeting scheduler.
Calendly. A meeting scheduling software and Chrome extension that helps you find the perfect meeting time.
Zoom. A tool for enterprise communications with an easy, reliable cloud platform for video and audio conferencing, chat, and webinars.
Hangouts Meet. A G Suite service for video meetings with people inside or outside your organization.
Whereby.com. Free video conversations with up to four people without logins or downloads.
GoToMeeting. An online meeting, desktop sharing, and video conferencing software package.
Google Docs. An online word processor that lets you create and format documents and work with other people.
Dropbox Paper. A collaborative workspace that helps teams create and share early ideas and work with videos, images, code, and sound. Comes free with Dropbox.
MIRO. An online collaboration and whiteboarding platform for teams and organizations of all sizes.