Do you recognize the challenges of virtual team meetings? Are you familiar with one of these irritation factors that are common to meeting with colleagues in a remote location using phone or video connections?
- Only part of the team is present. People walk in and out. Time keeping is at best chaotic. It looks like this meeting ‘doesn’t matter too much’
- Technology works, but people can’t work with it. Unmuting, sharing screens, access codes, audio line mute, synchronous chat. Chaos
- When you ask a specific question, the best you get is that two people answer simultaneously. The worst is when nobody speaks up. Deafening silence
- No clear agreements are made. We seem to discuss something, then discuss something else. Valuable work time ticks away and is lost. You have so many useful things to do, and you’re stuck in this meeting
- While you speak, you hear your colleagues type on their keyboard (“I was just making notes”) or start the coffee machine (“That wasn’t me”)
Think about how much time is wasted each day in unproductive conference calls and ineffective meetings. Think how much time you waste in a year’s time.
Running remote and virtual meetings doesn’t have to be complicated or frustrating. A bit of cross-cultural knowledge, a healthy dose of discipline and a no-nonsense approach can get you far. My program ‘effective remote and virtual meetings’ deals with this issue in half a day or one day, dependent on the group’s needs. From this program, I have extracted the 7 most important insights for increasing the quality of your meetings. Test them out one at a time (if you try to do all, nothing will happen, I promise). Then witness how in 7 meetings the quality of your virtual team meetings improves significantly.
The Seven Rules for Effective Virtual Team Meetings
1. Know the technology you use
On this one, I use a zero-tolerance policy. There is no excuse for not being familiar with the technology you use for your meetings. Force yourself on a learning curve until you master all ins and outs of the conference system you use. Know how to mute and unmute lines. Know how to split screens, zoom in on particular faces, share documents while making notes, handle chats while proceeding the discussion.
If you don’t have time to learn the technology, then don’t run virtual meetings. Because you’re wasting my time, and the time of numerous colleagues. When you’re so familiar with the technology that you can smoothly and seamlessly use it to your advantage, your whole team will benefit from the experience, and starts to like meeting with you.
I take the liberty of stepping out of virtual meetings when it is clear the technology is unknown to the participants. I have stopped wasting the first 10 minutes of meetings discussing ‘whether John is there’, ‘how to unmute the line’ and explaining people how ‘to enter their access code’. I have other things to do that I give higher priority.
2. Have a clear goal
Be very clear upfront on the goal of your meeting. Too often, we somehow decided to ‘just get together’, ‘do some follow-up’ or ‘get back on this’. But getting together, doing follow-up and getting back are vaguely defined, and recipes for (Dutch) meetings where a lot of talking is done, until the allocated time is over. And then – indeed – you will need to follow-up next week.
Send your participants upfront a one-liner on what you want to achieve with the meeting:
- “In this meeting, I want to make a decision on the start date for the Alpha project.”
- “This call is to brainstorm about ways to minimize the delays in the project. We will not take a final decision, but we value out-of-the-box ideas that we will decide on next Wednesday.”
- “This is a progress meeting. I expect all to share the status of their accounts shortly and concisely. The call is not for long discussions: the purpose is effective information sharing and making sure we all know what is going on with our customers.”
Once you clarified the exact purpose, decide who should be present and who should not. Only people who can provide inputs to the purpose of the meeting should be there. Don’t invite people just because ‘it’s good for them to be up-to-date’. A small group of focused people achieves much more than a large group of people who are ‘just present’. If you have multiple goals for your meeting, split it up. Have one short and focused meeting for every goal.
Every next meeting, open the call by stating the purpose of the meeting.
3. Explain upfront what is expected from all
This tip is especially valuable in an international setting, with people from many cultures being present. In some cultures (egalitarian, low-context, task-based cultures such as The Netherlands, the US and Denmark) everybody is expected to speak up and give their opinion. When you ask people a direct question, they will answer or tell you they don’t know. The expectation is: if you have something to say, you speak up. In other cultures (hierarchical, high-context, relationship-based cultures such as China, Japan, other Asian cultures and also the Middle East) people don’t like to be put on the spot. You have to avoid somebody else loses face. Things are stated in-directly and sharp confrontations are avoided. Hierarchy may inhibit lower-levels to speak up, because a superior should.
Share upfront you are aware of these different cultures, and then set out the rules for your meeting. Tell people what you expect from them:
- “I want to collect as many alternative ideas as we can. We will not discuss the ideas or evaluate them. I need your creativity, so I want you all to come up with at least 3 new approaches to doing this.”
- “I expect everybody to have prepared 3 or 4 lines on the status with your customer. Share what is going on currently with them, and the main bottlenecks you deal with. Purpose is that the whole team is informed of…”
- “We will take a decision on X, but I want to make sure we take the right decision. I need you to raise all concerns you have, and I want you to speak up if you think another approach is better. This way we reduce the risk for the whole project. Please discuss upfront in your team before you come to the meeting.”
Now all know what is expected from them. And – especially relevant in collectivistic cultures – you have now given the group the opportunity to come to a shared view, such that they can share this in the meeting.
4. Keep disagreements factual, non-personal and involve all
Disagreements are inevitable. Also in cultures where people are not used to share disagreement and conflict in the open, the disagreement and conflict are there. Dependent on the purpose of your meeting, you want the disagreements to be discussed, without participants holding back as they fear the consequences.
So as a team leader, when you sense disagreement, put it on the table openly. Tell people that there are different opinions, that you value that, and that you want to hear each professional input that should be heard. Make people explain their point of view in a factual, non-emotional way. Do not allow others to immediately respond to it: instead, first summarize the point of view that was shared, check whether your summary was accurate, and ask follow-up questions. Do not agree nor disagree: stay neutral. Have the same approach for all inputs. In this context it is much more likely that the differences can be discussed without anybody losing face.
Too often, we all want our opinions to be heard when there is disagreement, and the discussion can be summarized as a long chain of “Yes, but..” statements. You don’t want this. You want quality, not quantity.
5. Use informal meetings to make the formal meeting work
When groups need to make complex decisions, all opinions have to be heard, weighted and taken into account. Putting all these inputs on the table in the formal meeting can be overwhelming and might make it harder to reach a conclusion. And when you take a decision some influential people or groups are not happy with, they will oppose you and your decision in the meeting. Preparing people for the final decision off-line is often a good idea: have a few calls before the formal meeting to consolidate views, reach intermediate conclusions and pre-cook the decision. In an off-line meeting you can show people they have been heard, and even ask them to give their agreement, although you know it was not their favorite option. This makes the final meeting smoother, and often improves the quality of the decision reached.
For most collectivistic cultures – already in southern Europe, and certainly Asia, Africa and Latam – the group process is important, and open confrontation is to be avoided. This is another reason to take things off-line. People will be ready to more openly tell you their reservations than in public, as they feel safer to express themselves. And when their opinions need to be heard, you can even consider bringing their point-of-view into the formal meeting yourself, so they don’t run the risk of embarrassing others and making others lose face. Collectivistic cultures are more used to take decisions in the corporate corridors, in restaurants or in karaoke-bars, and will not have an issue with you addressing the sensitive things off-line in these environments.
Important is to share what you do, and explain others why you do it: “Would it help you if I bring in your objections in the meeting next week, so that we can make sure they are not forgotten?” Be open and transparent, and regularly use the informal gatherings to prepare for the formal events in your company. Not doing so may lead to lip-service: in the formal meeting it looks like everybody agrees, while in reality there is no buy-in and your proposals get sabotaged.
6. Demand discipline
When you show up late in your team meeting and excuse yourself with “Sorry, my other meeting ran late” you have taught the people on the call an important lesson: it is ok to be late, don’t worry about it. And when somebody else shows up late with the excuse “Sorry, I was busy, and couldn’t find the access code”, and you let it go, you again taught the people on the call an important lesson: it doesn’t matter.
When 6 people are on the call and one of the key team members is 5 minutes late, he has wasted an hour of valuable time.
Virtual meetings – just like any meetings – need discipline. It is your role to point this out. The trick is to do so not in a harsh or unfriendly way but remain constructive in your tone of voice: “Erica, we’ve all been waiting for you. Can you make sure to be on-time and well-prepared next time?” You can choose the tone of voice and with that you chose for the impact. If your intention is to blame the other person for being late, your tone of voice will tell her, and Erica – rightly so – will show a defensive response. If your intention however is to have efficient team meetings, your tone of voice will be different, and Erica most likely is happy to contribute. It’s in her interest as well.
Pointing out unwanted behaviors is hard for most of us. But teaching yourself how to do it is one of the best investments to make in personal development for many. It can provide tremendous clarity and avoid inefficient meeting routines to flourish and grow.
7. Evaluate shortly
A good idea for every meeting, but certainly for virtual meetings when there’s no opportunity for a short chat when the meeting is over. Spend the last few minutes of the call asking the attendees how effective the meeting was. Make it a habit to do this, and encourage participants to share what went well, and what did not go well. This provides you with information how people have perceived the meeting and gives them an opportunity to share and contribute.
Two rules for doing this are essential. Time is money, and nobody is interested in having another meeting about hot the meeting went. In order to be short and concise, you will need to set the tone the first times you do this. I’ve heard myself frequently say: “Eric, before you go on, can you limit yourself to just what went well and what did not? I really want to keep this brief…” Maybe Eric doesn’t appreciate, but all others on the call will.
Number two is that you will need to ensure that people are very specific about what they want to see differently. Shortcut any complaint about too many people talking a lot, by saying: “This is what I noticed as well, Caroline. The be specific, what do you need me to do next time so this goes better?”
The next step is even more important. Thank all for their comments and share that you can’t fix all. Take one specific recommendation and make sure to implement this in the next meeting. Just one, not two or three. Tell people you will do this, and do not compromise in doing it. When you do make the change, people will see this meeting is to be taken seriously, because you take it seriously. When you don’t make the change, you have just conformed to people that indeed the meeting is not that important.
In order to make virtual and remote teams work, frequent meetings are needed. Familiarize yourself with best practices to make your remote team meetings successful. These 6 tips are mine, and I consider them key. But form your own opinion. Speak to others who frequently run virtual meetings and ask them for their golden tips. Realize that virtual meetings are really different than face to face and accept that preparation of virtual meetings (and all work you need to do outside the formal meeting) takes time. If you don’t have this time, cancel your virtual meeting. It will not be effective anyway if you don’t prepare well.