Ty Collins, March 11, 2021
Remote meetings are an integral part of work these days, and chances are they’ll stay that way into the future. Once the pandemic is behind us, businesses that have seen how effective their staff can work remotely will likely let them continue to do so. Plus, the increasing globalization of the workforce means remote meetings are a must for including international or out-of-state employees.
Like many aspects of working from home, we’re all learning on the fly how best to approach remote meetings. After the past year, there are a few tips that remain consistently useful. We’ve compiled them into a blueprint you can use to help your remote meetings be more successful.
Some best practices we’ll cover include:
Ways to make sure everyone feels included.
How to determine if you need a meeting in the first place.
The best tools to use (audio, video, office equipment, etc.).
Ways to keep your team engaged during meetings.
Good meeting etiquette.
Setting an agenda that keeps the meeting on track.
We’ve all been there—stuck in a conference room thinking that our time would’ve been better spent reading an email or on a short phone call to address the issue. When you call a remote meeting, the first thing to keep in mind is to make sure it needs to be a meeting.
Ask yourself some of the following questions when planning your next meeting:
Can this problem be solved without calling a meeting? If you can address the issue by speaking one-on-one with someone instead, that’s a better way to go.
Can I find the answer on my own? If it’s information you’re after, it would be better to do some research on your own first. You could also directly ask someone on your team with relevant expertise. You may find an unexpected approach to solving your problem.
Is this a problem I can solve in an upcoming meeting? If your company has a set of rules in place for dealing with the issue you’re facing, and a scheduled meeting is already coming up, consider bringing it up then instead of scheduling a new meeting. People’s minds will already be focused on solving similar problems.
Can I create a process that eliminates the need for this meeting? Extraneous meetings end up being a drain, so it’s always good to figure out how to keep meetings to a minimum. If you’re in a profession that usually requires follow-up calls, for example, consider giving your clients as much information as possible upfront to minimize follow-ups.
With that said, some meetings are necessary. Whether it’s weekly check-ins or monthly planning meetings, your staff will occasionally need to get together. When that time comes, the right technology can make it a much better experience.
While yours may vary, some common types of remote meetings include:
Daily stand-ups are usually used to check-in and track progress on complicated, ongoing projects. Stand-ups are good for when quick adaptation is needed.
Weekly meetings can be used to plan production sprints or just to check in with the rest of your team. Use these to track goals, celebrate wins, and see how projects are going.
Retrospectives are a good way to look back after completing a big project or production sprint to assess what worked and what could’ve gone better. Reflecting on wins and losses as a team can help people work together better on future projects.
Design sprints work well in fields like design, management, and marketing. Invented by Google, they’re also used by companies like AirBnB and Lego. They seem to work very well.
One-on-ones are great for building rapport, especially with remote teams. They can also allow people to share concerns with team leaders they might not be comfortable speaking on elsewhere.
You probably won’t need to use every single type listed, but chances are at least a couple of these will work for your team.
The tools you use will depend on your needs and will look different for you than another business. If you need to see people’s reactions when you’re moving through a product demo, for example, you’ll want software with video capability.
You’ll also want to keep your team's needs in mind. Will they need a chat function as well as video capability? What about the ability to share large files back and forth? Are automatic email updates necessary? What about letting people take notes, or get reminders? How many people will regularly be involved in your meetings?
The tools you use for your meetings will need to answer all of those questions. Your best bet is something that includes audio and video capability. Since so much of the way we communicate is non-verbal, it can be very useful for people to see each other during a meeting, even if it’s on a screen.
There probably isn’t a single magic bullet piece of tech that you’ll be able to use for every need, but you can combine them into a digital tool belt. Collaborative document editing and file-sharing could be handled via Google Docs, for example. Video calls could be held via Zoom or Google Hangout.
Some features to look for when choosing remote meeting tools include:
Collaborative workspaces like virtual whiteboards.
A chat space and/or shared meeting notes.
Depending on the size of your team, you’ll want to be sure the software you choose can accommodate a large group. If you need 20 people in a virtual conference room, you’ll want to invest in something that can handle it without hiccups.
You’ll also need to invest in a tool that can track everyone’s schedule and integrate meetings across a dispersed remote staff. Calendly can be a big help because it allows each staff member to have their own scheduling page with all the premium features offered. People can schedule a meeting time that works for them, and Calendly automatically assigns that meeting to another member of your team with an open spot. If they need to set up something small or one-on-one, your team members can also choose who they need to meet with from your staff roster.
It’s also a good idea to look for useful features that can keep your team engaged while on the call. Software options that allow meetings to be recorded, for example, can spare your team the hassle of taking notes during a meeting. That can help them be more present and engaged as well as move through the agenda more quickly.
Figuring out what functions you need to have a successful meeting and working backward from there will help you build an excellent tool kit that helps instead of hinders.
Once you’ve figured out what tools you need, you can move on to establishing meeting procedures that help everyone on your team get the most out of the allotted time. One way to do that is to help facilitate communication between members of your team outside of meetings.
Consider what the typical office was like when most teams were working together in-person. People had the opportunity to stop and talk with one another every day, to share stories, and catch up. Working from home has cut that out of a lot of our lives, and people may feel lonelier as a result.
If team members haven’t met or spoken to one another before, it’s less likely that they’ll raise concerns in front of one another at meetings. The less comfortable we are with each other, the less likely we are to share information. So before you make virtual meetings a regular part of your agenda, it’s important to get the members of your team comfortable communicating with one another.
Remote workers also tend to feel more left out than in-person colleagues, according to Harvard Business Review. People working remotely for the first time, especially highly social people, can be especially susceptible to feeling shunned when working remotely. Therefore, addressing your team’s need for community is vital.
Establishing a virtual watercooler can help accomplish that. An online community where your team members can get used to communicating with each other, without pressure, will help them be better at communicating their needs in a meeting. How this takes shape is up to you—it can be a Slack channel, weekly Zoom happy hour, or something completely different. Use whatever works best for your team.
Of course, it’s also important to let people opt-out of a group meeting if they aren’t feeling up to it. Constant interaction—even digitally—can wear people down just as much as not interacting at all. Making recordings available to play later is one way to help. Letting people turn off their camera or audio if they need to is another. Giving your team space is just as important as including them.
Scheduling a meeting is hard enough when you’ve got everyone working in the same office, and remote staff distributed across multiple time zones can make it even trickier. But it’s not impossible.
Make sure you plan the meeting far enough in advance to accommodate anyone with schedule restrictions. Use tools that help synchronize everyone’s schedule, so you know when everyone is available.
Calendly lets users program in their available blocks of time, including buffers between meetings. When you schedule a meeting, everyone will automatically receive a confirmation email, and the system will notify you if there’s a scheduling conflict. If someone you’re inviting to a meeting is in a different time zone, you’ll be able to see their availability in local time.
Another good idea for meetings with distributed staff is to make sure everyone has overlapping blocks of time where they’re available. That way, if an emergency meeting is needed, it can be held during one of those times with minimal conflict.
Just like in-person meetings, remote meetings need to have an agenda and a set of guidelines to keep it moving along. This establishes ground rules so everyone is on the same page, and ensures the conversation keeps moving so that all relevant points are covered.
It all comes back to efficiency. If you start a meeting with only a general idea of what you want to cover, you’ll end up burning 20-odd minutes just figuring out what to talk about. Luckily, it’s pretty simple to create a good framework.
Come up with a meeting agenda that includes the following:
Important talking points for the meeting.
A structure for the meeting (how long you plan to spend on each point, whether to leave time for questions, etc.).
Who will be attending the meeting.
What everyone is responsible for (if they have to bring certain information or will be covering a specific talking point).
Any files, research, or other information meeting attendees will need.
Each agenda will be slightly different depending on what you’ll need to cover. However, you can likely put together a template that only needs slight tweaking between meetings.
Hand-in-hand with an agenda is a set of meeting rules. Make sure everyone knows how to approach the meeting, and what behavior is expected of them on a call. What those rules are will be up to you, but some examples include:
What order people will speak in.
What the procedure is for asking questions or speaking up on an issue.
Whether or not people should mute their mics when someone else is talking.
Whether people should have their cameras on.
Again, it’s a good idea to allow some flexibility here if people need or want privacy. Zoom fatigue is a real thing.
Lastly, be sure to send out your meeting agenda at least 24 hours in advance to everyone who’ll be attending. If you have people working across multiple time zones, consider sending out an agenda even earlier so people have time to prepare.
Not every meeting will have the same focus, but it’s important to establish rules of good etiquette across the board. It’s polite and makes everyone feel a little bit more involved in the meeting, which could keep them more engaged. Simple, common-sense procedures can do a lot to keep things friendly, yet professional.
For example, introductions during the meeting are always a good idea, at least when everyone is meeting for the first time. If you know new people will be at the meeting, make it a point to introduce yourself and give everyone a chance to contribute.
Don’t let people interrupt someone who’s speaking, or talk over them. And while we all have our screens near us more than usual these days, it’s polite to avoid looking at your phone when someone else is talking. The same goes for checking email and working on other tasks during the meeting.
Before the meeting starts, test everything to make sure it’s working. Video conferencing tools, chat channels, scheduling software—everything. This will reduce last-minute hiccups that require rescheduling and create information delays.
Make sure everyone knows they’re supposed to read the agenda before they come to the meeting and that it would be a good idea to prepare any questions they have in advance. Try having everyone turn off other notifications and ask them to silence their phones to cut down on distractions. Make sure everyone can find a relatively quiet area before you start.
Basically, practice common courtesy with one another, so that your meetings run smoothly. Leaving your mic on and eating, for instance, while someone is talking probably isn’t a good idea.
Having a framework and agenda in place will help your meetings run well. As will testing your equipment and using the right software. But you still need to make sure everyone is mentally present at the meeting for them to get the most out of it.
Instead of jumping right into the meeting, try making time for small talk. A few minutes of more casual conversation can help build rapport and loosen everyone up before the meeting starts. This is especially important with remote meetings because your team won’t have the in-person opportunities to talk.
Take a few minutes at the start of the meeting to check in with everyone. See how they’re doing, catch up on what’s happening, and generally allow people to speak casually. Doing that can get people engaged and deepen their relationship as a team.
If you’ve got a lot of meeting attendees, it can be useful for everyone to quickly introduce themselves. Presenters should also introduce themselves before they start. It can help everyone keep track of one another if you have a large team.
Giving everyone something to do is a simple way to involve them in the meeting. Knowing they have a task to accomplish will help keep people engaged. If people feel like they have a reason to be there (that isn’t just busywork) they’ll be less likely to think, “This could’ve been an email.”
For example, one person could take the meeting notes, another could write down questions during a brainstorming session, and another could be responsible for multimedia during a presentation.
Ideally, the jobs you give team members during a meeting will be interactive, ongoing, and straightforward. They’ll require people to contribute in real-time and interact with other team members. They’ll also require people to keep engaging for the duration of the meeting so they don’t mentally check out.
There will always be people who are too shy to speak up most of the time. Make sure you’re including everyone on your team in meetings—even the introverts. Just because they don’t talk doesn’t mean they don’t have concerns, and they’ll appreciate having their voices heard as much as anyone else.
You can make sure this happens by structuring the meeting in such a way that everyone has a chance to speak, like a simple round-robin presentation where everyone gets a turn. Give everyone five minutes to share their thoughts on the meeting topic or insights they might have on how the project is going.
If you see someone on your team trying to speak up but getting talked over or ignored by other team members, carve out some time during the meeting for them to share their thoughts. Make sure the rest of the team is engaged and listening when they do.
If you see this happening a lot or notice that your more introverted team members still hesitate to speak up during meetings, try scheduling a one-on-one with them to get their thoughts. What’s keeping them from speaking up? What can you change to be more accommodating? This is where the creation of communal spaces can also come in handy—a place where everyone can share their thoughts after the meeting can be less intimidating.
It might take some work to get the introverts out of their shell, but they’ll appreciate the effort.
After the meeting is finished, follow up to remind everyone of the key points and goals. Be specific about what the deliverables are and what next steps your team should take to achieve them. Deliverables should have clear due dates.
Everyone should know what they’re responsible for, and when the next check-in meeting will be. Follow-ups that remind everyone of the goal are a crucial step in tracking goal progress after bringing them up in the meeting.
Get feedback from everyone on how the meeting went, and what you could do to improve the next one. Anonymous surveys are one way to get that information. Another is one-on-one conversations, should you get the opportunity. You could also invite people to share their thoughts in a communal space where anyone is free to post.
Use this step-by-step guide as a scaffold. Whether your team is small or large, you can adjust these tips accordingly for a better experience at your next remote meeting. Not only will a framework save you stress, but it’ll also make meetings less intimidating for the other members of your team.
It may seem like a lot, but the hardest part is laying the groundwork. Once you have a template for agendas, rules that everyone understands, and a way to get feedback, the rest will fall into place. Of course, nothing is perfect, so leave room to adjust your approach!
Looking for more tips on how to run your business remotely? Check out the Calendly blog for posts on everything from measuring customer success and building rapport with your digital teammates, to closing more deals through the use of video.
Ty is the head of digital acquisition and content at Calendly.
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