How to Conduct a Productive Online Meeting With Your Remote Team

For many businesses all around the world, the shift to remote working happened pretty much overnight. And so it’s not surprising that many weren’t completely prepared – or even slightly prepared – for the vital changes that would need to be made to ensure a successful transition from the office to the home.

All of a sudden, the biggest priority for most organizations was building a world class remote team, and the truth is that a huge number of businesses have done this. They’ve been successful. But they’ve been successful through implementing emergency tactics that have focused almost exclusively on continuity.

While these tactics may have helped businesses survive, they haven’t always helped them to thrive. And as operations are now beginning to stabilise, thriving needs to become the new focus. It’s time to move away from crisis response towards greater levels of normality, and that means taking a look at how some processes can be adapted to maintain productivity in the longer term remote working environment.

Remote Meetings: A Growing Concern

Although there are a few team processes that may need to be adapted to help them align more closely with the needs and behaviours of a remote team, how teams conduct meetings is one of the most urgent issues. With so many video conferencing and other real time digital communication and collaboration tools available today, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that holding a productive online meeting is simple. But the problem isn’t the availability of technology; it’s your remote team.

And that’s not being said in an accusatory way. Not at all. It’s being said in a way that acknowledges the gap between what teams need from meetings, and what online meetings are able to deliver. No matter what technology is used, virtual get-togethers will always have their limitations, which is why reports suggest that only 20% of employees prefer digital communications. But these limitations don’t have to be a sticking point. By adopting a new approach, it is possible to make online meetings just as productive as their face-to-face counterparts. So what are the best ways to make online meetings more valuable?

1. Be More Spontaneous

“There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘wow’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas”.

That’s a meaningful quote in itself. But when you find out that those are the words of Steve Jobs – a person whose life was rooted in digital communications – it becomes even more important. Scheduled meetings don’t translate well to the remote working environment. They don’t allow for your team to think up and idea and run with it; they don’t allow your team to get the real time input that they need.

Long, scheduled meetings should be replaced with anytime opportunities for quickfire chat, replicating the water cooler discussions that happen organically in the office. However, the concern with introducing greater spontaneity into online meetings is that the situation could flip to the far end of the spectrum, resulting in spontaneous meetings where no one really knows what they’re supposed to be discussing.

While scheduling is no longer critical, planning is. In fact, planning is even more important in the remote world. Planning through spontaneity means that teams always have a broad idea of what needs to be discussed. Flexible, open ended planning models, such as a mind map and rico clusters, are crucial tools for planning and designing online meetings without re-introducing the strict limitations of scheduling.

2. Implement the Right Technology

One of the biggest factors hindering the productivity of online meetings with remote teams is undoubtedly the fact that teams aren’t physically together in the same place. But dial-in conference calls can address this issue, right? They can, but only to a certain extent. The problem is that it’s much harder to convey a message through words alone. Unspoken communications are more critical than you think.

Psychologist Albert Mehrabian once said that words accounted for just 7% of all communications. The former University of California professor believes that 38% of communications are made up of vocal tone, while 55% are made up of body language and physical behaviours. And so, if you’re relying on the use of conference calls for online meetings, you may not be getting the most value from your team.

Having the right technology in place is key to conducting productive online meetings. Video conferencing tools that allow for teams to break down the geographic barriers of dispersal and talk to each other, see each other, and collaborate in real time are absolutely vital. Research by Microsoft confirms that video helps people to connect better, and better connections in remote teams is what’s going to drive success.

3. Keep it Small

The ideal size of an online meeting is the subject of great debate. When teams are working from home, isolation, loneliness, and diminished workplace wellbeing become major concerns. And as a result, many leaders are taking an ‘everyone welcome’ approach; they’re encouraging as many people as possible to attend virtual meetings in a bid to boost inclusivity and attempt to maintain feelings of belonging.

However, while this approach can certainly help to reduce remote working isolation, it doesn’t always result in productive online meetings. In fact, professional services network PwC actually advises against large meetings because it’s much easier to lose track and head off on non-productive tangents. Smaller meetings reduce the noise, maintain focus on the issues at hand, and allow all voices to be heard.

But taking this approach doesn’t mean that teams must suffer from a social standpoint. Far from it. While it’s best to keep project-based meetings to the bare minimum, leaders can – and should – make the effort to offer more social meetings that everyone can attend. Weekly Friday afternoon socials for non-specific chit chat can be beneficial, along with super quick daily team check-ins every morning.

4. Schedule Breaks

Although we’ve already looked at the benefit of short, spontaneous meetings, sometimes a longer meeting can’t be avoided. The problem with holding these longer meetings online is that there isn’t the same level of physical, face-to-face stimulation to keep eyes open; there’s no dynamic interaction. To be quite frank, staring at a screen is boring. And this can impact the productivity of long online meetings.

The solution is to schedule breaks into online meetings with remote teams; to allow participants to go and grab a drink, have a quick snack, and enjoy a bit of a change of scenery before coming back refreshed and with a clear head. How often breaks are needed will depend on the subject matter, but as a general rule, insights firm McKinsey recommends a 10-15 minute break scheduled every 90 minutes.

Of course, an even better solution is to try and reduce the length of online meetings. Sometimes, this can’t be done. But many other times, it can. Think about what aspects are absolutely essential in an online meeting, and cut out the rest. For example, if you spend the first 30 minutes of a meeting ‘touching base’, get rid of this and use a different approach to catch up, such as email or messaging.

5. Don’t Overdo It

Even if you employ every one of the four tips above, it’s still possible that you’ll struggle to conduct a productive online meeting. Why? Because even the most efficient and effective meeting will fail to bring value if you’re holding too many of them. Online meetings are essential for teams that are working remotely, but overdoing it can cause your team to lose motivation and experience feelings of burnout.

Research by Deloitte found a close link between the increase in virtual meetings, and feelings of employee burnout. The reason? The insights firm believes that more meetings reduce the time available for teams to conduct their day-to-day tasks, meaning they need to catch up out of hours. This can destroy the work/life balance, which is already in jeopardy given the shift to remote working.

The good news is that there are ways to reduce the number of meetings you hold. One effective way is to eliminate ‘admire the problem’ meetings; meetings where an issue is discussed, yet a solution isn’t. Another way is to consider different ways for teams to meet. We’ve already talked about mind maps for planning, but they can also be used as real time collaboration software as an alternative to meetings.

6. Designing Your Own Way of Working

The most important thing to understand here is that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. If there was, meeting productivity wouldn’t be an issue! Some teams will find that they’re able to boost the productivity of their online meetings in one way, while another team might find that it doesn’t quite work for them. Listening to your team and collecting employee feedback is crucial. Understanding what’s working – and what isn’t – is key to designing a tailored approach that’s customized to the needs of your team, that generates the most productivity and value, and that really helps to drive success in the future.

Silvana Carpineanu is an enthusiast Marketing Specialist who works for mindomo.com. Driven by passion and creativity, she’s responsible for copywriting, advertising, SEO, and content creation. She does all of this knowing that for every minute spent organizing, an hour is earned.