I can’t remember the last time I was in a meeting and at least one participant wasn’t joining the conversation over the phone. In fact, I work and live about 3,000 miles away from most of my colleagues, so I’m usually the one on the phone. There’s nothing unique about this. Modern companies are more distributed than ever with more people working from home and taking meetings from the road. Is it possible to have a productive, engaged and useful meeting when people aren’t in the same room? Certainly, but it has to be done with a bit more thought and planning. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve developed a few tips that can help ensure success.
1) Have the Right People (& Only the Right People) On the Call
It is too easy, especially for remote participants, to multitask and get distracted if they aren’t sharing or getting information that is important to them. This means having more, shorter meetings with only the right people, rather than lengthy meetings where a participant might be interested in one or two agenda items.
2) Have a Specific, Limited Agenda
The modern meeting must be very focused and have a clear agenda. If you can’t see the participants and they can’t see you, the only way to ensure maximum engagement is to make sure that the topic is of interest to each participant and they know what to expect from the meeting.
3) Have Meetings for Active Discussions. Use Email for Simple Communication of Information
Use meetings for topics that really require discussion and that have a specific goal. Email is better for sharing easily understood information or for gathering general input. Use meetings when a decision needs to be reached or when the topic is confusing. This will encourage engagement and prevent remote participants from drifting away as you tell them things they already know.
4) Have a Goal for the Call and Communicate It Beforehand
Be sure you can say, “At the end of this call we will …..” Even if it is just, “we will understand the priorities of everyone in the group for the next week.” Everyone should know what they are trying to accomplish. Once the goal is reached, for heaven’s sake, end the meeting. Participants will appreciate your respect for their time.
5) Go Easy On the PowerPoint
Images can be very useful to a discussion when they are meaningful and convey information that isn’t otherwise easily understood. Slides that simply recap or, worse, quote verbatim, what is being said are boring and encourage participants to check email or do other work while they are being displayed. Unless there is a good reason to display information, or you have a very large audience, skip the .ppt.
6) Insist On Participation – Ask Questions
The moderator or host of the meeting must make an effort to make sure everyone is participating fully. This means asking frequent questions and requesting input from specific individuals. Pause a lot to give everyone the chance to speak up. If certain attendees don’t actively participate, you must understand why. Perhaps they didn’t belong in the meeting at all, or maybe they are disengaged for another reason that you need to understand. If this happens, follow up after the meeting to discover the reason. Not only will it help you decide how to address that particular person or meeting, it may also help you uncover ways to make your meetings in general more effective.
7) Use Conference Call Technology That Gives the Moderator Meeting Controls
Which is more disruptive to a meeting; a caller who puts the call on hold and plays Muzak for everyone or the person on a cell phone in a noisy airport? I’m not sure, but they both are bad. Choose conference call technology that gives the moderator floor controls allows her to mute or drop disruptive calls and progress toward the goal.
8) Be Smart About Scheduling
Think carefully about scheduling to get maximum attention. People will be more likely to multitask if they are just coming off another call or have a pressing deadline. Monday mornings and Friday afternoons are right out.
9) Ask Participants for Feedback After the Meeting
The only way to improve is to understand what the experience is like for everyone involved. After the meeting, ask everyone if they felt they were in the right meeting, if they felt heard and if they believe the objective was achieved. You’ll gain valuable insight.
Given the evolution of modern business, it will become increasingly rare that meeting participants are in the same time zone, let alone the same building. This will necessitate a rethinking of the number, type and duration of meetings. The idea of having a meeting for the meeting’s sake will fade and more specialized, sometimes ad hoc, meetings will replace the standard “weekly conference call.” This is good. As information workers start to get paid for doing work, rather than going to work, they will become more invested in how they spend their time and productivity will improve. People who are smart about meetings will be very popular.
How do you handle remote meetings?