Part V - How To Hold Digital Meetings

The Distributed Teams Support Series Part V – How To Hold Digital Meetings

Successfully managing a distributed team starts with utilising the positives the situation brings. It’s also about transferring the offline company processes that are still required, online. Making decisions, having discussions, problem-solving and team-building all still have to happen, no matter where everyone is located and they usually happen with various kinds of meetings.

But perhaps now, we can embrace doing this in a slightly different way. For example, encouraging more decentralised decision making in teams and supporting your people by providing them with tools to aid asynchronous communication. Meetings are a core component of every company communication strategy, and we rely on them heavily as businesses to get things done. Let’s look at how to run them successfully, digitally.

Create Structure

You have to start with a structure. This is an ideal time to take stock of what meetings are working, and what ones aren’t. Do all of them need to keep happening? Which types are a priority? And which ones are necessary? Having reviewed the essential meetings in a given week, month or quarter, you’ll know which of these will best support your overall business objectives and equally your people. Perhaps it’s a daily 15-minute stand-up or check-in. Maybe it’s weekly team sync on planned versus executed priorities. Or it could be regular 1:1’s with your people as well as quarterly sessions planning company goals.

Whatever way you prioritise these, create a schedule in consultation with your team. This ensures everyone is included in the process and more willing to be an active participant rather than waking up to a bunch of new meeting notifications flooding their calendars without context. Be flexible and adapt the schedule of essential meetings as you go following continuous feedback from your people.

For example, you might find your team has a critical deliverable one week and needs to focus their energy and attention on this. Maybe instead of meeting, collaboration moves to digital tools and shared documents are developed on priorities and updates. This way, your team can contribute when they have the time to do so. Be sure to set clear expectations such as when you are online, you are available to jump on a quick call. Leave space in your calendar for the occasional ad hoc meetings that might be required.

Daily Stand-Ups

These are a great way to stay connected to your people and have the best insight into workflow. Time-wise, ideally daily stand-ups need to be 15-20 minutes max which start on time and become a part of your people’s routine. These should be focused sessions which address three areas.

The first being achievements. Find out what the person achieved yesterday. Follow this with their current goals by asking what they are working on today. Finally, round up by asking what challenges they are facing, if any and you can take finding solutions from there. If these meetings seem repetitive after a while, change how you ask the questions or add in another angle. For example, what did you enjoy most about the project you were working on yesterday? If the meetings are feeling flat, connect them with positive feelings to re-energize them.

Team Meetings

This can stretch from a small team to a multi-departmental or cross-company meeting. Have a system decided in advance on how to run it. For example, does it require an agenda or is the meeting being called for one precise topic to be discussed? Either way, ensure everyone is clear on this in advance like sharing the agenda or clarifying the nature of the meeting. It’s essential to give people enough time to prepare.

“Know when to lead and when to step back.”

Outline how you would like the meeting to run like asking everyone to put their phones on silent or mute their notifications to minimise disruption. The temptation is greater to check them as everyone’s devices are in front of them; therefore, so is the level of potential distraction. A technique we find works quite well is to visualise a meeting room table and agree where people are sitting at it on the call. That way, you can go round the table to hear everyone’s views and ensure a smooth flow to the discussion without people talking over one another.

Start with a few minutes of casual and general conversation suitable for a group discussion. When running the meeting, give everyone a chance to speak if they wish to contribute. Try to engage quieter members of the team within reason. Not everyone will have something to say, and that’s ok too. The biggest obstacle here is keeping it on track. Know when to lead and when to step back.

On closing, make sure everyone is leaving the meeting with clarity around their goals, ensuring everyone has an objective. The meeting needs to be and feel relevant for your people to keep them engaged. Following up with a shared document after the meeting detailing its outcomes reaffirms this. It also allows people who attended to collaborate on items discussed as well as agreed actions.

Having 1:1s

When it comes to having the all-important 1:1s, a lot of the same offline rules apply as do the general rules for all meetings. Start by scheduling it at a mutually agreeable time. Have an agenda but a loose and shared one that is created a reasonable time in advance. In terms of medium, use video calls unless the internet connection is slow and could disrupt the flow of the conversation.

When it comes to kicking things off, lead with checking in on how the person is doing. This is always a priority but is more so now than ever. It is also your primary opportunity to gain greater insight into the experience this person is having and how they are genuinely finding the process, which means you’ll know how best to respond supportively. For example, you might have a member of your team that finds the morning the noisiest time in their house to take calls or perhaps someone is living alone and would welcome more digital contact.

“Close the meeting with clarity.”

After a few minutes of catching up, you can naturally progress into discussing work. Give everyone you speak to the space to respond. Avoid jumping in, especially to fill awkward digital silences as it’s imperative you listen instead. They will pass and are only made more awkward if you let them be. Don’t forget you set the tone of the meeting as the people leader. If you feel like the session is going off course, get it back on track.

These meetings will not be without their challenges, whether it’s the poor quality of the internet connection, the flow of conversation or the knowledge shared. The best way to navigate this is to be patient with yourself, the person and the process. As problems arise, discuss possible solutions. Close the meeting with clarity. Both of you should be leaving it with a clear understanding of what was discussed, steps required by both parties and a timeline to achieve them. This must then be followed up.

Empower Others To Lead

What about the meetings you are not in? These need to happen too and without you. This is where trust comes in. You need to trust your people with these and empower them to make appropriate decisions. If the decision requires others, create a culture where they find the people they need, make the decision and move the process forward as quickly as possible.

Offer support on how to run the meeting and similarly, check-in afterwards. You may not be at the meeting, but it doesn’t mean you cannot support your team. Ensure your people know your digital door is always open.

Digital Social Gatherings

There are other digital meetings to consider but ones of the casual kind. Efforts still need to be made to include something in everyone’s schedule to keep people connected. This can be a digital coffee, lunch or company activity like a quiz as an example. The same as work, not everyone has to attend the social gathering, but it’s an option.

Perhaps the person in charge of your company’s sports and social might take on organising this. Maybe it will be someone who is trying to fill their alone time on lockdown or perhaps, both. Let people come forward on it rather than initially appointing someone as everyone’s working environments have varying degrees and kinds of challenges. These types of meetings strengthen relationships, improve team dynamics as well as helping you keep an eye out for those who might be struggling or feeling isolated.

Holding productive online meetings is all about getting into a rhythm. You get into one quicker by knowing your people and combining that with a suitable structure and process. Adjustments will need to be made and flexibility required, but it’s very achievable. It’s important to note too, that people are now online for the majority of their working day. Meetings can be a welcome break from the screen when they are held in person, but they can be a strain if it’s all online activity. Find what suits you and your people best. This is all about achieving balance over burnout.

At times like this, we think it’s most important we come together as a community and look after our people.
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