With far-flung teams becoming the norm, remote meetings are on the rise. In the midst of the novel coronavirus outbreak, COVID-19, even teams that are normally co-located are working from home and scrambling to stay productive. The following tips will help you keep everyone focused and engaged during remote meetings, whether they’re the norm or a new reality.


1) Recommit to “Meeting Hygiene”


We know we’re supposed to wash our hands for 20 seconds, but how often did we really do that before now? In the same spirit, switching to remote meetings is a great reason to exercise the good meeting hygiene habits we haven’t always stuck to, such as:


  • Make sure the meeting is needed. Consider whether you could achieve the same results asynchronously through email, Slack, or your team’s collaboration platform of choice, especially if you’re straddling distant time zones.
  • Only invite necessary people. You should know exactly why each person is there, and they should know too. If you have a work culture in which everyone has to be included, think about sending out a recap to key people after the meeting instead of requiring everyone to attend. And if you need someone for only part of the meeting, are you sure it shouldn’t be two short meetings instead of one long one?
  • Keep it short. Just because your software defaults to one-hour meetings doesn’t mean they have to be that long. Try making them 30 or 45 minutes instead.
  • Share an agenda and stick to it, so people know what to expect and come prepared. Make sure you and everyone else knows what you’re trying to accomplish with the meeting, and when you’ve accomplished it, say goodbye!


2) Invest in Quality Tools


Video conferencing and remote collaboration tools are the beating heart of your remote meeting. If they are flaky or hard to use, you’ll have flaky and hard-to-use meetings. Be willing to experiment with a few different tools and cough up some money for the ones that work well for you. Your team’s time is valuable; better to spend your money on good tools rather than wasting the first 10 minutes of every meeting singing the “can you hear me” song. That time adds up!


Video conferencing and remote collaboration tools are the beating heart of your remote meeting


There is no one right answer for the best tool for your team, but my personal favorites right now are Zoom for video conferencing and Miro for visual collaboration. Zoom has a “just works” quality that none of the others can beat, and the interface is both powerful and easy to use. Miro can have a bit of a learning curve for new users — MURAL may be better for novices — but once you get the hang of it you likely won’t miss your paper sticky notes. (And don’t get me started on its potential for remote workshops, a topic for another day.)


3) Turn the Camera On


If using video is not your cultural norm the idea may make you cringe (I get it, I used to feel the same way). However, it’s true that being able to see the folks you’re talking to makes a huge difference. That human connection is even more important if you’ll need to work remotely for an extended period of time. I promise you’ll get used to being on camera.


Human connection is even more important if you’ll need to work remotely for an extended period of time.


Pro tip: If, like me, you tend to look at your own face on the screen, check to see if you can turn it off. If not, consider dragging the box closer to your camera so at least your gaze is as natural as possible.


4) Level the Playing Field


If some people are in the same room and some people are remote, the remote folks can feel left out. You can only say “I’m sorry, can you move closer to the microphone?” so many times before you give up and accept that you’re going to miss half the meeting.


Instead, embrace radical remoteness and have every person in the meeting dial in separately. At Designit San Francisco we call this “Brady Bunching” due to the resulting grid of faces. Now everyone is taking up the same “space” in the meeting, and it’s easier to manage sound. It’s not uncommon for us to dial separately into meetings even if we’re in the same room, but that does require a bit of finesse to avoid feedback from the microphones. In those cases, we typically have one person’s machine drive the audio, ideally with a centralized microphone/speaker setup. Experiment, and always know where your mute button is!


5) Embrace the Unique Strengths of Remoteness


Remote meetings aren’t the same as in-person meetings, and that’s ok. Some things just won’t be as good, but some things can actually be better. In an in-person meeting you can’t have more than one person talking at once. However, in a remote meeting, if you’re collaborating in the same digital space — whether using a tool as fancy as Miro or something as simple as Google Sheets — then multiple people can be “talking” at once (drawing or typing, for example).


Once the virtual room gets into a rhythm you’ll be amazed at how engaging and efficient it can be.


This can be difficult to get used to at first, but once the virtual room gets into a rhythm you’ll be amazed at how engaging and efficient it can be. You may need to give people explicit permission to do this — consider time-boxing simultaneity and making the time explicit. You can use music as a cue for the time box, which has the added benefit of reducing awkward silence in the meeting.


6) Work Together, Apart


The previous tips are about meetings specifically, but for many of us the real work happens outside of meetings. If you’re used to just leaning over and asking a question of a nearby coworker, or just feel kind of lonely working remotely, consider working together, apart, by opening up a video conference and leaving it open. That way, you can see your coworkers working and can ask questions on the fly. You’ll be surprised at how efficiently you can work together this way, and it definitely feels less lonely.


At Designit San Francisco, we’re experimenting with a tool called Sococo, which is particularly good for this. It creates a feeling of co-presence. So far, nothing beats it for quick and easy video and voice without the overhead of links, downloads, etc. Time will tell if it’s worth the cost, but it sure is fun!


In Conclusion


Working remotely doesn’t have to be inefficient or lonely. You may need to shake up some of your cultural norms or bend the rules of traditional in-person meetings, but it can be done. Let us know how remote meetings go for you, or if you have any new practices we should try!


This piece was originally published on Cooper Professional Education‘s Journal and is part our series on remote work. Read the previous installment, about building project walls using the remote collaboration tool Miro, here: “Rethinking service blueprints for Agile delivery.”

Jenea Hayes

Jenea Hayes

Design Director, Cooper Professional Education


Jenea Hayes is a Design Director and Cooper Professional Education instructor at Designit San Francisco.

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