16 secrets of engaging remote meetings

Remote meetings have become an essential part of a workflow, or even the only way of communication in various teams across the globe. Thomas Oppong, Founding Editor at ALLTOPSTARTUPS pointed to a shift in remote working as one of 7 key business trends for 2016, because even “larger companies have been embracing remote workers, at least partially, including powerhouses like Apple, Amazon, Dell, Intuit and IBM”.

If your business has an office in New York, Boston and San Francisco, various teams within your company need to meet via conference call or video conferencing to work on projects together. The same concept applies if your business only has one office in Toledo with two stay at home workers who need to meet with everyone else.

So if you have to run a remote meeting, the first thing you have to deal with is an internal rejection and a fear of being less productive. It is generally known that managers prefer to have face-to-face meetings instead of remote ones, as the former are perceived as more productive. Overall, this is true. But there is always a possibility to adapt and improve remote collaboration process and outcome.

Different rules apply when you have a meeting via video conferencing versus a meeting in your office. You need to think of a remote meeting as a regular company meeting without the ability to clearly see and hear everyone throughout the entire meeting. So how can you conduct business without the clarity of face to face conversation?

In order to help you smooth the process and establish an engaging and productive atmosphere we collected an extended list of 16 remote meetings golden rules and also asked remote managers to share their experience and stories on remote collaboration.

Before the remote meeting

1. Great online meeting tools stack

The best online meetings include three essentials you need to remember: connection, collaboration and feedback. Maintaining these essentials you will make participants feel more engaged while keeping the meeting productive.

There are only a few solutions on the market that support these three points, which are critical for remote meetings (like RealtimeBoard, or Google solutions — Docs and Hangouts, and so on).

We use collaborative software (WebEx, Adobe Connect, Skype for Business) that ensures everyone can see the same thing at the same time, provides tools to manage the conversation and record comments on whiteboards to help participants follow the conversation.

 Rick Lepsinger, President of OnPoint Consulting

Before RealtimeBoard, we were just using Skype for audio and video-chatting, and thought about possible whiteboarding solutions: a camera on a whiteboard, the whiteboard tool in Skype, or sharing a screen with PowerPoint presentation, etc. But all those solutions didn’t solve the problem of remote collaboration. For example, we could not fully share artifacts like Kanban boards, burn down charts, definition of “done”, etc. But with RealtimeBoard we aren’t just sharing a screen, or sharing a whiteboard managed by one driver — we truly collaborate.

 Bobbie Manson, Scrum Master at Mingle Analytics

We are based in five locations in the UK and Monaco, France and South Africa so can’t sit in an office to discuss anything — our meetings happen on Hangouts and Skype. We use many online services like Basecamp, Highrise, Google Docs, RealtimeBoard etc. for our projects which enable everyone to see openly what others are working on and ensure real-time remote collaboration.”

 Nigel Rushman, founder of Rushmans

At the same time, you can apply a combination of tools, where each tool relates to a certain task, but makes them a perfect match. For example, you can select a business phone system or conferencing software like Skype to establish connection, combine it with a real time collaboration tool like InVision to work on designs, and use a variety of ways to collect input — polls, chats, IM. In this case, you can create endless combinations and adapt them according to your meeting needs. Browse the necessary collection of well-known tools on Capterra, or try to find something hot under the best price in Product Hunt Collections.

2. Know your tools and have a plan B

You may know how to turn on the video camera and send a code for participants to enter as they join. However, knowing your software and hardware well can help you use your tools more effectively, and resolve problems quicker.

Make it a habit to dial or go online at least 5 minutes early, so you can set up the facility in advance or fall back to plan B. Video recording rehearsals should also be conducted in advance, because it can overload the computer’s operation memory.

3. Prepare a shared space

What is the biggest benefit of an actual meeting? It is face-to-face interaction, which is a result of sharing a certain space. But a shared space is not equal to a meeting room. Also, it includes shared flip charts, chats, shared screens, or shared online whiteboard. A combination of different shared spaces positively influence remote employees presence in a meeting.

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I’m in Olympia, WA, but my team is in Las Vegas, Boston, Philadelphia, Wisconsin, San Diego, Finland, Mexico, Poland, and Belarus. As project lead, I have to maintain the creative direction of the game across a number of cultures and backgrounds. Previously we used a combination of an email solutions and Trello. Unfortunately, Trello didn’t allow for larger views of the project as a whole. So we switched to RealtimeBoard to map out story structure, maps and other ‘big picture’ issues.

 CHRIS MEANS, Project lead at Fallout: Lonestar

This approach is commonly used at Rentbits — Dan Daugherty (CEO) shared that they use a combination of Slack and Skype for all remote meetings to engage employees. Skype’s screen-share allows them to view product development while they add notes and updates into Gitlab project management boards in real time.

4. Plan the agenda carefully and share it in advance

Gathering together for a remote meeting takes effort, so do not waste time during the meeting. Have a plan with specific items to cover and stick to that plan. It is better to share the agenda ahead of time to those who will participate, so that everyone can prepare.

I’ve been on numerous remote conference calls where participants share new material in real-time, and I found that instead of actively listening to what others had to say, participants were either rehearsing or putting the finishing touches on their own projects. When workshop materials are shared in advance the meeting leader completes before-the-meeting preparation in time, while the team can review the work and develop questions and curiosities of their own.

 Dan Edmonson, CEO at Dronegenuity

Michael Sueoka, Head of User Experience at The Mobile Majority sends out agenda and the meeting’s goals before the meeting, then ask people to read it and to comment on it if they have any feedback or suggestions. Michael considers this engages before the actual meeting so that they don’t spend precious meeting time on thinking about ideas but they come with ideas.

5. Invite the right people

It’s difficult to hold a remote meeting with a large number of participants, due to the capabilities of the technology and the everyone’s ability to contribute to the conversation. Start practicing it with smaller groups of people and increase the number when you achieve remote management success. 1-10 people is a good number to start, because if there are a lot of people on the call, there is a lower expectation you’ll need to engage in the conversation.

Make sure each attendee is responsible for an agenda item or knows why they are on the call and what they are expected to contribute.

 Rick Lepsinger, President of OnPoint Consulting

Carlo Borja, Online Marketing Team Lead at TimeDoctor also warns from including everyone in every meeting, because they would end up just staying silent. It will be great if people just do their email and not speak. But more often they start feeling frustrated because the time is slipping away while they don’t do anything useful.

6. Develop “the rules on the road

Whether it is a brainstorming, a project update, approval session or any kind of recurring meeting, set up the rules and circulate it to participants before the meeting, or set it up for a longer time period.

Uncontrollable meetings neither help your team be productive, nor boost creativity. Usually, they lead to chaos, where everybody is speaking at the same time, or someone is starting to dominate in the conversation. Nancy Halpern, Principal at KNH Associates suggests to develop “the rules of the road” that limit each person’s speaking time to prevent anyone from dominating.

During the remote meeting

7. Introduce everyone

The video camera doesn’t show every speaker throughout the meeting. Some software shows an icon or picture of who is involved in the meeting, but it is good practice to introduce everyone attending. Managers at OnPoint Consulting post pictures of attendees on the wall when the video is not used, because people are more willing to participate and are more open when they know who’s on the call.

The most important step for increasing meeting engagement in my opinion is for the meeting host to ensure that all attendees are introduced and announced at the meeting, including their role (obviously if there is an extensive list of attendees this might not be possible). If someone feels like their role in the meeting is less important, they are less likely to engage with the group

 Anna Johnson, Marketing Coordinator at The Edge Prep

8. Have small talk before to start

Don’t miss a chance to connect with remote colleagues and help them make their presence felt in the room. Having small talk helps to feel people connected.

The most important step for increasing meeting engagement in my opinion is for the meeting host to ensure that all attendees are introduced and announced at the meeting, including their role (obviously if there is an extensive list of attendees this might not be possible). If someone feels like their role in the meeting is less important, they are less likely to engage with the group

 Anna Johnson, Marketing Coordinator at The Edge Prep

Patty Azzarello CEO at Azzarello Group shared a story of a guy who worked remotely and took a picture of himself every day, and whenever he was on a conference call with the group at headquarters, he would email the picture of himself with a note that said something like, “thought you would want to see what shirt I was wearing today”. It may sound silly, but he was exerting his presence — he was well known and respected.

9. Remind of the meeting goal

Remind participants of the meeting goal once starting a meeting. If you use an online collaboration whiteboard, you can easily put a sticker with a meeting goal and what needs to be achieved at the end, so that all the participants are clear with it at all times during the meeting.

10. Give people things to do

Split the roles between attendees: facilitator, timekeeper and scribe to write down action points and decisions made. This helps involve participants in the meeting. For a recurring meeting, change the roles between participants from meeting to meeting by running a kind of lottery, so nobody knows who will be lucky to be the timekeeper or scribe, writing down the meeting minutes. Any kind of game before the meeting usually works well for participants engagement.

Have the remote team members “run” the meeting. They know the agenda and the drill, so they’re perfectly capable of doing it. Give everyone a chance to feel responsible.

 Darin Herle, Co-Founder at Trackmeet

11: Have people identify themselves and make sure everyone recognizes each other

This is especially important if some participants aren’t visible to everyone else. A quick, “Hey, Elsie here,” before Elsie speaks, for example, lets others identify the voice (and the face if on video) of each speaker. Keep note of who has spoken, as well to ask nonparticipants to join in.

However, if Elsie is a remote employee, it can be difficult to identify her voice and personality via a phone call. Patty Azzarello CEO at Azzarello Group suggests that these remote employees take a casual Skype call with key office colleagues at any convenient time in order to connect with them “in person”, because it makes a huge difference.

12. Be courteous to others

Avoid side conversations and background distractions. Just like in high school when you didn’t like someone whispering behind your back, side conversations can be confusing and leave people out. Stay on the topic and keep the idea mentioned in rule #9 in focus.

13. Ask participants to contribute

Asking directly for input really helps team members feel engaged. And remember, listeners can only hear one person at a time clearly, so take turns sharing with each other. Michael Sueoka, Head of User Experience at The Mobile Majority considers that it is vital to make every person feel like they have the ability to contribute to the project. Reaching out to everyone in the meeting individually or asking specifically for their contributions is a good way to get people involved. So here are few examples of such engaging hooks.

 Are you happy with it?

 What interests you the most and why?

 What is your favorite/least favorite part?

 If you could change anything, what would it be? Why?

 What’s one thing that could increase your satisfaction with this project, and why?

Clarify expectation that participation is expected and call on people who you haven’t heard from. Mention them by name and repeat the questions – you don’t want to “catch” them, you want to engage them.

 Rick Lepsinger, President of OnPoint Consulting

14. Be engaging

Boring meetings are tough to sit through. Since you put the work into organizing a great meeting, make it interesting with lively interaction, good visuals, or set up your own meeting traditions. Plan time to break the ice and make some fun asking ice breaker questions.

I’ll send something silly from our office that will “magically” show up in video conference land, in order to forge more of a “connection” with HQ. For example, we name our projects after movies, so I’ll send remote staff a copy of the movie on DVD or a picture of the movie to show in our conference.

 Darin Herle, Co-Founder at Trackmeet

To encourage collaboration and engagement during remote meetings, allow individuals to either speak up or ping in their contributions to the conversation online. For introverts, this might make participation and sharing new ideas easier.

 Ketti Salemme, Senior Communications Manager at TINYpulse

What to do after the remote meeting

15. Send a follow up

Remind those who participated the main points of the meeting and the direction post meeting. This both increases the effectiveness of the meeting and reinforces the importance of remote meetings to your team members.

However, it’s only effective when it’s read, so make the letter or chat message as engaging as possible — fill it with gifs, videos, funny pics from the meeting, etc. Make it a habit, so the meeting participants will be waiting for your email each time after the meeting.

16. Check out action items are in progress

It’s vital in remote working relationships that you get very clear and outcome-oriented with performance objectives and expectations for individuals and teams. Discuss them as a result of the meeting, send via follow-up email, and don’t forget to control them when the meeting is done. Otherwise what was the point?

Conclusion

The biggest challenge of remote meetings is to keep people engaged and interested. Feel free to overcome this challenge using the guidelines and tips above. But it is important to remember that when it comes to attendees’ engagement, it really helps to think outside the box and give your own solutions a try.

If you have any thoughts to share, feel free to add a comment or send us a note to feedback@realtimeboard.com


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