Meetings, Remote Work | April 7, 2020

How to Run Successful Distributed Team Meetings

image representing How to Run Successful Distributed Team Meetings

The way teams work and collaborate have changed, and not just in response to COVID-19.  A study released by Zug in 2018 found that 70% of professionals worked remotely at least one day per week. An Owl Labs study from last year shows 20% of respondents would take a pay cut of more than 10% to work remote. We all know it, distributed teams are the new norm, even beyond the post COVID-19 world. 

Jason Fried, cofounder/CEO of Basecamp, has been advocating on behalf of remote work for 20+ years. “The beauty of remote working is the opportunity to improve the way you work, to cut way back on meetings”.  Though we know Jason Fried and his company really, really dislike meetings, you notice he doesn’t say “eliminate all meetings”...

Team meetings are vital for all teams, but especially for distributed teams.  Weekly team meetings are one of the few opportunities managers have to communicate with everyone all together and ensure alignment.  Plus they’re great for a little [awkward] virtual bonding! Therefore these meetings need to be effective, efficient, and well thought through ahead of time. And realize it’s okay if you’re not there yet.  Jason Fried said it best: 

“If you threw a guitar at me, and I’ve never played a guitar before, everyone would understand that I’m going to suck,” Fried says. “It’s the same thing for remote work. If people haven’t practiced before, they’re going to suck for a little bit.”

So you may be asking yourself how you can make your remote meetings more efficient. What do you need in your tech stack? How should you prepare for a remote meeting versus an in-person? How do you ensure attendee participation and engagement? 

We’ve learned that the distributed teams that are most successful at running their team meetings remotely are those that:

  • Are intentional about why they’re meeting
  • Put extra effort into meeting preparation
  • Understand how to apply tools to maximize effectiveness of the remote meeting 

We’ve pulled from our collective past experiences leading and working on distributed teams to run Strety as a 100% remote company. We’ve learned what works for us through trial, error, and iteration - It will be the same for you.  Use our experience as guide rails and start leaning what works for you and your distributed team

 

Pre-Meeting Preparation

Establish Meeting Guidelines

Team meetings can drastically differ in size and scope. Whether it’s a decision-making meeting, a problem-solving meeting, a standup, or an information sharing meeting, some universally understood decorum is necessary to ensure your meeting operates smoothly. 

Some questions to think about: What is the protocol for speaking out? Can anyone speak? Should they wait to be called on by the meeting leader? Does everyone need to have their camera on? Do you want non-speakers to be muted? 

Write these guidelines up and disperse them to your team ahead of any remote meetings so everyone is on the page and you’re not using up valuable time to address breaches of etiquette.

Find a Time

I worked from Lisbon last year and had meetings with teams and accounts scattered throughout the US, Europe, and Australia. If your team is distributed throughout different time zones, you’ll have to put some thought into the best time for everyone to attend. 

There are plenty of tools to help you speed up the process of finding acceptable time zones for your team. I loved worldtimebuddy, which lets you add the locations of multiple team members and quickly compare what time it is - or will be come meeting time - in any part of the world.

Tech Stack

Lifted straight from Slack’s Ultimate Guide to Remote Team Meetings: First ask yourself: What is the key functionality you need for your remote team meeting to be successful? Do you need to be able to see everyone’s reactions as you share new product ideas?. Do you need everyone to be able to work on a press release collaboratively? Do you need everyone to watch a demo in real-time?

The key here is what are your needs? While each team within an organization is different, every remote team meeting needs to leverage, at the very least, an online meeting tool with both audio and video. 

Now that you know what you need, do your research! Find tools that fill your conferencing, communication, project management, meeting agenda, and documentation gaps. We mostly use Zoom, but here’s a list of Owl Labs 10 Best Video Meetings Apps so you can see what may work best for you.

One last thing: Everyone should arrive a few minutes early just make sure their tech is set up and functioning correctly. Trust us :)

Shared Meeting Agendas

You know that universally applicable, but often mis-attributed, Abe quote “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”? Well, I love it. I apply it to everything, and it applies to meeting preparation, too.

Preparedness doesn’t pertain solely to the meeting organizer, it applies to the entire team.  How do you control the preparedness of your meeting attendees? Shared, collaborative meeting agendas - that’s how! If your meeting doesn’t have one, you can easily spend 5-10 minutes on each topic catching everyone up to speed. 

By creating a shared, collaborative meeting agenda and giving everyone access in the days leading up to the meeting, you give all attendees time to:

  • Contribute to the agenda
  • Ask for additional context or resources
  • Organize and prepare their own thoughts around agenda items

A shared meeting agenda gives opportunity for all attendees to be heard and to be fully prepared for an effective meeting. Zero downside to that!

 

Running a Distributed Team Meeting

Agenda Must-Haves

I say must but I really mean should - you run your own show - but from our experience these are must-haves for any remote team meeting:

  • Key talking points
    • List in order of importance.  Items near top of list usually receive more floor time
  • Quick check-in
    • Open the meeting asking how everyone is feeling. Extra important for distributed teams
  • Responsibilities
    • Don’t let people check-out.  Construct your agenda so everyone has something they’re responsible for
  • Relevant Resources
    • Docs, links, etc that support agenda items

The Meeting Itself

You and your team have curated a collaborative agenda, now follow it! Throw the agenda up on a screen-share and run through each item, one by one. Running through the agenda together ensures everyone stays on point and gives you a re-centering point if you veer off on tangents.  If you find your meetings are routinely running long, we suggest including a timer for each agenda item to help you stay on track.

Notes

Take notes as you go. Designate a primary note taker for the meeting and have them summarize any key takeaways or decisions made from each agenda item.  Before you close out the item, have the note-taker read the summary to the group to ensure everyone is on the same page. If you aren’t, this gives people an opportunity to voice that NOW. Now is better than later.

Action items

Meetings often lead to more work. Hold people accountable by assigning follow-ups, deliverables, and next steps including due dates during the meeting. If it’s a multi-person effort, assign ownership of the follow-up to one person. Make it clear who is responsible.  This will reduce the likelihood of someone saying “I thought you were gonna do it”. 

Strety Users:  Assign an Action Item with a due date within your Meeting Agenda and all the context around the topic will be visible for the Action Item owner. You'll be reminded of your Action Items from your Strety homepage

Agenda Action Item

 

Post Meeting

Share Notes

Those notes you took? Hopefully you have an effective way to share them! If you can attach the notes to the meeting agenda itself, even better. Again, that context will be critical for anyone who wants to look back at the meeting, allowing them to self-serve themselves the answer versus distracting someone with a, “Hey, what did we decide to do about the overdue accounts?”.  

Feedback & Adjustment

We believe you should always ask for meeting feedback, but doubly so if you’re running remote meetings.  Ask open ended, guided questions. You need continuous feedback to learn whether a meeting was viewed as effective/productive and if attendees saw it as a valuable use of their time. 

It’s okay if you get negative feedback, that can lead to open discussion about how you can improve.  A few sample questions you can ask to get quality feedback:

  • Are there any improvements we need to make around the tools we use (tech stack) for our meetings?
  • Do you think any changes need to be made around the structure of our team meetings?
  • Are we meeting enough/not enough?

We’re Here to Help

We encourage you to look at your remote team meetings as a job in and of themselves.  To reiterate, you need to get these right. We’ve been running remote team meetings for years and we’re still improving our processes.  Hopefully this gives you some structure which you can iterate from and, as always, reach out if you’d like our help!

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