How to Run Online Meetings that Don’t Suck

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Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Online meetings can be an efficient way to get work done — or they can be painful. The choice is up to you. Here are some things to keep in mind as you prepare for your next meeting.

What is the Primary Point of your Meeting?

Do you want push out information? Do you want to hold a discussion or brainstorming event? Different video conferencing tools are good for different things. Choosing the right program can mean the difference between a productive meeting and one filled with awkward silence.

If your meeting is short and focused around discussion, choose a program that puts attendee’s faces in the foreground. Programs like appear.in and Zoom are great for this. My co- authors and I used a combination of Google docs and Google Meet to edit and discuss our book before its publication. We wanted to see each other’s faces as we talked through what should stay in and what should get edited out of the book. Those close knit meetings are a big part of why we’re still speaking to each other after writing a book together.

Conversely, that face-to-face meeting style is awkward in meetings designed to deliver information. This is where meetings can go wrong. In a misguided effort to simulate an in person meeting, some organizers will insist that everyone turn on their computer’s camera for every meeting. Online meetings can be intense — the position of your computer’s camera makes it feel as if you’re sitting knee to knee with the person on the screen. Think of it this way: How would you react if you went to a lecture, and the speaker sat in front of you and stared at you for the entire hour? In an actual lecture hall, attendees can choose a comfortable distance by picking a seat closer or further from the front. In a video meeting, the organizer has to create that distance.

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Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

For example, my company holds quarterly meetings in an Adobe room. The primary point of this meeting is to deliver information on company initiatives to 100+ attendees. Only the presenters are on camera, and the PowerPoint deck takes up the majority of the computer screen. This set up encourages people to focus on the information. Attendees use the chat function to ask questions and trade banter. Often there is a specific person assigned to reading the chat and funneling questions to the presenter(s) as appropriate. An added advantage to this setup is that no one can hijack the meeting with an off topic question.

Your company may already have a suite of online meeting tools for you to use. If not, spend an hour doing research on the types of programs available. Take time to familiarize yourself with the strengths and weaknesses of each. Then use the right tool for the job.

You Still Need to Prepare

Preparation starts with your meeting invite. Make sure you use a descriptive title and explain the reason for the meeting. Don’t assume people will know why you want to meet. Include an agenda and links to necessary documents. If you expect people to come prepared to discuss something, list that in the agenda.

Your invite should include everything your attendees need to prepare for your meeting. This is critical if the primary purpose of your meeting is to discuss a topic or brainstorm solutions. Some people like to think by talking out loud while others need quiet time to form their opinions. Providing materials ahead of time means both sorts of people will come to the meeting prepared to do their best work.

Invite the right people

Your online meeting will never rise above mediocre if you invite the wrong people. This is true of any meeting, but is particularly true in a video discussion. The computer camera highlights every passing expression on your face, effectively putting everyone in the front row of the meeting. It is obvious who is contributing and who isn’t. If you aren’t sure if someone is part of a project, ask. Some employees do not have the seniority or social capital needed to back out of unnecessary meetings.

Sometimes you need someone to report on a specific item. If that person has nothing else to contribute, then invite them to a portion of the meeting. If all you need is 15 minutes of their time, then ask for 15 minutes. Make it clear that the person is free to leave after answering any questions that come up. You will reap the benefits of their knowledge without wasting anyone’s time.

Before you send that meeting invite, ask yourself: Why am I inviting this person? Do I need to dispense knowledge? Do I need information from them? ‘This is a good reminder for anyone’ is not a good enough reason to invite someone to a meeting. Record the session and send it them instead. Make it clear that everyone will be held responsible for the knowledge coming out of the meeting. Those that need the knowledge will show up, and those that need a refresher will watch the recording. Everyone else will use their time on other business tasks.

Level the Playing Field

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The following information is critical for anyone who hosts meetings with a mixture of remote and on-site employees.

If your online meeting is supposed to be a group discussion, then everyone in the meeting should log in using their own computer. Fight the urge to group all the collocated employees around one computer. Computer microphones are limited. If someone isn’t sitting in front of the mic, the remote people won’t hear them. If there are people sitting outside camera range, the remote employees might not know they’re there. Additionally, people sitting together in a room tend to pay more attention to the other people in the room. Your remote colleagues will fight an uphill battle to contribute to the discussion in any meaningful way. This can leave them feeling like second-class citizens.

Someone out there is thinking ‘But you lose so much when you can’t be in the same room working on a problem;’ or ‘I do my best work face to face.’ Ask yourself: Am I confusing a lack of practice with online meeting tools with a lack of ability? Have I only used online meeting tools enough to hate how awkward I am with them? Is my personal comfort more important than my colleague’s need to fully participate in the meeting? You might decide to only work for companies who use a traditional, in-office work force. Understand that this choice may limit your career options.

If you are a remote employee, understand that your in-office counterparts may be unaware that they are marginalizing you. This is especially true if they have never attended a meeting remotely, or if your face is on a large computer screen. They may think you can see and hear them because they can see and hear you. View this as an education opportunity. Use tact and pick your battles. It’s more important to change the format for a standing meeting than it is to expend effort to change a one off meeting.

Sometimes you can’t avoid grouping employees around a computer. Someone’s computer may have locked up, for example. If so, keep the computer’s limitations in mind. Group as few people as possible in front of each computer. Each participant should sit in front of the microphone and look at the camera. This will remind you to talk to everyone in the meeting, not just the person next to you. Your remote colleagues will notice and appreciate your efforts.

Running great online meetings can seem like an impossible task — but it doesn’t have to be. The good news is that there are steps you can follow to ensure that the right people end up at the right meeting, set up in the right way. Prepare for your online meeting and educate your collocated colleagues. You’ll soon find that you get more done with attendees who are fully engaged in the task at hand.

Written by

Mexican Yankee in Canada. Remote work speaker, manager. teresamdouglas.com. Book: Working Remotely: Secrets to Success for Employees on Distributed Teams

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