How to make online meetings work better
- Processes, standards and quality
The growing acceptance for online meetings is one of the few positive byproducts of the COVID-19 pandemic. I can still remember getting up in the middle of the night, spending hours on a train only because of a two-hour meeting I had to attend hundreds of kilometers away.
Today, it’s a matter of opening Teams, Zoom, Jitsi or another video-enabled communication software, and in a matter of seconds you may talk and present to people not only from the whole country, but even around the world. However, it’s easy to turn these meetings into a nightmare. Read on if you want to learn a few tricks that will make the meetings you organise much more effective.
Online meetings are here to stay. Even once COVID is over, their convenience will most probably make us all continue to use them as a replacement for long e-mail threads or phone calls. However, they are not without their faults, and as they solve some problems, at the same time they introduce new ones. Moreover, the issues which make real world meetings ineffective may have even bigger influence on their Internet-based counterparts.
However, sticking to a few simple rules may make your online meetings a much better experience. And, as COVID will (hopefully) fade away, you may find that these rules improve your face-to-face meetings as much as they’ve done online.
Think twice before setting up a meeting.
You wouldn’t gather people from all over the world every two days for a simple status meeting, would you? The very fact of wasting people’s time on travelling limits the frequency of real-world meetings. However, when it comes to your local coworkers, you may not have such reservations. They are readily available and may assemble in a matter of minutes.
Online meetings turn every coworker into a local one. You’re only a few clicks away from scheduling a meeting, and you may set up one even on a few minutes’ notice with little risk of someone not making it.
This fact makes it extremely easy to overdo meetings. Of course, a meeting may resolve an issue much quicker than a lengthy e-mail conversation does, especially if every next question depends on the answer to the previous one. However, if all that you need is a simple answer, every asynchronous means of communication will do better and consume less time. And don’t even think of waiting with asking the question up until the meeting starts, as most probably you’ll have to set up another one before you can get the answer.
Do not overcrowd your meetings.
With online meetings you’re no longer limited by the capacity of your conference room. It’s easy to invite tens of people in the hope of a wide and fruitful discussion happening. And having every team member on the meeting may seem to be a perfect way to build engagement and share knowledge.
The fact is, the more participants, the less engaged they are. It’s plain impossible to actively take part in such a meeting. The network lag makes it incredibly difficult to jump in with one’s remarks in between two persons speaking. With no visual clues as to who’s going to speak next, the discussion may quickly turn to a sequence of “sorry”s and “go ahead”s. Resigned, many participants may turn to reading their e-mail or browsing the Internet, trying to make good use of the time. Thus, their involvement in the thought process and decision making drops to zero.
You may deal with this by limiting the number of required participants of your meetings to a core minimum. If you feel that some additional persons may bring real value, send them optional invitations. They will be free to accept if they feel inclined to, but they won’t have to if they feel the meeting is a waste of their time.
Share a meeting agenda ahead of time.
There can be no greater loss of everyone’s time than a meeting with no clear purpose. How can anyone know if the meeting is worth attending, if they don’t know what it’s going to be about? Meetings set up in such a way usually end early with everyone declaring that they need to double-check facts and get back with their findings.
In order to prevent this from happening, spend a few moments on preparing a meeting agenda and sharing it with all participants. It doesn’t have to be very specific. It’s enough for it to contain a general description of the meeting’s aims and what’s required from all parties involved, so that everyone can either join the meeting well prepared, have it pushed back, or decline it.
And if you’re going to create a Wiki-based archive of all your meeting minutes, it would make a great place for your meeting agendas as well.
Set sensible time-boxes.
Unless a matter can be resolved in a short interchange, or a complete misunderstanding happens, meetings tend to take as much time as you’re willing to spend on them. Do your best to estimate the amount of time required for a meeting. Allot too little and you’ll be forced to run over time or set up a follow-up meeting. Allot too much, and you’ll keep wasting everyone’s time on endless small talks or side topics.
Usually, meetings work well if they last between 30 and 90 minutes. If you believe your meeting may take less than 30 minutes, it’s highly probable you don’t need the meeting at all and a simple e-mail exchange will do better. On the other hand, it’s said that a human can’t remain focused on a single topic for longer than 45 minutes. Thus, if you plan your meeting to go over 60 minutes, make sure there are multiple different topics to be covered. And if you think that even more time is required, you might consider splitting the meeting into multiple shorter ones, each devoted to a single topic.
Be aware of time zones.
With online meetings it’s easy to have people from all over the world gathered at the same place and time. However, it’s equally easy to get time zones messed up and schedule a meeting so that it’s either inconvenient or plain impossible for some participants to attend.
If your calendar supports multi-time-zone teams, pay attention to what’s the local time on every participant’s end. In most cases, with a slight adjustment of the schedule you should be able to fit the business hours of all participants. However, if your team is located in three time zones very distant from each other, you might need to split the meeting into two separate ones and have someone act as a proxy between the two sub-divisions.
Of course, no time zone cognisance can ever prevent everyone’s “good morning”s and “good afternoon”s from mixing with each other, completely missing the actual time of day. But as long as everyone’s happy with the hours of their meetings, it’s not an issue to be worried about, more like online meeting folklore.
Make sure everyone is on time.
In real world, it’s quite common to spend first 5 minutes of a meeting waiting for all those joining late due to previous meetings, commute problems or last-minute phone calls. However, all these problems should be much less of an issue as far as online meetings are concerned. There’s no commute, phone calls turn into online meetings themselves, and meetings may be scheduled to reduce the risk of overlap even if one runs over time.
Thus, in order to keep meetings as short as they can be, always be on time and try to convince everyone to join your meeting in a timely manner. Of course, there’s nothing better than a good small talk for the first minute or two of the meeting, so that everyone can get their cups of tea or coffee ready. However, if you let all your meetings start late, the end result will be people joining your meetings even more late.
Account for respite time between meetings.
It’s easy to fill up one’s calendar with meetings back-to-back. To actually be able to attend such a series of meetings, it’s another story. You really can’t expect anyone to sit in their chair for several hours and take active part in every meeting.
In order to prevent unnecessary strain on participants of your meetings, leave gaps between meetings. For short meetings, a 10-minute break may be enough, but a longer one may be needed should the meetings take more than an hour each.
If you’re using Microsoft Outlook, you may make use of an option which automatically shortens your appointments if they’re back-to-back with other meetings. Unfortunately, this only applies to the meetings you schedule, and it won’t let you enforce breaks between meetings organised by others. However, you can always put guard blocks around meetings in your calendar to let everyone know that you do mind having that time scheduled for another meeting.
Be true to time-boxes.
You are bound to make mistakes estimating time-boxes of your meetings, and you’re free to learn from these mistakes and refine your estimation techniques. But you should certainly refrain yourself from running over time with your meetings.
Firstly, people may have other meetings scheduled right after the one you’ve invited them to. They might need some time to prepare themselves for these meetings, or just get themselves a cup of tea. The original time-box might have suited them perfectly, even if giving them little time to switch from one meeting to another. However, with the meeting running over time, they might find themselves short on time or even joining the next meeting late.
And even if there are no other meetings, people can have some other work planned and your meeting going over time just eats into their work time. A quarter here, half an hour there, and the overhead of context switching may greatly reduce efficiency of one’s work. It’s not uncommon to spend only half your work week doing actual, effective work. Every meeting going over time only worsens this statistic.
Promote webcam use to increase engagement.
If you struggle with low activity of participants of your meetings even though you’ve meticulously adhered to all above mentioned suggestions, you may consider promoting use of webcams. It’s easy for one’s thoughts to start wandering away if they can’t be seen. Not so much with the webcam turned on, though. And as an added benefit, even though the image tends to lag behind audio, with the webcam on it’s much easier to see when someone is eager to join the conversation.
Keep in mind, however, that you can’t make webcams a strict requirement. Some may feel uncomfortable showing their remote workplace to everyone else, even with the background blurred or replaced with an image. Webcam use may also impair network conditions, causing audio to lag and drop. In such a case, turning video off may actually improve everyone’s experience.
Don’t use the built-in mic.
Poor network connections and noise cancellation techniques make understanding others difficult enough. Don’t make it even harder by using a built-in mic. Such microphones are not only of inferior quality, but they also tend to capture background noises and echoes reflecting from walls equally well as one’s own speech. In the end, one’s voice coming through the links sounds like if they were sitting in a cave.
A good headset can really make a difference. It not only improves the way you can hear others, but it greatly enhances the quality of your speech as perceived by other participants of the meeting.
Mute when not talking.
Not much can improve the online meeting experience more than muting your mic when you’re not speaking. And it’s for multiple reasons.
First, by muting you clearly show that you’ve done speaking. On the other hand, when someone unmutes, others can see it and presume the person is about to speak.
Second, if you haven’t followed my advice and you’re using the built-in mic and speakers of your computer, you may introduce a feedback loop to the meeting if you’re not muted. Even though most online meeting platforms are quite good at audio feedback cancellation, you can’t fully rely on that. And there’s nothing more disturbing than hearing yourself back in your headphones and with a slight delay.
Third, when you’re muted, you prevent any background noise from disturbing the meeting. There are many kinds of noise that can go through the line, some of which you have no control over. Children playing in the yard, cars going down the street, family members laughing in adjoining rooms, all this can be heard by other participants of the meeting and make it harder for them to understand someone talking at the same time, whilst you can’t do much about it. And then, of course, you may add your own breathing, coughing or sipping your coffee.
And lastly, even if you keep your surroundings completely quiet, muting is always better than just keeping quiet. When muted, the application knows to not send any audio data, thus reducing network and server load. Even if all your mic picks up is a slight background hiss, it has to be digitised, compressed, sent over to the central server and broadcast to all participants. When you’re muted, the client software can skip all of that.
The aforementioned noise cancellation techniques are especially vulnerable to different kinds of noise coming from unmuted participants. Occasionally they cause the person who is actively speaking to sound distorted due to background noise picked up at another location. Thus, in order for everyone to sound loud and clear, it’s best for everyone else to be not only quiet, but muted.
Record important meetings.
Not inviting everyone involved in a project doesn’t stop you from being able to keep everyone on the same page. Unlike real-world meetings, it’s trivially easy to record an online meeting and share it across the team. This benefits not only those who were unable to attend, but also these who made it to the meeting but may need to refresh their memory.
Distribute summaries of every meeting.
As useful as recordings can be, nothing beats text. It’s much quicker and more convenient to remind yourself what a meeting was about by reading its summary rather than watching a recording of it. And you can’t even think of searching for some information if all you have are recordings of your meetings.
To make everyone’s lives easier, consider taking minutes of your meetings and sharing them with others. An e-mail with a summary of the meeting will do fine, of course. However, a shared folder with summaries of all meetings might be even better, and a shared Wiki-like web service with a collection of easily searchable pages of similar layout would be perfect.
Keep past meetings updated.
Quite a substantial number of people out there treat their calendars as a log of their every-day activities. They want their calendars to not only contain upcoming events, but also fairly accurately represent what they were doing in the past.
So, if your meeting didn’t exactly fit in its time-box, spend those few seconds on updating it to more closely represent reality. Of course, no one is going to make a fuss about a calendar entry not containing the exact ending hour of the meeting, and most people are fine with the granularity of 10 or 15 minutes. However, if you had overestimated the time-box and the meeting actually ended half an hour early, others may want to spend the recovered time on other tasks without having two overlapping schedules in their calendars. Similarly, even if everyone agrees on extending the time-box during a meeting, you may want to reschedule it to more accurately represent the actual time spent.
Also, never ever remove or reschedule past events unless they’ve never come to be. Of course, it may be tempting to schedule a follow-up meeting by rescheduling a previous instance. However, you gain very little by that, and you risk ruining everyone’s calendars by creating gaping holes in history they may be unable to fill afterwards.
Online meetings have become an established form of communication and are not going away, even once we’re again able to safely see each other in conference rooms. It is thus essential to make them as useful as can be. Some of the tricks I’ve presented in the article may help prevent your meetings from turning into chaos. Other are improvements which are not only relevant to online meetings now, but can be carried over to real-life ones, once they’re possible again.
The article was originally published here.