I’ve spent more than half a year working from home due to Covid-19. Since much of my work time is spent in meetings, I decided to share some of what I learned about running effective meetings in a remote-first environment.
First thing first, let’s talk about how to manage yourself. When you have a back-to-back meetings day in the office, you have the luxury of walking between meeting-rooms in the space between meetings. If all your meetings are virtual, you no longer have this luxury. Combine this with the increased cognitive stress of talking to a flat monitor all day long, and you have the perfect recipe for finishing your days emotionally drained. In a remote environment it is even more important to be strict about managing time and leaving some space between meetings to get away from the screen. For meetings that don’t require going over written material, consider going audio-only and taking a walk outside. More than anything, take even 5 seconds to gauge how you are doing emotionally and take breaks when you need to.
Next, you should invest in a good technical setup. This includes having a good internet connection with decent upload bandwidth and a good wifi or wired connection to your router. Once the plumbing is in place, you have three more things to invest in: visual, audio, and screen. You want to make sure that others can clearly see you, which helps with non-verbal communication. This means getting a decent webcam — your laptop camera is not good enough. Beyond the camera, you also want to invest in good lightning. Ideally, you should invest in a 3-point lightning setup, with a key light highlighting your face at an angle, a fill light to illuminate the other side of your face, typically at a lower angle, and a backlight to make you stand out from the background. Regardless, you should make sure that people can actually see you. At a minimum, this means making sure that there are no bright light sources, such as an open window, directly behind you, and that you are in a well lit environment.
Now that people see you, you want to make sure that people can hear you. Simple wired headphone are great, as long as you don’t get tangled up with all of the wires. Bluetooth headphones are acceptable as long as the lag is not too large. If you have a day full of meetings, battery life may also be an issue. If you want to go all in, a dedicated microphone will be great, although you will want to invest time in setting it up properly. You may end up investing in headphones anyways and connect them to your microphone so that you can hear how you sound, which reduces cognitive load.
With audio getting feedback on how you sound is great, but for video the opposite is true. The very first change that you should make to your video conferencing software is to turn off self view. We all gravitate to looking at ourselves, which distracts us from looking at the people speaking on the other side. Making eye-contact is as important in video-conferencing as it is in in-person meetings, if not more so. Removing the self view will help you maintain eye-contact. Beyond that, make sure that you minimize distractions during the call. This is the one case where having multiple monitors is a downside. Make sure that all the screen real-estate that is not dedicated to the meeting is free from any notifications or distractions, so that you can focus on being present in the meetings.
With the logistics out of the way, let’s turn our attention to running effective remote meetings. The inherent lag in remote meetings with multiple participants makes it easy to cut people off unintentionally, or to enter an endless loop of “sorry, you go ahead.” To mitigate this, have an agreed upon protocol for switching between speakers, such as having a moderator decide who speaks next. Couple this with a system for “raising your hand,” either directly in the video conferencing software or in a dedicated chat thread for the meeting attendees.
Some of the normal meeting best practices become even more important in remote meetings. Taking notes and sharing the summary and action items is critical to making sure that everyone really is on the same page. It is much easier for misunderstandings to take place when we can’t read body language as easily and when some of the participants may have a spotty internet connection. It is also even easier in remote meetings for people who tend to be passive, due to shyness, minority status, or power dynamics, to not engage. As the meeting moderator, you should actively make sure that their voices are heard.
Finally, a note about mixed meetings, which are common in offices that reopened with reduced capacity. If you run a meeting in the office and people from a remote office or from home also dial into the meeting, you want to make sure that make the remote people are included in the meeting. At the start of the meeting, verify that the video is properly set up so that the remote attendees can see what everyone in the room is doing. If you have to jump between the whiteboard and the table, assign a “remote champion” who will control the camera so that remote participants can see how things are going. You should make sure that you can get fast feedback from remote attendees. Sometimes the microphone location in the meeting room can make the meeting complete incomprehensible for them, while everyone in the room is non the wiser. Finally, the remote people are at an inherent disadvantage, so make sure that you engage with them and that their input is heard.
Hopefully we can all return to the office soon, but we will have to continue collaborating with people working remotely moving forward.