Knowing how to use Zoom or similar virtual meeting tools is only part of the solution to working effectively remotely. With Extension Engine's flexible work policies, offices in two cities, and staff across the US, remote meetings over Zoom have long been routine. Over time, we have learned how to run each type of meeting most effectively no matter how many, or how few people are in the same room with us. In the wake of the current global health crisis, we thought it would be valuable to share our best practices for running meetings with our network.
These are our best tips to make the most out of your remote meetings. You will find that several of the best practices listed here are familiar to you already, because they are good practice for all meetings, in person or remote. Some types of meetings, like brainstorming meetings, rely more heavily on software, but the most important skills for running remote meetings effectively and efficiently are planning, preparation, organization, and most importantly, empathy.
A very important point in conducting remote meetings effectively is to realize that you are not simply replicating a face-to-face experience using technology. Meetings are effective when they are used to discuss ideas, have debates, or explore connections between ideas that explore an issue from different perspectives. In order to have insightful discussions, the meeting participants must already have done some deep thinking around the meeting topics. Deep thinking is primarily a solo activity and should be done asynchronously, before the meeting. This allows the participants to bring well-thought-out ideas to the discussion and then discuss them thoroughly.
No matter what type of meeting that you are setting up, look for activities that attendees can arrive at the meeting having already done so everyone can hit the ground running.
Having your meeting attendees arrive at the meeting after completing the right kind of pre-meeting activities will make your meetings much more productive than arriving cold into the meeting and beginning to think through the topic on the spot. You might find that your meetings are so much more productive that you need fewer meetings.
Table of Contents
Best practice across all types of virtual meetings
Software Best Practices
- Good audio is critical: None of you can accomplish your meeting goals if you cannot hear each other. Your audio will drop sharply the farther you move away from your microphone. If you are going to be moving around, you will probably want to use a wireless headset. Audio is super important.
- Position yourself so the light is on your face: If you are going to have your video on, people should be able to see your face. Don’t sit with a bright light behind you or you will be silhouetted. If you are delivering meetings to large audiences, try to have good lighting and body positioning so your facial expressions are visible to them. You can buy relatively cheap lighting that can clip onto your camera if your room is poorly lit. You can even buy lighting kits designed for making a video using cell phones to which you can clip your phone.
- Troubleshoot your technology before the meeting: Log into the virtual meeting room early and make sure your camera, microphone, and speakers are working properly. If you will be sharing an embedded video, try playing it while sharing your screen. Have a backup plan in case it doesn’t work (pre-load the video on a video player or the source website so you can play it through there). Check that you are able to record the meeting. Think of a backup plan in case your technology fails. You might not be up and running right away, but you will still need to communicate your contingency plan with the other meeting attendees.
- Ask the attendees to mute their microphones: Once everyone has gotten a chance to say their hellos, ask attendees who are not presenting to mute their microphones. This will enable everyone to hear the speaker(s) more clearly. For large meetings, it may be expedient to set your software preferences to have participants muted by default when joining the meeting. They will be able to unmute themselves when they wish to speak.
- Make your name known: Sometimes we use company accounts bearing generic names (Extension Engine's Zoom accounts are Zoom1, Zoom2, etc.) to sign in to our virtual calls. You should be able to replace the generic name once you are in the call. This is good practice in large meetings, especially if you might be turning the video off to preserve bandwidth.
- Make sure you are using the correct account: Sometimes free accounts on virtual call software restrict the length of the call, or the maximum number of meeting attendees, or will restrict the use of specific features like recording the call. Make sure the account you are using will allow you to conduct your meeting in the way you need to run it.
Meeting Management Best Practices
- Share the meeting agenda: Let the attendees know ahead of time what the meeting is about so they have time to think about the topic and be prepared to participate fully. Create a meeting agenda (here is a template) which lists the key points you will be talking about in the meeting.
- Avoid side meetings: It might be tempting to discuss issues from the meeting agenda on Slack or similar application before the meeting during unrelated conversations, but that could result in other attendees feeling excluded or give the appearance of favoritism, especially if you are in a position of authority over the other meeting attendees. Your team will contribute best if they feel that the meeting decisions were made in collaboration with them.
- Set and follow meeting norms: A virtual meeting is not an opportunity to read and respond to emails, send Slack notifications, or to send text messages with your phone just out of sight of your computer’s camera. Ask everyone to close Slack and email and be prepared to focus exclusively on the task at hand.
- Take a few minutes to greet everyone: It is important to spend the first few minutes of the meeting to find out how others are doing. This is sometimes forgotten in virtual meetings. The people on the other side of the screen are still people and connecting with everyone will allow you to maintain a personal connection with the people on the other side of the screen.
- Address distractions: If your dog or child wanders in, or there is construction in the background, it is best to tell everyone what is going on and then do what you can to minimize the distraction. Pretending like it isn’t happening makes it awkward for everyone and they might feel disinclined to speak up and say they cannot hear.
- Wrap up your meetings with actionable steps: Save a few minutes at the end of each meeting to summarize the key decisions and action items. Capture your main points in a meeting agenda and wrap-up template. Ask participants if they know what they need to do next and whom to talk to if they have further questions.
- Let everyone know if recording the meeting: There are many reasons for wanting to record the meeting. You might want to record the meeting for people who were unable to join, or so that attendees can access the information at a later time when it will be useful again to them. Sometimes, you will want to record the meeting as a log of it happening. Whatever your reason for recording, please let meeting attendees know at the start of the meeting that you will be recording. This is not only good practice but, depending on where you are located, might be required by law.
Best practices for running brainstorming meetings remotely
Also known as “innovation” meetings, the main focus in these meetings is to come up with new ideas, or new ways of thinking. Brainstorming meetings bring to mind whiteboards on which a complex network of disjointed phrases and sticky notes are being connected to each other with arrows in a rainbow of colors by a team of people, chugging mugs of coffee.
Although it might seem that brainstorming is not something that can be done remotely, this is simply not true. Various tools mimic brainstorming (e.g., Mural, Stormboard) and mind-mapping (e.g., Mindomo and Mindmeister). These tools allow us to mimic during virtual meetings the brainstorming that we usually do on whiteboards. An added advantage of using tools like these is that if you think of a new idea later, or think about a different connection, you can still connect it to your brainstorming activity rather than making a note underneath a static photograph of a physical whiteboard from your meeting.
- (Over) Prepare: You will typically only have a few brainstorming meetings over the course of your entire project so it is worth taking the time to create a specific plan of what you want to achieve in the session and craft a detailed facilitation guide outlining how you will get there. You might throw it out pretty fast but creating a guide will provide you with a collection of tasks to mix and match for your brainstorming.
- Have participants do homework before the meeting: Give the attendees a “homework assignment” so they have time to think about the design and are not coming in cold. This will save valuable time at the meeting and will bring you to a design you want to work with faster.
- Staff your brainstorming meetings appropriately: Be clear on how each attendee is contributing to the brainstorming. Be careful not to saturate your meeting with too many overlapping voices at a first meeting. You can schedule follow-up sessions inviting others to the meeting as needed, or department heads or team leads can hold their own brainstorming sessions where they can dive more deeply into the details of a single aspect of the design.
- Set up templates in advance: Whether you are using a brainstorming tool like Mural or collaborative editing tools like Google Docs, set up templates for the activities you plan to do ahead of time so you are spending the meeting time brainstorming rather than fiddling with the tools.
- Set a time limit: Even the most creative minds cannot be creative all day long. Set your brainstorming session for at least 90 minutes but no more than 120 minutes, and schedule at least one break.
- Be flexible: Technology might break, activities might not go the way you anticipated, or other unexpected disruptions (or an unexpected stroke of brilliance) might push you out of the planned approach. Be ready to adjust.
Best practices for running staff meetings remotely
In addition to being a management staff meeting, this can also be a team meeting in which the team lead or the department director shares information with their team members.
Although the purpose of these meetings is primarily to share information, it is important that your staff feels comfortable asking questions of the management and that there is a forum to do so easily. The primary goal in these meetings is to communicate with staff and make them feel that management is listening to their voices and concerns.
- Encourage staff to submit their questions to a single point person: This can be during the meeting so staff members who don’t feel comfortable asking questions in a public forum can still ask their questions. If you encourage staff to submit questions ahead of time, you can use their questions to help you plan your presentation so that it is most useful.
- Leave time for questions: This is important, even if your presentation ends up being longer than you anticipated. It is important for staff to participate. If you are answering staff-submitted questions during the presentation, tell the audience so they know that they are being heard.
- Record the meeting and share as soon as the recording is available: If you are sharing a lot of important information, your staff (or even you!) might want to revisit the points you made in the meeting and listen again. Please let meeting attendees know right at the beginning of the meeting that you will be recording the meeting. This is not only good practice but, depending on where you are located, might be required by law. Recording the meeting preserves an unbiased record of the meeting for anyone to access later. No complicated video-editing work is necessary before sharing as the purpose of the meeting was simply to convey information.
- Share a written copy of the main points of the meeting: A written summary of the meeting, including the questions raised by staff and the answers to those questions, is a quick way to review the meeting without having to re-watch the entire meeting. It is also a good documentation practice. This is especially important if you are unable to record the meeting.
- Integrate anonymous polling into your meetings: If you have questions that lend themselves well to polling, consider using an online polling tool like Poll Everywhere (super easy!) or Survey Monkey, which will allow you to display the results as visuals right in your meeting.
If it appears impossible to have a full staff or team meeting, a lesser, but still workable alternative would be to record your presentation on a service like Loom, which allows people to comment on the video, or as a straightforward video, and then open up a forum where the staff can respond to the video and ask questions that you answer in a follow-up video meeting or by another video.
Best practices for running status update meetings remotely
Sometimes called a “stand up”, these are regular — often weekly — meetings where the team is brought up to date on the progress each person has made towards that project. You might be used to participating in one status update meeting for each project. Sometimes, very large projects with multiple distinct components will have status update meetings for each component.
A status update should be short: a well-run status update meeting typically takes 15-20 minutes for a team of 8 people, whether you are having your meeting remotely, using technology, or all gathered in the same room.
- Make these weekly meetings: Software developers frequently have daily status update meetings and this works very well for that type of work. In most other types of work, a day is not enough time to report meaningful progress, or for blockers to even surface. Having updates less frequently than once a week, on the other hand, can slow down a project too much if problems are not surfaced quickly enough. We recommend weekly meetings for most types of projects.
- Timing is key: Project update meetings work best early in the day when there is time in the day to react to new updates. At the end of the day, people are tired and there is just not enough time to follow-up on issues that are surfaced in the meeting. Try to schedule these meetings early in the week and/or far enough in advance of critical deadlines to ensure you’ve left time for your team to react to anything shared in these meetings.
- Do part of the work offline: This should be the case even outside of the current COVID-19 crisis. If you are the project manager, send out an email asking your team to update the status of their assigned tasks on whichever platform you are using to track tasks (we recommend Airtable, but Smartsheet, monday.com, and Google Sheets also work) and ask them to answer a few simple questions each week (1. What did you do last week? 2. What will you do this week? 3. What is blocking your way?). The project manager should have reviewed the answers to these questions before the meeting.
- Run your stand up methodically: One person, usually the project manager, should do all the asking, and each team member should give an update on what they worked on during the prior week (for weekly meetings). The project manager should make a note of issues that are surfaced, either in the meeting, or in status update documents submitted ahead of the meeting, and follow up with individual team members outside of the update meeting time.
- Ask each team member for the key points, not the details: Individual team members should speak for 2-3 minutes each. The project update is for the highlights, good or bad, not for details and nuances. Once the project manager learns of an issue, they can follow up with the team members and dig into the problems together without the rest of the team having to stay on the call.
Best practices for running 1:1 (or very small group) meetings remotely
These could include manager-direct report check-ins, team onboarding meetings, HR and operations meetings, follow-up sales calls, or meetings scheduled simply to get to know team members whom you haven’t had much face-to-face interaction with better.
- Turn your video on: Being able to see each other creates a feeling of connection and closeness. This is especially important in a difficult meeting (for example, while resolving a conflict) where you or the other parties are already feeling disconnected from each other. If the other attendee does not wish to turn their video on, don’t force them to at that meeting. However, it is okay to ask to be able to see them at your next meeting.
- Create a space within the meeting for casual conversation: Friendly personal relationships motivate people. Even though you cannot be at the water-cooler or coffee-machine with your colleagues during the COVID-19 crisis, you can recreate some of that day-to-day camaraderie through banter over the internet.
- Keep your direct reports informed: If you are meeting with a direct report, take some time to share information relevant to them that you are able to share even though it might not be directly related to the stated purpose of your meeting. This might take the form of a decision from a client on something your direct report has been working on, or communicating that you have shared a proposal they helped you write with upper management.
- Capture the “to-do”s from the meeting and share after the meeting: You don’t detailed meeting minutes for most 1:1s, but capturing the essential points and restating them in an email conveys to the other person that you were paying attention during the meeting and will follow up on your tasks just as you would expect them to follow up on their to-do list from this meeting.
Best practices for running planning/review meetings remotely
These are usually meetings in which a select number of people from your organization meet regularly to work on an initiative or project and make plans for its near- and long-term future. These could be organization governance meetings, monthly or even quarterly project check-ins, financial planning meetings, strategy meetings, or retrospective meetings at the end of a major milestone to gather the team’s experiences and learn from them for future projects.
- Turn your video on for client meetings: Having the video on so the other attendees can see you helps you pick up on the facial expressions and body language as a reaction to the substance of the meeting. It is certainly advisable to always have your video on (and look as presentable as you would have in a face-to-face) meeting when meeting with clients.
For internal meetings, you have to decide based on how informal and relaxed meetings are, and how good your rapport is with the people you are meeting with.
- Communicate the goals and outcomes of the meeting: Attach an agenda to the meeting event on your calendar application so that everyone knows what to expect and come prepared accordingly. Wrap-up the meeting by reiterating action items and next steps. Ask participants if they know what they need to do next and whom to talk to if they have further questions.
- Make sure everyone has a chance to speak: Some people naturally speak up more than others at meetings. Others are less inclined to volunteer their opinions during a virtual meeting. Everyone in your team has something valuable to contribute or they wouldn’t be there. If someone is quiet, you might prompt them for their opinion or ask for their input on the proposed course of action. If you are leading the meeting, you should make the effort to ensure that all voices are being heard.
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