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Can Your Meeting Kit Cut It?

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Key Takeaways

  • Focus on infrastructure and facilitation that create presence for all participants —in the flesh and remote.
  • Make sure your teams can access support in areas such as audio, video, meeting space, records, technical support, and measurement.
  • Create a vision to help decision makers understand how new technology will be used and how it will improve the team.
  • Help leaders see the value of intentionally designing meetings using new technology through designing it themselves.

This article is part of a series in which we are looking at how teams worldwide are successfully facilitating complex conversations, remotely. We’ll share practical steps that you can take, right now, to upgrade the remote conversations that fill your working days.

Supporting the series will be a free online meeting taking place on October 1st. This interactive learning session will help you learn proven practices for leading remote teams and running effective meetings.

Every team meets. Most run their meetings the same way their grandparents and their grandparents' grandparents did. Meeting records predating the Romans describe a leader pontificating, brief back-and-forth discussion, then a conclusion with an inconclusive bit of mumbled agreement. Meetings haven't changed much in thousands of years.

The invention of the phone did liberate meetings from the confines of the conference room. PowerPoint and projectors liberated us from stacks of printed reports.

What have modern leaders done with this progress? Exactly what their ancestors did, only now their speeches are garbled through conference room phones.

When we worked for big companies before 2010, we used to meet in large conference rooms with big phones in the middle where remote participants could "listen in," and sometimes even participate. It worked because it was better than nothing.

Meetings where everyone is in-person, or everyone is remote are manageable for the most part. It’s the hybrid meetings that are the most irritating. Everything from background noise, to cutting in and out, or dropping off completely — there is a lot that gets in the way of having a productive conversation. We’ve all seen Tripp and Tyler’s "Conferencecall in real life" video. It’s funny because it’s true.

We can do so much better. It's time to bring how we meet into the modern era.

Alongside the rise of technology, the past century has seen amazing advances in our understanding of how we can best work together in groups. We now know how groups can collaborate, innovate, motivate, and make decisions together effectively (Tip: listening to someone read the bullet points isn't it.).

High-performing organizations worldwide have developed systems that build on these advances. They establish performance criteria for their meetings, define and use meeting processes based on research, and invest in the supporting infrastructure required for teams to meet well.

It’s time to get rid of the old conference room designs and focus on infrastructure and facilitation that create presence for all participants — in the flesh and remote.

Support for Successful Remote Meetings

Successful remote meetings require more than a dial-in number.

For starters, you must work to get the basics right. Invest in your bandwidth. To hear and see each other clearly, teams need solid, reliable internet connections.

Next, ensure you have access to meeting space and use the best equipment you can get. Teams need small video-meeting rooms to get together and collaborate regularly. Focus on making sure remote participants can see the people in the room and clearly hear each other, too.

The best teams take it farther. They can access support in these 10 categories:

Category Minimal Viable Good Great
Audio
How can people hear and be heard?
Microphone on the device High-quality headsets In-room mics (Jabra speaker phones) and live speech-to-text

Video
How do people see the meeting content and each other? How close to feeling like an in-person experience can you make the remote experience?

Phone/laptop video 360 camera + big monitors (like Meeting Owl Telepresence rooms

Space
How do people access quiet, professional spaces where they can focus on their important work conversations?

Wherever Coworking space or conference rooms Dedicated video-conference rooms and alcoves

Amenities
What amenities help make long remote meetings comfortable and enjoyable?

Up to the individual Ergonomic equipment setup and snacks Cultural touchstones, backdrops, etc.

Inclusive Interaction
How do teams involve everyone in brainstorming, visualization, problem solving, and decision making?

Collaborative documents and wikis Brainstorming, visual management, decision support Interactive whiteboards and touch tech (nureva.com)

Meeting Records
How do teams document their meeting procedures, agreements, and meeting notes?

Email Shared docs Meeting management software

Workstream
How do teams keep connected and informed without meeting all the time?

Email Workstream apps (slack/teams) Project/product tracking apps

Training
How do team members taking on a new meeting role learn the skills required to succeed?

On-the-job Occasional workshops and refreshers Ongoing training and coaching

Technical Support
How do teams get help and recover quickly when their meeting equipment fails?

Internet searches and prayer Call IT Dedicated support staff and remote worker tech support budget

Measurement
How do leaders measure and direct improvements to meeting performance?

Reacting to complaints Meeting feedback from employee engagement surveys Consistent measurement and review of defined meeting performance criteria in one-on-ones

For example, here are just a few of the technologies available for running remote meetings in 2019.

[Click on the image to enlarge it]

A Peek at Meetings in Remote-First Workplaces

Envato, a company that provides marketplaces and an online community for digital designers, was founded by digital nomads. Leaders there expect employees to work from wherever they feel most productive, even encouraging employees to travel up to three months of the year.

The Envato office is designed for a flexible workforce. There are fixed desks for people who come to the office every day, a lot of "hot desks" for others, and a fleet of small conference rooms all set up for "push to talk" video-conference calls. This setup makes it possible to succeed working the way they do.

Each conference room is equipped with a webcam, a large HD screen, and a Jabra Speak microphone. This allows anyone to easily hop into a room and collaborate with a remote colleague.

(Click on the image to enlarge it)

REAGroup is a global online real estate advertising company headquartered in Melbourne, Australia. They have people working out of open offices in both Australia and China. At each office space, they’ve set up large monitors, speakerphones, and webcams that are on throughout the day so teams can see and hear each other.

Team members working from separate offices can even "hang out" together in shared lounge spaces connected via video.

(Click on the image to enlarge it)

How to Make the Case for Change

Research consistently shows that leaders believe the meetings they run work just fine. Or, fine enough. It's an unfortunate but common blind spot, and one that makes it unlikely for them to prioritize meeting improvements.

There are other leaders who know they could invest in better tech, but take pride in their "minimalist" approach. Lean, scrappy, doing more with less — these can be points of pride for a fiscally-minded leader.

To break through this, you have to build a solid business case using examples. Here’s how:

1. Tell the story that paints the vision.

The path to better meetings starts by improving one meeting at a time. Before you suggest any specific changes, though, you need to help your peers get a feel for how you believe those meetings should work. What will a technology upgrade make possible for your team that you can’t do now?

Create a vivid vision, or experience story, that helps decision makers understand how the new technology will be used and how it will improve the team. You can find inspiration in the stories of remote-first teams or stories about how famous leaders run their meetings.

Do your leaders have a business hero? Or perhaps a competitor that keeps them awake at night?

Search the web and you’ll find hundreds of stories about teams who've found ways to love their meetings. Look for meeting stories from Amazon, Google, Pixar, IDEO, the U.S. Navy Seals, Intel, top universities, major league sports teams — any organization your peers find aspirational, or alternatively, fearsome competitors they worry about.

Search for stories about how these teams meet and share the inspiring examples with your team. Then, translate those stories to your team. What would a day in your team’s future life look like if you had a decent remote meeting setup?

Storytelling like this connects with both the rational and emotional decision-making centers of the brain and gives everyone a mental picture of what you're asking them to buy into.

2. Collect the evidence.

With that vision in place, you can now bring in the data. There is a direct relationship between meeting quality and:

  • Productivity and project success
  • New business creation
  • Decision-making quality and velocity
  • Employee engagement and retention

To collect evidence for your team, list all the meetings held in the past 30 days in a spreadsheet. Add columns to track the number of attendees and the duration of each meeting. Multiplying these numbers with average salary costs will give you a low-end cost estimate.

Add another column to capture the "technical debt" costs: lost time futzing with bad technology, travel costs, time spent hunting for a conference room with a working camera, time spent typing up notes that could have been captured electronically, and so on. When we use inadequate technology, the expenses incurred through inefficiencies and frustration add up quickly.

Then add two more columns: one to track the business value each meeting is meant to achieve (Hint: it should relate to one of the categories listed above), and a second column to add a comment about how well the meeting achieved that goal.

In your comments, include observations that relate back to your vision for success. Did a meeting fail to reach its goal due to difficulty communicating? Are you unable to determine whether a meeting succeeded because you can’t find any records from it? These observations from real meetings give everyone a factual, business-impacting reason to consider investing in better tech.

When you're done, you'll have a spreadsheet showing what you're spending on meetings and what you're getting in return, that you can share with colleagues.

Tip: you can download an example meeting ROI spreadsheet and guidebook from the Lucid Meetings website. Email address required.  

3. Demonstrate the business case

Finally, you're ready to advocate for transformation. You told stories to help your peers visualize how these new meetings could and should work, and you collected data to establish an initial benchmark against which you can measure progress.

Now, it's time to experiment and pilot. You may start by trialing several products. Ask others to also suggest new experiments you can try. Approaching these changes as an experiment acknowledges that:

  • you don't know what will work until you try it,  and
  • you're inviting people to think critically about what constitutes a successful meeting.

Not only does this give everyone a voice and a stake in how you meet, it also creates the shift in perspective you were seeking. You’re no longer focused on the cost of technology in isolate, but on the much larger overall investment you’re making in meetings. Everyone is now asking the question, "How can we make these meetings better?"

4. Lead by Example

Finally, partner with your leaders to roll out the change. There is no rule anywhere that says the boss has to be the person in charge of the meeting. In fact, team members in many high-performing teams often rotate this responsibility.

When Swedish public agencies moved to replace in-person meetings with remote meetings, a project that would dramatically reduce both travel costs and greenhouse gas emissions, their senior leaders resisted the change, despite the obvious business benefit. After some probing, the people advocating for the switch realized these leaders weren’t comfortable running remote meetings. The leaders didn’t know how to use the new technology and they couldn’t afford to lose time bumbling with it. What’s more, all the meeting techniques they relied on were intended for use with co-located groups. They believed they couldn’t succeed with remote meetings; they’d just end up wasting time and looking foolish.

Once they understood the problem, the Swedish Transport Administration paired each leader with a tech buddy during the transition. The buddy was responsible for getting everything hooked up, then starting and running the meeting technology. Leaders still had to learn ways to adapt their approach, but they didn’t have to worry about figuring out which buttons to click at the same time. By partnering each leader with a technically adept assistant, the leader could focus on experimenting with new forms of leadership.

Ultimately, the best way to help leaders see the value of intentionally designing meetings using new technology is to make it their own design. We all see the value in our own babies.

With a clear vision for success, a way to measure performance, and everyone involved in the experiment, you'll no longer be asking how to get buy-in. You and your team will be looking for ways to increase the benefits and competitive advantage you've found in your new, improved meetings.

About the Authors

J. Elise Keith is the Founder and CEO of Lucid Meetings and Meeting School, the author of Where the Action Is: The Meetings That Make or Break Your Organization, a regular contributor for Inc. and Thrive Global, and a frequent commentator on all things business meetings. Elise has helped thousands of businesses implement a practice of consistently successful meetings.

Lisette Sutherland is the director of Collaboration Superpowers, a company that helps people work together from anywhere through online and in-person workshops. She also produces a weekly podcast featuring interviews with remote working experts highlighting the challenges and successes of working with virtual teams.

 

This article is part of a series in which we are looking at how teams worldwide are successfully facilitating complex conversations, remotely. We’ll share practical steps that you can take, right now, to upgrade the remote conversations that fill your working days.

Supporting the series will be a free online meeting taking place on October 1st. This interactive learning session will help you learn proven practices for leading remote teams and running effective meetings.

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