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InfoQ Homepage Articles Mastering Remote Meetings: How To Get—and Keep—Your Participants Engaged

Mastering Remote Meetings: How To Get—and Keep—Your Participants Engaged

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Key Takeaways

  • Great remote conversations are possible, and are happening right now, all over the world.
  • A good remote meeting starts with a good meeting!
  • All-remote meetings are much more enjoyable and easier to facilitate than “hybrid” ones.
  • The central challenge of designing and running remote meetings is to get and keep people actively engaged.
  • Your remote meeting technology should enable you to create attractive spaces that invite engagement.
     

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.

 

What’s the worst thing for you about remote meetings? Is it:

  • Participants doing other things while the meeting is happening
  • Technology that constantly goes wrong, leading to wasted time and loss of focus
  • Missing the social interactions and side conversations of in-the-room events
  • Not being able to “read the room” to know when to speak
  • Some people talking over each other, others staying completely silent

All these are pretty common issues. I hate them too!

I wonder; how might they be impacting your work? Increasingly, software development is seen as a creative, collaborative undertaking. If poor remote meetings are impeding collaboration, how much damage could that be doing?

What if online conversations didn’t have to be like that?

When remote meetings are planned and executed well, they can be compelling. They can connect people at a deep level. They can enable people who might never really “meet” to collaborate and make exciting things happen. They can even be fun!

Also, all of those “worst things” can be overcome, or at least mitigated.

Over the last few years, I’ve facilitated remote meetings that have kept people fully engaged in real conversations, about important stuff, for many hours.

For example, I organised an online Open Space event to close a recent Remote Forever Summit. It ran for about five hours, timed for the European afternoon and American morning. What we weren’t expecting was that one digital nomad, Andre Wyrwa, called in from a tent in Australia. He intended just to say “Hi,” - but got so interested that he stayed with us until his last set of batteries ran out, four hours later! He commented afterwards: “I was blown away by the atmosphere, the sense of community. There was a real sense of connection.”

Martin Gilbraith, chairman of the England and Wales Chapter of the International Association of Facilitators, has also created large online events. One example was for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. He said: “When we started planning, we were looking at something quite simple, but the ambition escalated as we all realised what was possible. In the end we had 900 people from 50 countries, in six different streams. People submitted papers and short videos beforehand, participants voted for which they wanted to hear more about, and after that presentation there was a Q+A with all the possible presenters on that topic. It was a great success.”

Great remote meetings are happening at a more everyday level, too. David Legge of Redgate Product Development in Cambridge, UK recently blogged about how his team of developers has adopted online mob programming as a standard way of working.

He said: “I always envisaged pairing to be physically at the same computer, but once you get more than that at one machine it can become difficult for everyone to see properly... [Instead] the team has very often just set up a call in our messaging app and everyone joins... Someone shares their screen in the call and we mob together.”

Great remote meetings are possible, even without expensive technology.

I’ll explain some things here that you can do to make your remote meetings as useful as in-the-room ones—in some ways, even better!

By the way, I’m defining “remote” meetings as at-the-same-time conversations, mediated by technology—conference calls or video-conference calls. I’ll also touch on “hybrid” meetings, where some participants are in a room together and others are remote.

A Good Remote Meeting Starts With a Good Meeting

Perhaps it should be obvious that a good remote meeting starts with a good meeting. But my experience in many organisations suggests that’s not the case.

Sarah Goff-Dupont at Atlassian has pulled together an excellent short list of what makes a good meeting. A good meeting:

  • Has a clear purpose
  • Keeps attendees engaged
  • Makes a safe space for divergent thinking
  • Produces real, shareable results.

All this is bread-and-butter for effective facilitators. Before a really important in-the-room meeting, such as a departmental awayday, the organisers will think carefully about the purpose of the meeting, and what takeaways are needed. To keep attendees engaged, and make space for divergent thinking, they’ll plan an agenda which includes introductions and other activities as well as presentations, and they’ll invite only the people who need to attend. There will be discussions about which rooms they’ll use, what equipment they’ll need, and what refreshments should be provided.

A really important online meeting deserves the same degree of consideration. For example, before running a board-level innovation “awayday” for Convert.com a few months ago, I carefully created a workshop-style agenda, packed with small-group activities. And I chose a set of tools—centred on Zoom video conferencing—that were simple and effective, so that participants’ attention was on each other, not on the technology. 

How might you incorporate this kind of “facilitation” thinking into your own remote meetings?

Creating Space for Engagement

You cannot have a meeting of minds if most of the minds are not in the meeting.—Elise Keith

The central challenge of designing and running remote meetings is to get, and keep, people actively engaged. Once engagement is in place, lots of good things can be built on it.

Most importantly, it becomes possible to build real relationships between participants, so they appreciate each other as real people, with lives. They get to talk human-to-human. From those conversations, mutual respect can develop…which in turn can lead to greater respect for people’s time and other boundaries.

But let’s be honest—that’s not what happens in most remote meetings. People aren’t engaged. Instead, according to an InterCall survey quoted in the Harvard Business Review, they’re doing their emails (63%) or other work (65%); checking social media (43%); playing video games (25%); doing online shopping (21%); or going to the toilet (46%).

In my experience, the best way to tackle all of this is to create attractive online spaces that invite engagement.

People always refer to their internet experiences in terms of space. The “internet experience is like a physical space” metaphor is so solidly embedded that we’ve stopped noticing that it’s a metaphor. Try writing a sentence or two about shared online experience without using a spatial metaphor. We “meet” in an “online space” such as a “room,” a video call brings us “together,”we “send” emails…“Online.” “Remote.” “Meetings.” It’s really, really hard!

Given that people do think about the internet in spatial terms, there’s an important implication for meeting organisers, and their employers.

In creative, collaborative offices, there are usually lots of inviting meeting spaces. They possibly feature bean bags and beer fridges, but will certainly have whiteboards, flip charts, and space for post-it notes.

But what about their online spaces? In too many organisations, it’s as if the remote meeting “rooms” are designed to be as uncomfortable as possible. The rigid, one-size environment feels something like a train carriage, where only four or five people can be seen and heard. The rest of the carriage is supposed to be in the meeting, but if they want to contribute they have to shout to interrupt!

You wouldn’t choose a physical meeting room like this. Why is it considered acceptable online? If you want people to be engaged, the default should be that everyone in a meeting should be seen and heard. If the technology where you work doesn’t allow this, watch for a later article in this series by Elise Keith and Lisette Sutherland. They’ll explain how to argue for change.

Disengagement gets even worse in hybrid meetings, where one person (or a few people) dial in to an in-the-room meeting on a spider phone. It typically feels as if they’re sitting “outside,” unable to see or be seen.

In a class recently, I mocked this up “in real life,” as an experiment. As a group discussion continued, a few participants were asked to pop behind a screen, one at a time, for a moment or two while staying part of the conversation, and to notice what happened. It was deeply uncomfortable all around! Those who left the main circle found it almost impossible to contribute meaningfully. And those who stayed felt a powerful sense of disconnection.

“One remote, all remote” meetings are much much easier to facilitate than hybrid ones. In a hybrid context, building full engagement and the psychological safety that’s needed for a divergent discussion is hard. It’s never comfortable being the one stuck on the outside of a group; it’s really tricky to participate fully. All-remote at least puts everyone on a level playing field, so I advise you to choose this if you possibly can.

C4 Media, the company behind InfoQ and QCon, has an entirely remote team, but they do meet face to face from time to time. The leadership team has experimented with using Zoom for screen sharing and Google docs for shared note taking, even when everyone is physically in the same space. InfoQ Editor-in-Chief Charles Humble said, “We’re so used to this way of working, and found it was actually something of an improvement over working with a typical meeting room projector.  It also meant that if someone wasn’t able to be physically present it felt entirely natural for them to join the meeting from a remote location.”   

More Tips to Increase Engagement

Have a clear purpose. Asked for his top tips for improving remote meetings, Martin Gilbraith was unequivocal: “Be very clear about what you want to achieve, and be driven by those aims. Do you actually need a meeting, or would an email do?”

Invite only those people who are really needed. Perhaps because the remote meeting technology enables huge meetings, it can be tempting to invite everyone who might possibly be interested. This can be catastrophic for engagement.

So, be crystal clear about the purpose of the meeting and how each invitee is expected to contribute. Make the meeting as small as possible, ideally fewer than five people for any decision-making meetings.

Larger meetings should be carefully planned to maximise participation and engagement. For example, you could make use of Liberating Structures, most of which work well online.

Where networking is a part of the meeting objective, numbers still matter. Emily Webber, author of Building Successful Communities of Practice, leads Agile In The Ether, an online Agile meetup group and conference. It’s capped at 25 participants per event—and always has a waiting list. She said, “With 25 people (in Zoom) everyone can be seen, and you can really get to know each other.” Similarly, when I worked with large UK voluntary association, The RSA, to set up online networking events for its Fellows, we set a strict cap on the number of registrations.

Set expectations. Remote meetings suffer from a “doom loop.” Most people have attended lots of dreadful ones, and they’ll expect yours to be the same. That means they’ll turn up unprepared, and they’ll probably expect to be able to do other things during the meeting.

When you set up the meeting, ask clearly for the behaviours you would like, so that people can be prepared.

When I’m sending an invitation, I always ask people to:

  • Call from a quiet place, and use a headset
  • Turn off notifications
  • Connect to the call a few minutes before the scheduled start
  • Expect to be heard and seen throughout
  • Consider what they would like from the meeting

Greg Clark, CEO of global volunteering charity Lattitude, instituted this change in his organisation recently. “It’s been transformational,” he said. “When people give themselves a few minutes to set up and get settled, it means they take the whole meeting more seriously.”

Turning on video makes a huge difference. Teams who do this notice an instant increase in engagement. That’s not just because distracted participants will be spotted! It’s also because humans have evolved to find each others’ faces interesting, and will look at them in preference to text. (If your people object to turning their camera on here’s my tip: turn on yours, then turn your back on the camera as you continue the meeting. Notice what happens!)

Use breakout rooms—a lot! A lot of the value of in-the-room meetings comes from one-on-one and small group conversations that happen on the fringes. People typically feel more psychologically safe to speak in a smaller group, resulting in richer conversations and deeper relationships. In The RSA project, several connections which began in two-minute breakout sessions later blossomed into friendships and joint social projects.

It may take a little technical effort to run breakout sessions if your technology doesn’t support them as standard, but it’s usually possible to improvise by using multiple “rooms.” It will pay dividends!

Make space for divergent thinking. Deliberating groups frequently suffer from “groupthink,” that is, they often make worse decisions than their individual members would have made alone. One of the most common patterns—especially in remote meetings—is follow-the-leader, settling on the first workable proposal made.

That’s because divergent thinking can be challenging for any group. The period of widest divergence has been nicknamed the “groan zone” because it’s often so uncomfortable. It can feel scary, as if relationships are at serious risk. When you’re remote from the other participants, that can feel even worse.

For participants to be willing to diverge, it’s vital to build psychological safety, the sense that speaking freely is OK and mistakes will be tolerated or even welcomed.

  • Make sure everyone speaks early in the meeting, perhaps with a warm-up activity.
  • Make sure that leaders speak last!
  • Acknowledge what people say. You don’t have to be the meeting facilitator to do this: it’s fine to comment, “I liked Jane’s idea...“
  • Ask non-judgemental questions about what they’ve said, to tease out unique opinions and divergent thinking.
  • Separate divergent and convergent phases of discussion. For example, your agenda might begin by agreeing on the subject of discussion (converge), move to brainstorming possible solutions (diverge), before agreeing on the next steps (converge).

The Bigger Picture

Mastering remote meetings really isn’t that difficult, but it does need your attention. Use the ideas in this article and in the rest of this series, and the quality of your remote meetings will improve. You’ll get more done, more easily. You’ll have more interesting conversations. People will notice. And when that happens, you’ll notice how infectious improved practice can be.

And there’s a bigger picture, too. If we’re to solve the world’s big challenges, we need to work together. We need to collaborate effectively, without extra travel which would make the climate change problem worse. For me, that means we need to master remote meetings.

About the Author

Judy Rees is a facilitator, consultant, and trainer, mostly working online. As a former journalist and editor she’s been working in—and leading—distributed teams since before there was an internet! For more than ten years she’s been facilitating and training online, over phone conference at first before video came along. Her current live online courses include Remote Agile Facilitator for Adventures With Agile, and Facilitating Exceptional Remote Learning for ICAgile. She’s the co-author of a recorded online mini-course Engaging Distant Participants. Her weekly linkletter connects more than 3,500 readers to resources around remote work, facilitation, Clean Language and more. Learn more at judyrees.co.uk

 

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.

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