When the great work-from-home experiment began in 2020, one of the biggest fears for newly remote leaders was running virtual meetings. In fact, “Virtual meetings don’t work” is the most common response I hear when speaking to leaders at all levels about remote teams. But let’s be fair: in-person meetings rarely ever worked, either.
There’s an entire research field of “meeting science” developing to study the effectiveness of organizational meetings, and the initial findings aren’t good. In one study, researchers from the United States and the United Kingdom conducted an international survey of more than a thousand employees at all levels of organizations to get their perception of how effective their meetings really were. The vast majority of respondents’ comments on meetings were negative. They cited poor planning, lack of an agenda, and other structural elements of the scheduled gathering people had to suffer through. The few comments that were positive primarily referred to the reasons for the meeting, like solving problems or helping shape culture. It’s clear that meetings aren’t going away any time soon—people see the value in holding them. It’s in the execution of the meeting that all that value seems to disappear.
In a virtual meeting, these positives and potential negatives are heightened. It might be the only time this week or month that you get your entire team together at the same time, and it’s your best chance for making sure people feel like they’re part of a real team. At the same time, if their feelings after every meeting are “This whole thing could have been an email,” that’s going to shape their feelings about the overall team as well.
So, whether it’s your first virtual meeting with your team, or your forty-seventh weekly meeting, here are the steps to follow to make it the best one ever:
- Plan With Purpose
Having a stated purpose for each meeting will make the planning process much easier since people will have realistic expectations about what will be discussed and can plan accordingly. Keep it to one purpose per meeting. Any more and you should consider breaking it up into two smaller meetings (even if both happen on the same day).
- Pick The Right Attendees
Not everyone on your team needs to be on every meeting, and every event invite you send is a distraction from the real work they want to do. Remember that the cost of a one-hour meeting with nine people isn’t one hour; it’s nine hours. And as the number of people in meetings increases, the effectiveness of meetings generally plummets. So be a smart spender of your people’s time and keep the guest list as short as possible.
- Build The Right Agenda
Instead of using generic titles, use questions. So “Marketing Issues” becomes “How might we get the same return on a decreased advertising budget?” and “Miscellaneous Items” becomes “What vital information do we have to share with each other?” Questions have two benefits. First, questions put people in the right frame of mind when you send out the agenda (and you absolutely should send it out ahead of time). Second, questions help everyone know if the meeting was indeed effective. If we got our questions answered, it was indeed an effective meeting.
- Open The Line Early
Just like would happen in a “real” meeting, let people casually enter in and engage in pre-meeting chit-chat. You can even facilitate this stage with a few questions planned to help people share what’s going on in their world. (And, if you’re starting 10 minutes early, make sure that you sign onto the conference platform 5-10 minutes earlier than that. You don’t want to be troubleshooting technology issues while your teammates are sharing about their baby’s first steps or their recent vacation.)
- Capture Meeting Minutes
You don’t need every meeting to adhere to Robert’s Rules of Order. But you should have a scribe (other than the facilitator) assigned to keep track of what was said. In particular, you want to make sure you’re documenting unforeseen issues, new ideas, and any action items that come from decisions. The exact time stamps of who said what and when don’t matter as much as making sure we know what ideas were presented and who committed to take what action on them.
- Stay On Topic
As the meeting progresses, make sure you’re staying on topic and sticking to your planned allotments of time. Over-sharers who dominate the conversation can get you off track quickly if you’re not diligent, and so can those problem-askers who offer long, drawn out statements only to end with a quick “what do you think?” You built the agenda with purpose, so it’s there to take the blame when you interrupt over talkers and ask them to table their thoughts for offline time. And if someone arrives late, you don’t need to waste time catching them up. They have the agenda, and they can always watch the recording or read the meeting minutes afterward.
- Close With A Review
As the meeting time draws close, bring everyone back together with a quick review of what just happened. Have the appointed scribe review the minutes if needed, otherwise just run through the questions that made up the agenda items and check that everyone feels those questions were answered. Lastly, confirm that action items are understood by the assigned person and, if possible, get a time commitment for each action.
- Leave The Line Open
Call the meeting to a close at or before the planned time, but don’t feel the need to sign off right away. Just as you opened the call a few minutes early, leave it open for folks to continue socializing afterwards. If you’re the “host” of the conference call, that may mean you have to stay until everyone else is signed off. But you should be able to mute the audio and disable your video if you need to focus on other tasks.
Afterwards, be sure to send out the minutes from the meeting and let people know where they can watch/listen to any recordings if they missed it. When you do, you’ll likely get a few pieces of feedback from members of your team that’ll help you adapt the meeting flow to their liking and make the next one ever better.
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