Better meetings for remote teams

“Too many meetings” is something I’ve said or heard over and over again in every organisation I’ve worked.  Since lockdown began, this problem seems to have gotten worse for two main reasons:

  • There are more meetings: ‘Watercooler’ conversations and informal chats around the team space have been replaced with scheduled video meetings.
  • Meetings are more stressful: Video meetings seem to drain energy more than face to face meetings

My team have been experimenting with ways to make our meetings work better for us over the past few months.  Below is what we’ve found has worked for us:

Guiding principles

  • Minimise the amount of time we spend in big meetings. For most of us, they aren’t an effective use of time
  • Keep meetings focussed on the intended outcome
  • Maximise the work done before and after meetings. Use meetings to focus on areas that genuinely need a big group discussion (eg. where team members are not aligned)
  • Try to problem solve as a small group (eg. in pairs or trios) before taking something to a big meeting. If you get stuck on something, reach out to the team for support
  • Our calendars should be organised for makers, not managers – team members need big blocks of meeting free time to get into flow and get stuff done, rather than half hour blocks here and there
  • We shouldn’t use meetings to read out documents to each other – try to send something round for people to read in their own time before
  • Many people generally need time to digest information before they can make meaningful decisions on it

Preparing for a meeting

  • Try to send out material in advance for people to read in their own time.  Ask people to add feedback in the doc, and use the meeting to discuss anything that people feel need discussion.
  • If it’s not appropriate to send something out before without first explaining the context: have a brief initial meeting to explain your work, then give people time to absorb in their own time before having a follow up meeting to discuss anything that needs discussion

What to put in a meeting invite

I’ve set up a template in my email client that pre-populates meeting invites with these prompts to help me remember to use them each time:

  • Required preparation: any documents that people need to read before they join the meeting.  Even if you can’t share it when you make the invite, it’s important to let people know that you will be sharing something later
  • Outcome to achieve by end of this meeting: a brief explanation of what we need to have achieved by the end of this meeting
  • Agenda: list of activities to go through in the meeting
  • Meeting lead: this is the person accountable for making sure the meeting is well run, and that actions and decisions are recorded

Recording actions & decisions

The meeting lead is accountable for recording actions and decisions

  • Decisions should be captured in an email response to the meeting attendees (if the meeting involves people outside the team) or in a comment on the card in the team Trello board (if it’s just for members of the team)
  • Actions should recorded in the team Trello board (for you, this will be wherever your team’s tasks are listed)

Regular events for the diary

  • Afternoon meetings: with the exception of our fortnightly planning session, we hold all of our regular team meetings (eg. standup, retrospective, sprint review) in the afternoon.  This is because most of the team like to have their mornings free to focus on their work. We also try to group things on specific days to leave people with as many uninterrupted blocks of ‘maker’ time as possible.
  • Team time: this is dedicated time for us to use for sharing of information or discussion. It’s particularly useful for any time sensitive work that comes up which wasn’t planned for in our fortnightly planning.  At each standup, we decide the agenda for team time the following day. If we don’t need it, we cancel it (it gets cancelled about 50% of the time).
  • Morning coffee: most team members have struggled with the lack of informal chats around the team space that used to happen with a co-located team. So we have an optional 15 minute slot every morning for people to check in and discuss what they’re working on in a less structured way. We also have an active Teams chat where team members are encouraged to reach out to each other if they want help or are looking to collaborate on something.

In summary

There’s nothing complex or revolutionary here.  These are all well known practices that often aren’t applied with enough discipline.  They probably apply to co-located teams too.  But, because remote meetings are harder, being 100% remote has made it even more important to get basics like these consistently right.  And so far so good! Since we’ve started consistently using these practices, team feedback during retrospectives has been positive and we’ve been more consistently delivering on our goals each sprint.

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