At this point in the year of endless crisis and curveballs, most of us have managed to establish some regularity in our routines. We clock in at our new office space, whether that be the kitchen table or a makeshift cubicle in the corner of the room, and get down to business. We hop on and off meetings and make and take phone calls. We down our diet Cokes or mainline mocha frappuccinos to stay focused.
Today’s work environment can be a weird mix of monotony and being shaken from near sleep by constant interruptions. If this is a lot of people’s reality, how can you capture the attention of your fellow team members for yet another virtual meeting? And the one after that?
This is an important question for meeting leaders or team leaders to ask. And while there isn’t one silver bullet or a universal cure all, there are certain ways to make virtual team meetings more effective. We enumerate them below, but if you want a spoiler, just be aware the main gist is that it’s important to have leaders who prepare, set the tone, and are sensitive to the needs of their teams. Leadership that builds trust while inspiring action and follow through will be a bonus to teams, whether in person or virtual. Virtual meetings are what connects teams the most these days, so you want to be sure to take advantage of that point of contact.
Peruse the following pointers at your leisure, and try to think of virtual video meetings as an opportunity to use technology to improve things for your organization. They keep making more impressive remote working tools, which makes working virtually more appealing. There’s research that says a lot of folks are interested in continuing to work from home in the future, so you may as well get good at this.
#1 Take me to your leaders
If you are one of your organization’s leaders, then let it be known – not by banging your fists on your chest and shouting it while standing on your desk – but by being prepared, present, and available. That’s leadership. Be around for questions. Show up early. Make time for your teams. As a primary point of contact, a node of connection, you are critical to the company’s success. How you are managing virtual teams matters to everyone in your business, from management to the most-recently hired employees.
How you conduct a meeting reveals something about your leadership style. Are you prepared? Do you ask questions that move a meeting forward and focus on project goals? Are you managing to encourage collaboration amongst teams? Leaders are making many important choices every day that set the scene and establish patterns. If you are management level, or managing teams, then you should try leading a meeting like you mean it. Making the best of it means using all the tools at your disposal so you can help employees be more effective, and keep people happy at the company. Research shows that happy employees are generally good for business. And as Martha Stewart says, “it’s a good thing.”
#2 Oh, the Humanity
Managing team members proves challenging, whether or not teams are communicating virtually. So now that you’re leading virtual teams most of the time, it’s even more important that you focus on relationships and connection. It may help everyone be more effective if they remember their virtual team consists of actual people. In other words, it’ll help to encourage interpersonal connections by acknowledging the human on the other side of the screen. Don’t trash talk small talk. With face-to-face in-person gatherings we usually manage to check in with each other for a time before getting down to business or diving into project details.
We adapt quickly to the new normal, but if we don’t nurture certain aspects of our working relationships, then the project and productivity will falter. So create some shared time together for your teams that doesn’t focus on work. Start with an ice breaker, a fun fact, or an authentic “how are you?”
Let your co-workers know that it’s okay to have a bad day, express frustration, or voice a concern. Life isn’t all sunshine and puppies, so if you create an environment where team members don’t feel comfortable presenting their problems, it can undercut confidence in your leadership capabilities. How you deal with dissent or dissatisfaction can help you gain the trust of your colleagues. On the other side of things, finding ways to reward productivity or thoughtful participation will also pay off. Most of us have a harder time with criticism, but many of us respond quite well to encouragement. Can one receive too many compliments? As long as they’re work-related, they are generally appreciated aspects of communication. Accolades and compliments are free and they go a long way, especially if they’re honest and accurate.
The other important part of homing in on humanity is that it allows you to observe various engagement styles and personalities. If you sit back and see who talks willingly versus those who are more reticent to share, you might be able to figure out how to flip the script. How can you get Sheldon shares-a-lot to hold his horses, so that slightly shy Sharon steps up? When you give a little more time to some, or find out the best ways to word your questions, the quiet ones might just surprise you.
#3 Set Expectations
Make sure each team member understands their role and expected contribution before the meeting. This also goes for recurring events like weekly stand-ups or round-ups or whatever your team’s preferred terminology might be. With these repeated meetings, people can lose track of what’s critical to convey and what is peripheral or “parking lot” material. Inform people that if new questions or concerns come up, where they should share them. Is there a side channel? Who’s taking notes or is everyone responsible for their own follow ups?
It’s always best if information that can be shared beforehand…is shared beforehand. If you can manage to include it in an email or somehow inform all attendees ahead of time, that will help your sessions go more smoothly.
#4 Keep it Moving
Sure, you want to pick up the pace if your meetings tend to lag, but it’s also a great idea to MOVE, literally! Get moving, as in stand up, sit down, repeat. And now you’re doing squats without realizing it. Remind team members to move their bodies, do some slow neck circles and be sure to rotate the wrists.
Movement not only helps with blood circulation and increasing energy, but also acts as preventive care to slow down or protect against certain ailments like carpal tunnel syndrome. Here’s a not so fun fact: approximately 3 to 6 percent of adults in the general population have carpal tunnel syndrome, which is characterized by pain, numbness, and tingling in the hands, wrists, and arms. While there’s not any one cause, it’s often considered a result of work-related repetitive motion. It doesn’t hurt to spend a little time moving around.
And if you opt for a dance break, more power to you! Here’s a little inspiration and a blast from the past to get the party going:
#5 Popcorn or Hot Potato
Our attention spans seem to be shrinking faster than Pat Kramer in the underrated 80s movie The Incredible Shrinking Woman (c’mon Rotten Tomatoes, 22% on the Tomatometer? You better hope Lily Tomlin and Charles Grodin don’t hold a grudge). So what were we talking about? Right! Short attention spans. So, what can we do about it?
While you don’t want to create unnecessary anxiety in any of your team members, a little anticipation can keep everyone on their toes. Let them know they’ll need to have their attention at the ready because a co-worker could call on them at any point. It’s a popcorn-style technique that teams use to move things along and keep everyone engaged. Hearing your name perks up your ears and gets your heart pumping a little. And if you don’t know when it’s coming, you’re likely to be listening for it.
#6 Train the brain for all the tech
By now, your teams have most likely been trained on or have found a way to connect via Zoom, GoToMeeting, or whatever platform you prefer. Still, it doesn’t hurt to provide information about any shortcuts or updates you deem important. You’ll need to make sure new employees are brought up to speed with all the programs, tools, and apps you use.
You might also want to share some pointers about tech-etiquette. Even with emojis and avatars (and gifs, oh my!), some messages sent through Slack (or whatever messaging app you use) can be misinterpreted. Without the intonation of our voice, we have to be extra thoughtful with our words.
Before attendees exit a meeting, make sure they know where all the follow up items will be catalogued. Do you want to create a Google drive or Dropbox account so files can be shared between teams? One team’s Trello cards may look different than the next, so within a company, there still may need to be instructions that initially seem repetitive. It’s better to over explain than to be misunderstood. Oh, and one last thing, if you’re working with teams of consultants or clients in different time zones, then make sure you specify when in the world you’re going to meet.
Do you really need this meeting?
Do you really need this meeting and does he need to be there? No, we’re not even saying this with a surly side-eye. It’s just a good question leaders need to ask before scheduling a meeting or going ahead with a regularly scheduled one. Does it need to happen? Who really needs to be present? This is one of those times when you can fly in like the hero you are and inform someone they are free to not attend that Friday afternoon project update.
Why it matters
Business leaders will benefit by employing best practices for virtual meetings. These are still evolving, along with the technology. As we keep learning about and researching the most effective strategies for remote meetings, it’s important to acknowledge that we will most likely be spending a lot more time doing our work virtually.
In a recent Gallup survey, 62% of employed Americans report having worked from home during the pandemic. This number has increased since initial surveys were conducted at the beginning of the crisis in March. Before stay-at-home orders and other Covid-19-related restrictions were put into place, it was reported that 5 million employees across the U.S. worked from home at least half of the time. And the trend was set to continue either way, with the number of employers that offer the option to work from home going up by 40% over the past five years.
It’s smart for leaders, and actually all team members, to learn techniques to make virtual meetings engaging and effective, since they’re more than likely here to stay.
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Adam Christing is a professional comedy magician, virtual MC, and the founder of CleanComedians.com. He is a member of the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood and a popular virtual comedian, magician, and virtual speaker.