#SuddenlyRemote: 3 Pivots You Need To Make For Better Remote Meetings

Meghan MacRae

These days it feels like we’ve been thrust into a virtual world. While we’re all comfortable with personal communication through our smartphones and laptops (maybe a little too comfortable), many people are finding themselves confined to fully digital communication for the first time in their careers. In the workplace, this means making the big switch from in-person meetings to remote meetings—a switch from “pants” to “no pants,” as we in the remote work world like to call it.

Boredom and distraction are a problem in any workplace, but they can seem like even more of an issue for the remote workplace. Despite evidence that remote work translates into more productivity than office work, many people fear that the easy (and invisible) access to social media and online shopping will mean it’s nearly impossible to get anyone to pay attention in meetings.

Meeting with your team or company from your laptop or smartphone can be strange at first, especially when you try to translate your in-person meeting format to a virtual one. The key to making that shift is to take a critical look at where your in-person meetings fail at encouraging wider participation and address those in your virtual meeting format. To help you do that, we suggest these three pivots that will make your virtual meetings smarter, more engaging, and more productive.

Pivot #1: Make your agenda smart, not stuffed

How many times have you seen a meeting agenda and thought, “well, guess I’m going to check out until line item 5c.” Thankfully your team lead can’t read minds because feeling secretly bored while trying to appear engaged is kind of the meeting status quo.  

So what happens when you add the level of privacy that remote meetings allow? Does everyone just hop onto their phones off-camera and scroll away while some brave soul speaks into the abyss?

That depends. If you adhere to the old in-person meeting adage of “the more stuff on the agenda, the better,” and stack your agenda with updates and information that’s only relevant to a few of your participants, you’re definitely going to lose some people.

But if you make participation the goal of your agenda, you’ll find yourself in some of the most engaging meetings you’ve had. So how do you approach an agenda with wide participation in mind?

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Watch our #suddenlyremote virtual event with ThoughtExchange CPO Dessalen Wood and see ThoughtExchange in action.

Crowdsourcing your Agenda

One way is to use a platform like ThoughtExchange to set your agendas ahead of time. In just a few minutes, your team can tell you what they’re most interested in talking about. They share their priorities and rate each others’, and you end up with a list of items that your team really cares about—one that will keep them paying attention.

We like to send out an exchange link in Slack to gather feedback on meeting topics, and we usually give ourselves a couple of hours to a couple of days before the meeting to make sure we get high participation from everyone involved. Then we can pull up the exchange results on camera so everyone can see how the thoughts stacked up, and use them to set discussion points.

Make it Fun!

Another way to approach your agenda from a participation angle is to include something fun. Ever heard of a “fun meeting?” They do exist. 

At ThoughtExchange we’ve been known to include discussion items at the beginning of a meeting that set a fun and open tone for the rest of the meeting. Things like, what’s a new activity you’re interested in trying? Or, what’s your favorite ice cream flavor? (We actually ran a company-wide exchange on that because it’s such an important topic, but that’s a story for another time…) 

Getting the conversation started in a fun way right off the bat makes your team feel more invested in participating throughout the meeting. 

Pivot #2: Participation makes perfect

While your agenda is a vital part of making the most of your remote meetings, there are also some technical things for you to consider when it comes to encouraging full participation. At ThoughtExchange, we use Zoom for all our remote meetings, and there are a few great tools built into their platform that we use on a regular basis to keep things lively.

First off, those handy off/on buttons for webcams and microphones need to be set to “on.” While in some circumstances, it’s okay to be that silent lurker in the background, there should be an understanding that your team is on camera and off mute whenever possible. That’s one takeaway from in-person meetings that need to be carried over – you can’t hide in a boardroom, so don’t hide in a virtual room!

Now that everyone’s got their cameras and microphones on, they’re ready to be seen and heard—but speaking up doesn’t come easily to everybody. That’s why you should encourage your team to use the chat function and reactions. Typing a quick chat to second a teammate’s idea or provide another angle to the discussion is a great way to include everyone without interrupting each other. Reactions let your team use emojis to show their appreciation and agreement, and they can be used as a virtual “show of hands.” Plus, emojis make millennials feel right at home.

Time is Money

So you’ve got a handle on the technical aspects of running a virtual meeting, but there’s one more thing you need to consider to make your virtual meetings more engaging than your in-person meetings ever were. 

Maybe the most important aspect to consider when it comes to running a successful remote meeting is role clarity: who needs to be there, and what’s their role in the process? About half of Americans (49 percent) say they are being asked to participate in more meetings now than they were a year ago, and 28 percent say meetings have gotten longer (via Klaxoon). 

What do more and longer meetings mean? Money. There’s a considerable cost to over-inviting people to a meeting; it can add up into the hundreds of thousands annually for individual employees. So with your ROI in mind, everyone in a meeting should have a clear idea of why they’re there, and why they need to be an active participant in the meeting.

Using a RACI matrix can be helpful for clarifying roles in a meeting. If you know who’s Responsible for a project’s tasks, who’s Accountable for the success of a project, who needs to be Consulted about project decisions and who needs to be Informed about the progress of a project, that tells you exactly who needs to be in each meeting and why.

Not only will role clarity have a big impact on the ROI of a meeting, it’ll also help boost participation from everyone invited. If everyone knows why they’re there and what they’re bringing to the table, they’re more likely to pay attention and join the conversation, and less likely to zone off as they scroll through their Facebook feed.

Pivot #3: Choose emotion over evidence with visuals

A lot of in-person meetings feature decidedly data-heavy presentations full of stats and charts because those things show you know what you’re talking about and everyone loves a bar chart, right? 

Actually, not everyone does. And studies have shown that triggering an emotional response from people is more effective at changing their behavior than showing them a lot of data about why they should. 

So if you’re putting together a visual presentation for your remote meetings, ask yourself a few questions: What do you want people to do as a result of this meeting? What do people need to feel in order to do that? What do people need to know to feel that way?

In a successful virtual meeting (or any meeting), you want your team to leave feeling energized and ready to tackle their tasks. You need them to feel positive about the impact they’re going to have on the project, so find visuals that will motivate them and make them smile (puppies always work). 

Or you might need them to feel a sense of urgency about a project, and understand how important it is to your organization or the world at large. Find visuals that will inspire them to see how impactful your topic is and why it matters. A great example is climate change. Showing people a chart full of data about how much plastic we dump in the ocean will have some impact on them, but showing them an image of wildlife struggling to survive in the Great Pacific garbage patch will invoke a visceral gut reaction. 

Bringing emotion into play with your choice of visuals will also encourage wider participation. That gut reaction—whether it’s a rush of joy or dread—quickly translates into a discussion of ideas. Those are the kind of meetings that translate into motivation and action.

Turn an Obstacle into an Opportunity

Finding yourself #suddenlyremote with your meetings can feel like an obstacle, but it’s actually an opportunity. You can take what’s worked for in-person meetings and change what’s been holding your team back. 

Making participation your priority will mean that everyone at a meeting feels like it’s a good use of their time. With these three key pivots around setting your agenda, centering participation, and using engaging visuals, you’ll see how remote meetings can be just as productive as in-person meetings—maybe even more so. 

And when we’re all back in the post-social distancing world, you can take this same approach to the office (and the bank). Take it from a company that’s thrived on remote work for more than a decade, going remote might just be the best thing that’s ever happened to your meetings!

About the Author

Meghan MacRae

Meghan was raised by an English teacher, thus she found a way to incorporate her instinct for grammar and spelling into her career. She honed her corporate writing skills in clothing companies and the music industry, and brings a passion for creativity and playful wordsmithing to her work at ThoughtExchange. When she’s not crafting language that brings people together, she’s reading a thesaurus, playing Uno with her kids, cooking and singing and dancing, and collecting vinyl and art.