Alone together: on productive working from home. Part 2: Online Meetings and Communication Strategy

It takes skill, preparation, and dedication to deliver good meetings. Online meetings tend to be even trickier but, with the right attitude and proper preparation, it can become an easy routine.

This is part two of the article series about effective work from home. Please read the preceding article here.

Online Meetings

Online meetings using voice and video options have become ubiquitous. Since you cannot see your peers face-to-face, it is essential to prepare well and consistently ensure the effectiveness of online meetings. There are dozens (or even hundreds) of books and publications addressing successful team and management meetings. I will, therefore, only focus on the specific aspects based on my own experience.

Meeting frequency. A quick one-on-one voice or video chat is natural and should be encouraged. On the other hand, formal meetings with several participants are a different matter. Such meetings cause additional overhead. That includes finding an available time slot for every participant, defining proper meeting goals, and documenting the results. Sometimes we tend to call for a meeting because of uncertainty (“Not sure what needs to be done, so let’s have a meeting!”). Such a habit tends to be wasteful. Sooner or later, your team becomes tired of the high number of online meetings. “Because of all those meetings, I never get to do the really important stuff”, people begin to complain. Ask twice if your meetings add value. the last thing you want to hear is the embarrassing question: “So, why are we even having this meeting?”

Because of the organizational overhead, it is generally recommendable to minimize the number of meetings. Sometimes, the best meeting ever is the one that has never happened.

Preparing online meetings: There are a few types of meetings that are quite different from each other.

  • Management meetings: these range from “happy, feel-good meetings,” to purely informational all-hands gatherings, to “sharing bad news.” Thorough preparation is crucial since such meetings may become quite emotional. Unlike it is the case in office meetings, the speaker cannot immediately react to misunderstandings and mood swings. That is why a well-thought-out, peer-reviewed, and rehearsed presentation is recommended. The required preparation effort is directly proportional to the importance and size of the online meeting.
  • Status meetings: these meetings are essential to ensure that the team is aligned.
    It is a good idea to use the same template for each meeting to avoid confusion and team questions regarding the form of the presentation. It is often a good idea to simply use a template from older projects. It saves time and effort, but also it gives the team a sense of organizational consistency. I would not recommend attempting to reinvent the wheel since no one really cares about the presentation form itself. If, despite this warning, you choose to create a new standard presentation form, prepare as thoroughly as you would do it with a management presentation.
    A typical agile “standup” is also a kind of a status meeting. It is a good idea to have a daily 15-minute meeting every morning, and a large, all-hands weekly meeting (maybe 30 minutes) to make sure that everyone is included.
  • Clarification meetings and workshops: these meetings are particularly tricky because the interaction between the team members requires an exceptional level of agility and a proper team mindset. In such a case, you need to define meeting ground rules first. For example, unresolvable differences should be rethought and postponed until a follow-up meeting. Define the basic discussion rules regarding the meeting style (for example — directed discussion vs. a mere brainstorming session). Also, some people love themselves talk. There is nothing wrong with it, except it may be quite wasteful. When someone is garrulous, you must define a fair and kind way to stop the monologue. Make sure that you always remain kind and calm. After the workshop, make sure to summarize the results. In the online world, the written summary is especially important. Send the result summary out to the team (by e-mail or in the proper content management system). Whenever necessary, define and communicate required tasks (to-dos), and send them to each “task owner.” Make sure that you can follow-up on all delegated tasks. Use the organization’s task management tool to manage the delegated work.

Remember that online meetings are an excellent opportunity for the team to ask casual questions. In the physical office world, one would typically just stop occasionally buy to ask a question or two. Encourage quick and spontaneous questions, especially after or before meetings. The threshold of contacting your team members should be low. Your policy could be that “pinging” someone should always be OK. You simply don’t respond if you are busy. If this policy is established, nobody will feel offended, and the communication flow will significantly improve.

Suppose you feel uncertain after a meeting. In such case, immediately follow-up with your key stakeholder(s). Ask for their opinion. It is often revealing and helps you save face. It is way more important than it is in the on-promise case since people will communicate in the background about you. You are likely to “be the last to know and the first to cry.”

If you sense that some team members are being exceptionally quiet, ask in a one-on-one private chatroom for the feedback! Never share individual input with anyone. Copy-pasting of a chat, for example, is usually a big no-no.

Also, in the case of discussion meetings, it is an excellent practice to pre-predetermine the likely decision result. Pre-determined meetings will give the team a clear direction and, if someone disagrees, the resulting discussion is more likely to be meaningful. If you don’t have a vision of what needs to be achieved, then during the meeting, you may be swayed in a direction that neither helps you nor your team. In other words, the assumed result should be clear even before calling for the team meeting. It may sound like a manipulative approach, but it is just the way it works in the brick-and-mortar world, so why not do the same when having online meetings? As George Harrison once said: “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” It is a beautiful phrase in a pop song, but it makes for a horrible meeting policy.

Before each online meeting, make sure that all of the technical necessities are available to the attendees, such as access rights to join the meeting for each meeting member, especially the external ones. Make sure that all meetings use the same meeting technology (especially critical in case of external meetings).

Send out the meeting information and agenda before the meeting and make sure that the participants have electronically confirmed their attendance. If the meeting attendant has not explicitly confirmed the participation, contact the missing member(s) directly (for example, using an instant messenger).

Additional hints regarding the selection of meeting “slots”: tools like Microsoft Outlook routinely sets your meeting in a roster of 30 or 60 minutes. It turns out that teams appreciate 45 minutes instead of 60-minute meetings. In that way, you have time to get a fresh cup of coffee before the next meeting. Thus, meeting planning becomes more relaxed and realistic.

Conducting online meetings: In the world of online meetings, your voice is your most important asset. Protect it. It is always good to have a glass of water on your desk, but make sure that you don’t topple it! A good tip: instead of a regularly-shape glass, use a whiskey-shaped glass that is more stable and is less likely to cause a flood on your desk.

Don’t drink too much milk with your coffee right before your speech; milk often makes your voice hoarse.

Avoid distraction: IM messages, audible and visual e-mail notifications, unexpected phone calls – they must all be muted. That includes your manager or client who is not invited to the meeting. Avoid responding to unrelated online call requests. They should understand that productive team meetings are a critical success factor for any organization.

Make sure that your room is quiet. Close the door. Only open it when not in a meeting and you are available for a chat with your housemates. If you live on a noisy street, close the window for the duration of the meeting. Lock your pets out of your office.

Never eat during a meeting, no matter how hungry you are. Mind your manners. Besides, some microphones are quite sensitive. Even if you are just listening to lengthy responses from your team during a meeting, they will likely hear it.

Always use your business outfit during meetings, regardless of the video option. It is a well-known fact that people speak in a different, more professional tone when they wear a tie. Be aware that sometimes a video transmission can be activated by mistake or for other unknown reasons, and it may ruin your reputation if you happen to be sitting in front of your team in pajamas. 

More speaking hints: Learn to speak with confidence. Yes, it may be easier said than done. Record yourself, even if it ends up being a very humbling and painful experience. Work on improving your speaking skills. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a good rhetorical training. Some say that if you are good at speaking, you earn 50-100% more over time. I believe this and to that point, you might want to hire a speaking coach. After all, it might be one of the best investments you have ever made.

When self-moderating your meetings, make sure that you are accepted and can exercise the proper level of authority. If you anticipate difficulties during the meeting, ask a well-disposed team member to moderate the meeting. It is also useful to have a note-taker delegated in the same way. Unless you are a genius multitasker, you will likely miss important notes and tasks. 

Important: use a headset. Using an integrated microphone/speaker or even your laptop microphone doesn’t sound all that good. What works great in science fiction movies doesn’t work in reality. Instead, you might appear smug or like someone who doesn’t have your act together. Nothing works better than a high-quality headset. It helps facilitate the sense of proximity with the discussion partner(s). Get a good headset, and another one as a backup in case the other one fails.

Communication Strategy: E-mails and Instant Messages

Ever since the invention of e-mail, an ever-increasing flood of mail has become a common annoyance. I generally recommend writing an e-mail only if you expect a response. Just because you have sent out an e-mail to someone, it doesn’t mean that anything has been done or managed. If your e-mail is of high importance, follow up using instant messenger or voice call.

Discourage using e-mail as a self-defense tool. When everything is propagated per CC to everyone, e-mail becomes useless. It then becomes just white noise.

It is a dangerous habit to “just quickly” send an e-mail. E-mails are formal documents that can also be legally audited. It is, therefore, better to be sparse with it. You also might want to establish a deferred rule in Outlook (see LINK). It will give you a chance to modify or delete an e-mail before it is transmitted, so you don’t send an angry e-mail and already regret it a second later.

Instant messengers (IM) were supposed to solve the “e-mail flood” problem. However, at some time, you can get spammed by IMs just as easily as with e-mails. The proper messaging culture is helpful.  Set up rules in a written form (as a work instruction). Periodical status e-mails are the worst case of digital waste.

Establish a page in our content management system and refer to it instead of e-mails and IMs. If you use a status page instead of an e-mail, you typically still have the chance to correct “on-the-fly.”

As a general rule: talk more directly to your team instead of using e-mail or IM. It is a good practice that makes working from home more human. E-mails often lead to demotivating escalations, where people include more on more team members on “CC,” while it’s added value diminishes. A direct call (voice or video) prevents such wasteful e-mail chains. You might want to add the “call-first, e-mail next” rule in your formal communication plan.

Summary

Online meetings can be quite intimidating. There is no direct feedback from the participants. Misunderstandings and/or confusion can go undetected. However, with the proper mindset and the right preparation, it is not more difficult than in a conventional office. It has become an essential skill that needs some practice to be mastered.

When are your online meeting skills “good enough”? The litmus test for that is simple: once you realize that you are enjoying online meetings, then you are most likely already an online meeting pro. Otherwise, do not be shy to ask an experienced manager for tips on conducting online meetings, so your online meetings become effortless and just fun. Which should ultimately be your goal!

The next article in this series focuses on leadership, management, and risk management in a working-from-home environment. Please follow this link to continue.

Roman Mildner
About Roman Mildner 47 Articles
Roman Mildner is a Project Manager Professional (PMP), executive management consultant at United Mentors, and a book author . He has worked in the IT industry since 1992 and as a manager consultant since 1998. He focuses on process improvement services with an emphasis on Automotive SPICE and strategy consulting. For more details, please visit his United Mentors home page.

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