This fourth post in our series on Distance Leadership comes from my good friend Erik Butz. Erik has been serving as an Operations leader in East Asia for over a decade.
How to Improve Any Virtual Team Meeting
We all know that running an effective meeting is tough, even with a group from the same culture that is sitting in the same room. But even more things can trip you up when you’re trying to lead a virtual meeting with people across multiple locations, time zones, languages and cultures.
I’ve been a team member or leader of distributed teams for nearly a decade now. Although technology has been making it easier and easier for these teams to have virtual meetings, there are still many challenges – including the use of all the new technologies! The last few years, most of my time has been spent working with people over distance. I feel like I’ve been in the virtual meeting school of hard knocks during that time. The following is a list of best practices that I’ve found helpful for holding fun and effective virtual meetings.
- Establish a strong foundation of relationship and trust by having initial (and occasional ongoing) face-to-face meetings with your virtual team. Solid relationship and trust are crucial to help overcome the inevitable miscommunications that happen over distance, emails and time (see Do you trust me?). If the team is a short-term work group, face-to-face time might not be possible, but you can still do initial relationship building over a video call. Take time to have people share about themselves, their strengths, working style, passions, vision for the project, etc.
- Develop and follow virtual meeting norms. All meeting norms that a face-to-face team would use will still apply, i.e. start and end on time, have an agenda, come prepared, etc. In addition, you might find it helpful to clarify some additional “virtual meeting norms.” This could include practical things like having remote participants sit in a quiet room (i.e. not a loud coffee shop), be online 10 minutes early in case of IT issues, make eye contact with the camera, or raising your hand (on video, or virtually on a chat window) if you’re having trouble breaking into the discussion.
- Involve all participants in virtual meetings. If all participants have a specific role in the meeting, I find they will be more engaged overall. In addition to facilitating specific topics of discussion, participants could also be assigned a “meeting role,” such as taking meeting notes, action point recorder, norms enforcer, or timekeeper. Related tip: The action point recorder can type action points directly into your online shared document and then everyone can review, clarify and confirm those action points (see Tip #4 below) at the end of the meeting.
- Keep priorities and action points visible to all and promote group accountability. Leveraging shared document technology like Google docs can really help your team communicate and focus. We use a Google doc action point list that we add to and review at every meeting. Team members mark tasks complete or add progress updates in real time. An example of how you might do this is shown here. We also have shared planning documents and priority lists that everyone can easily reference as they do individual planning and work.
- Leverage collaboration tools to save discussion time. We often think of virtual meetings as being less efficient as being face-to-face. However, in some cases, a team can gather information and “think together” more quickly using online tools. Try having everyone type his or her input or answer to a question into a chat window. The facilitator can review answers and follow up on key points or questions. The Google doc feature of having multiple people type into one document simultaneously is an extremely efficient way to quickly gather and refine ideas. Have everyone type in brainstorming ideas, answers to evaluation questions, or other small group or individual work that you want to compile, review and refine in real time.
- Test your meeting technology and tools. My teams and others I’ve observed have wasted WAY too much time on IT issues at the start of meetings. These issues could have been worked out by just 2-3 people testing the technology in advance of the meeting. Starting a meeting with tech problems can easily put a wet blanket on the mood and make people feel like your meetings are a waste of time. Related tips: (1) Use a video solution if possible as I’ve found that being on video significantly increases engagement. (2) Have a backup connection method available for the meeting in case your primary method fails.
- Train your team on meeting technology and collaboration methods. As you adopt new virtual meeting technology (like a new video conference system) or practices (like online document sharing or project management tools), make sure to train the team on how to use these tools. If you don’t, you might see engagement drop and frustrations rise.
- Adjust for language and cultural issues. Many distributed teams will have people from different cultures and language backgrounds. Those realities must be taken into account for the team to truly be effective. The current team I lead operates bilingually, with some stronger in one language than the other. As a result, we take meeting notes in both languages simultaneously (thus we have two note takers – see Tip #3). That allows someone who gets lost to quickly read up in their mother tongue.
These are just a few ideas that have worked for my teams. What practices have you used to make your virtual team meetings more effective?