Optimize for Respectful Remote Meetings

I've had the pleasure—and displeasure—of many remote meetings over the past few weeks. The difficult meetings had a common root cause: the meeting leaders attempted to do a direct transfer of how they lead an in-person meeting to remote/WFH meetings. When that occurs, they miss the ability to optimize on our separation by choosing how to treat people and by how we create a meeting environment. When we optimize for respect, we often have better meetings.

(I already discussed some of this in Five Meeting Tips for Newly-Remote Teams. I suggested 45-minute meetings and other ideas to make better meetings.)

What do I mean by respect in remote meetings?

  • Trust everyone to monitor their own behavior and actions.
  • Create an environment in which people can do their best work.

Extend Trust to the People in the Meeting

Let's deconstruct what trusting people in meetings means.

First, make sure everyone can join the meeting before the organizer arrives. I get frustrated when I'm a couple of minutes early—especially to check my audio—and then the organizer is late. I want to test my connection in the meeting. (Why? Because some of the tools are insufficient and change my audio when I join the meeting.)

I also want a couple of minutes to socialize with my colleagues. The more dispersed we are, the more we need that socialization time.

Now, let's get to how we act in the meeting.

We need to openly and willingly discuss, influence, and negotiate about the topics at hand. (See Building Trust in Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life. There's more, but I'll start with the freedom to openly discuss.)

That means we need to turn on and use the relevant chat channels. I'm fond of the chat backchannel, but you might want to use the chat in the tool. Make everyone an equal participant in that chat channel. Don't restrict chat participation. (See 7 Tool Tips for Your Newly Distributed Team.)

What if you have someone who talks or chats “too much?” That's where the meeting participants need facilitation skills and possibly working agreements. You and other people can offer feedback in the moment.

That's part of a great meeting environment.

Create a Great Meeting Environment

When I lead a remote meeting, I first decide what's asynchronous and synchronous work. I find that report preparation, reading a short brief, some other kind of prep works best if it's done as pre-work.

Can I plan on everyone doing the asynchronous work? No. However, if enough people do the pre-work, peer pressure creates a virtuous feedback loop for people to prepare before the next meeting.

I don't want to listen to people read to me—either from a document or slides. I don't want to read to them, either. That's a serial activity that does not add to the discussion. That's bad enough in an in-person meeting. It's deadly in a remote meeting. I guarantee you that people don't pay attention if you read to people.

If you need to discuss something that requires thought, send a draft of a document in advance. Not for agreement. For discussion. You might even add questions such as these at the end (or the beginning) of the document:

  • What did I miss?
  • If we play the Perfection Game, what would make this better?
  • If we implement this proposal, what three things could go wrong?

If the document is longer than a page, I might put the questions at the front. I want people to know I want to discuss these issues.

Asynchronous and synchronous work is only part of the environment. Getting everyone to synchronize their participation is another piece.

Create Working Agreements on People Who Arrive Late

Sometimes, people talk too much or chat too much because they're catching up on the discussion points. They didn't read the pre-work. Or, they regularly arrive late to meetings. (They acted this way for in-person meetings, too. Now, that late arrival is even more irritating in an online meeting.)

Here's what I've done in the past:

  1. Offer public feedback. I explain the consequences to me when the person is late. (I have no fear of explaining, in public, even to a high-titled person, the effect of their late arrival. You might feel differently. In that case, offer private feedback—if you can catch the person.)
  2. If the person can't manage their attendance, I disinvite them to the meeting. I remove them from the calendar invitation. I remove them from the distribution list for the meeting information, agendas, and minutes.

Normally, the too-busy person thanks me. Sometimes, the person confronts me, “Why did you remove me from the list?”

I say something like this, with concern, not sarcasm: “I realize you're quite busy. Instead of adding to what's on your plate, let me help you get some time back in your day. That way, you can be more successful with the work you need to complete.”

That's when I often discuss what's on their personal project portfolio and how to say no to more work.

If the person says, “I need to be in this decision loop,” I ask, “What do you need to drop so you can work with us?” (This is a Cost of Delay Due to Multitasking.)

I realize you might not think you have the political clout to say this. If you start from a place of empathy for their busy-ness, that might help.

Rethink Your Remote Meetings

See how little control you need in your remote meetings. See how much trust you can extend. See ways to make the synchronous part of the meeting worth the time.

Please don't recreate the worst of in-person meetings when you're distributed. You'll make the meetings much worse. Consider how to create respectful remote meetings.

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