By now you've probably had to use a video conferencing platform like Zoom or Hangouts to conduct a meeting. A "Brady Bunch" of faces talking at each other, hoping to not talk over their boss, occasionally catching their own reflections/portraits for a bit too long.
You may have found this kind of meeting frustrating at times, but try to imagine a group of you were actually in a room together while the rest are in the video chat. The conversations stop including certain people, video chat participants become easy to ignore and can easily ignore you. This can be the reality of working in a distributed team.
It doesn't have to – there are simple things you can do to stay collaborative and inclusive. The main thing to keep in mind is that your distributed video chats need to try and emulate everybody being in the same room as best as possible, and the whole team needs to be aligned to this.
Here's how Design Operations (DOPS) at Finder did it.
Before the Meeting
It's helpful to identify some roles and rules as a team. This may not always be possible given you could be meeting with clients, but an awareness of these was very useful for us. We established these roles naturally, but intentionally defining these would help too.
The Meeting Conductor
The Conductor makes sure that people are heard, included, and have the chance to participate in discussions. This can be one or more people. This doesn't have to be your leader or manager, but is typically the person who also organised the meeting.
This role exists in in-person meetings as well - they're typically the person who makes sure the meeting stays on track. The difference now is that this person has to be aware of everyone in the video call, and politely make time for them to say something, especially if they've been attempting to.
Just like in in-person meetings, this person should be in charge of either note taking, organising note taking, or any other follow-up work that should come after the meeting.
The Loud Voices, The Quiet Voices
People who are typically loud or talkative in meetings need to be aware of their habits, as they may unintentionally exclude the voices of other members in the team. Similarly, people who are reserved or quiet will often not get or take their chance to talk like their counterparts will. Calling this out (even in private) takes a lot of trust between team members, but we've found the benefits carry to other teams, too.
It's important to note that this is not an exercise to change people's personalities (i.e. get talkative people to shut up, get the reserved people to speak up) – it's an exercise of self awareness to help people judge how they can best contribute to the team.
"Okay, I think I'm talking too much – sorry Taylor, did you have something to say?"
Kayne East realises he has been The Loud Voice
Making ourselves aware of which role we typically play means the Meeting Conductor can do a better job as well.
During the Meeting
Given that our meetings were both in person and using tech, there were a series of things we had to keep in mind throughout the meeting to keep it running smoothly.
When the meeting starts, you effectively just "ninja" in. The rest of the room may not be aware that you're in the meeting, and that's ok for meetings with more participants, or "listening" meetings. One habit we got into at the beginning of our meetings was to ensure that everyone can actually be heard, either by:
- Making sure to start with conversation.
- Greeting any person who joined, and waiting for an audible response.
- If you haven't got an audible response, asking for a quick sound check. This is a little more explicit than just repeating step 2.
It's very helpful if everyone can join with their video feed. Speaking face to face encourages empathy, and lets the meeting participants read your body language and emotional responses to conversations. However, sometimes participants can't have their video enabled for various reasons. This is ok, too.
Keep in mind that not all video is visible at once. Sometimes it's also necessary to disable video for the benefit of the connection. Given that video can be unreliable, always remember to communicate first by talking. Only nodding and shaking your head, or gesturing, can be an especially hard habit to get out of.
After the Meeting
As in real life, it's still impossible to have a perfectly seamless conversation. It's important that after the meeting, the Meeting Conductor can follow up with the team and make sure that they all get their say in. It's helpful to have meeting notes that you can asynchronously add to, but is also just generally good practice when sharing information with a distributed team. This enables you to record and validate decisions more easily, and avoids creating tribal knowledge through documentation.
In summary, these are just techniques to help you on your way to making the most out of our new Work From Home reality. A meeting is only as effective as the participants are aligned and constructive. Hopefully a joint awareness and some common rules and guidelines to follow helps you achieve that alignment.
I'd like to reiterate a caveat though – these are techniques that worked for DOPS, a team with some distributed members which was also WFH-enabled. Today, we're living in different times. I'll leave you with this tweet for a bit of grounding.
"You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work."— Neil Webb (@neilmwebb) March 31, 2020
I've heard this twice today. I think it's an important distinction worth emphasising.
What techniques have you found effective for running your video meetings? Leave me a comment below, I'm interested to hear them!