July 05, 2021 • 11 min read
With the world still adjusting to the new normal, many companies have transitioned the bulk of their workforce to the virtual workroom. In the US alone, remote employees have increased to 44% from 17% even before Covid-19. And when the pandemic happened, outsourcing, in general, has become even more relevant. So it's no wonder that analysts estimate the number of remote workers will rise to 75% or more by 2025.
Here in the Philippines, recruitment doesn’t show signs of slowing down, with many tech companies offering work-from-home setups. In one survey conducted by Philippine-based Sprout Solutions, they found that 72% of their clients are now taking advantage of work-from-home setups since the pandemic started.
As a result, virtual meetings have become a staple for many tech teams outsourcing software development, not only for those in different geographical locations but also for teams in the same area or city (what with social distancing and all).
But with all the high-tech tools at your team’s disposal, how sure are you that your remote meetings remain smooth, productive, and engaging for everyone? Well, here are 7 signs you should watch out for that may suggest they're not—and tips & tricks to help you improve or resolve them.
Meetings that take forever to finish can get so boring that attendees lose interest and even doze off, making discussions useless. Studies claim that the optimal length of time for a regular meeting should be between 15 to 20 minutes because people’s attention spans are at their peak within the 10 to 18-minute mark. Anything more than that, and they start to tune out or do something else. For remote meetings, keeping discussions concise and “meaty” is even more imperative. After all, attendees can easily go away from their keyboard or do something else on their end, with the cameras off and the mic muted.
If it’s a regular meeting, keep track of the amount of time you spend on each of them. That way, you can better estimate and set the minimum amount of time for future meetings. You can also send out a survey to attendees beforehand to ask if they have anything special or urgent they need to discuss with the team as well as how much time they need and what particular action plans they expect from the group. And in case your agenda is longer than usual, or you have some special announcement, you can adjust the time as needed.
Veering off-topic is a common occurrence during meetings. This is an acceptable practice if it happens occasionally. And small talk can be a good ice breaker when starting sessions and getting people comfortable and in the mood to focus on the coming discussion. However, it becomes a major issue when it takes place frequently. Too many interruptions can lead to loss of productivity and unresolved issues, especially when you jump from one topic to another.
To avoid this, set a clear agenda from the outset, and stick to your outline. Hosts or organizers should also keep watch on the discussion so that it stays focused on the topics at hand. Whenever someone interrupts with a random comment, and it incites others to jump in, politely cut the talk and remind people to get back on track. Also, set an allotted time for each item on the agenda. Keeping track of the time allotted will help you stay in control so that the meeting doesn’t snowball into a discussion of issues that ends without a resolution in sight.
Some people think that multitasking during meetings can be a good thing, especially if what you’re doing are work-related tasks anyway such as checking emails or replying to client messages. Some even think that sneaking a quick peek at Facebook won’t affect the meeting flow. Well, that’s not necessarily true. While these things might seem harmless, little things like these can take people's attention away from important discussions taking place. As a result, they’d be unable to contribute innovative or outside-the-box ideas they might have had just because they are otherwise engaged. Also, they could be distracting or encouraging other attendees to do the same. After all, if someone’s doing it, why can’t they?
To avoid these small interruptions, as much as possible make it a policy to ask people to turn on their cameras. That way, everybody is visible and they’d be more obliged to pay attention. Also, ban attendees from bringing their mobile devices for the duration of the meeting, if it’s not what they’re using, of course. More importantly, for optimised results, let the team leader or organizer implement a strict rule against multitasking. Besides, it’s only good manners to participate and listen when someone’s talking.
Also, make meetings a bit engaging and not too serious and boring. Allow for some small talk to get extra discussions out of the way, build rapport among the team (especially if there’s a new member), and start the powwow on a lighter note. According to a Harvard Business Review article, “Small talk is a big deal. It’s time to bring this missing piece of your team’s culture to the virtual world.”
So ask people how they’re doing and if they had a good weekend. Even talking about the weather can be a nice icebreaker. Preserving the company culture now that people don’t get to see each other often is more crucial than ever. Just make sure to keep this part short.
It can be hard to start meetings on time, especially when conducted in a virtual space where everyone is geographically in different places. Most delays are caused by technology-related issues or logistical challenges. Some teammates may also be unfamiliar with the platform you’re using or their hardware needs a serious upgrade. Other times it's simply because of good old-fashioned tardiness.
Regardless, the best solution is adequate preparation. Check all your equipment before the meeting and remind all attendees to do the same. If you’re about to use a new platform or you just have a new teammate joining you, make sure to introduce them to the software you’re going to use and give them ample time to set things up. Also, ask people to join the call a few minutes before the time so in case they run into some issues they’d still have time to resolve them, and the meeting can still start on schedule.
Also, have a plan B up your sleeve. Technology can sometimes be challenging, especially when some participants are in remote areas that may not have good internet connectivity. Urge attendees to check their connections regularly or at least an hour before the meeting. So if there are any problems then they still have time to find an alternative place to set up and join. Also, the platform you want to use may be having issues, so have a couple of alternative ones ready. However, if the internet connection is bad for several attendees, then reschedule the meeting the soonest possible time that’s convenient for everyone instead of pushing ahead without many of the crucial team members.
You’ve probably attended a brainstorming session where nobody wanted to share their ideas even though talking is the main point of holding a meeting in the first place. This is often due to fear of ridicule or being outrightly dismissed. Other times it could be just plain apathy.
An equally unproductive meeting is when it descends into chaos because everyone thinks their ideas or opinions are better or more important than others. People then throw courtesy and decorum out the window and probably end up in an argument that may ruffle feathers and further impair teamwork and trust.
Open the discussion by presenting existing facts or data about the topics at hand. Present the issues and what you want to happen in a straightforward manner and then ask for people’s ideas or suggestions. If no one wants to share, call out specific people you think may have some ideas because it’s their area of expertise. Or call out each of the attendees just to offer the challenge to everyone. Another way is to share the agenda hours before the meeting and ask participants to come up with ideas beforehand so that they arrive prepared.
On the other hand, if your problem is that everyone tends to talk at the same time, solve it by assigning each person a specific topic during the meeting and give them ample time to research it or brainstorm with others. Also, establish a culture of respect and proper etiquette during meetings by requesting everyone to take turns and let speakers finish instead of interrupting. After all, courtesy is key if you’re with other people, even if it’s in the virtual world.
According to a 2013 study, in the US alone unproductive meetings are believed to cost as much as $37 billion in wasted employee salaries. And not surprisingly, one of the main reasons causing those unproductive meetings is because of latecomers. Tardiness doesn't only have negative consequences for the offender but will also inevitably affect others as well. It will most likely sour the mood of the group especially if they have tight schedules and are expected to be on another call after. And since participants are not physically together, it may also be a catalyst for fake technical difficulties and multitasking behind the missing webcam.
Obviously, it would be best to remind people that you expect them to be professional and punctual, including for virtual meetings. After all, whether in person or virtually, meetings are still part and parcel of their job. However, before putting the blame on the team members or dismissing this as a disciplinary issue, recall the last few meetings you’ve conducted. Do people lose interest during discussions? Do they consistently arrive late or ask you to just email them the minutes? Perhaps you’ve established a reputation for conducting ineffective meetings, and they think it will most likely be like previous meetings... just a waste of time.
Virtual meetings don’t have to be boring and flat. In fact, according to the 2021 Trend Report: The Online Meeting Revolution by Slido, 61% of office workers in the US think that online meetings are more engaging than face-to-face meetings. The trick there is to make everyone participate. And again, encourage an active exchange of ideas.
Also, establish strict parameters on what topics are meeting-worthy. After you’ve set these guidelines, make sure to follow them so that you’re sending a message that you only call for meetings when it’s necessary and that you value everyone’s time.
You know you’re guilty of stonewalling during meetings when your team asks to set another meeting to finalize details, especially after spending so much time debating, brainstorming, and discussing the same topic for hours. This typically happens when you fail to come up with concrete action plans or resolutions in the end. It could also be a result of not establishing a clear meeting agenda at the start.
To avoid this, make sure you invite the right people to the virtual table. For instance, if things on the agenda will only be for a few people on the team, then you don’t have to send an invite to the entire team. Make sure to optimise not only the time but also the people involved.
Another thing you can do is steer the discussion effectively by leading the team to focus on matters at hand. If someone makes a side comment, make sure it doesn’t last for more than a few seconds and that others don’t engage too much by reminding them to get back on track. Also, hold them accountable to produce the expected output during the meeting. Make sure that, as much as possible, you end meetings with a list of resolutions, estimated deadlines, and people (or group) to hold accountable for every issue tackled.
Part and parcel of changes are unexpected challenges, and that is exactly what the transition to remote work and meetings may have brought to your team. However, that doesn’t mean you should shy away from having them at all. On the contrary, coming together is crucial in teamwork, especially for creative teams that need brainstorming sessions on a regular basis. With forethought, ample preparation, and the willingness to learn and adapt to the times, though, there’s no reason why your remote meetings can’t be as productive as when everybody is physically in the same room.
So if your team is guilty of any of the signs mentioned above, then perhaps you need to reassess how you conduct your remote meetings. And hopefully, the tips I mentioned here would be of some use. Good luck!
Fred had been working on IT and operational projects in the finance and software industry in Switzerland for 10 years before co-founding Arcanys in 2010. With nearly 20 years of experience in the industry in Switzerland, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, Fred is now leading the worldwide sales and marketing efforts of Arcanys.