How to make video meetings less awful

The sudden mass adoption of remote working has brought with it a whole lot of bad practices. Here's how to nail your Zoom.

by Chris Dyer
Last Updated: 22 Apr 2020

A few months ago, I wrote a piece for Management Today detailing how to make meetings less terrible. A lot has changed since then. 

As more of us work from home during the COVID-19 crisis, remote meetings have suddenly taken centre stage. For some, though, they are productions in need of a better script. Few business leaders who have had to jump into virtually directing their staff have had sufficient time to prepare for effective long-distance collaboration at this scale. 

To get started in making virtual meetings less horrible, consider what managers want out of meetings, and what team members want. Then calculate the shortest distance, with the least drama, between those two points. Here’s how to bring the “actors” and “audience” together in irresistible - and highly effective - ways.

Set the stage

Your agenda is your script, so put some thought into it rather than improvise as you go. Decide on one to three main topics and consider how much time you need to address them. While your staff may be craving interaction right now, lengthy meetings are probably not at the top of their list. Go short. You can always schedule a follow-up.

But you have to follow through on your agenda, first. Announce meeting protocols and focal points and stick to them. Start on time, stay on topic, and if possible, end early. What busy manager or multitasking staff member doesn’t want a meeting to take less time?

Always schedule with “Parkinson’s law” in mind: any task will expand to fill the time allotted. Thirty to forty-five minutes should be adequate for most meetings - and most attention spans, particularly for folks who are new to working from home. 

Be sure to include distraction reduction in your protocols: ask attendees to block out the time, keep microphones muted unless speaking, and refrain from checking emails and phone messages during meetings.

Call the cast

Bringing the relevant players to the virtual table is the key to hitting a meeting’s marks effectively and efficiently. Video conference hosts should take a few moments to refresh their memories about who does what in the company, so they know what people can contribute. 

Having a conference “just because” is a sure way for people to lose interest and waste time - and dread the next invitation. Making meetings valuable to every attendee should be the goal.

How you call your staff together should also be painless. At my fully remote company, we have a tiered system of identifying a type of virtual gathering, whether it’s optional or mandatory, and why people are invited to join. We give each category a name for instant recognition. 

Among them are:

-- Cockroach meetings, general-topic, all-staff events that anyone with an interest can attend

-- Tiger team meetings, project/individual-specific chats to address issues of ongoing initiatives

-- Tsunami meetings, meant to brainstorm contingency plans for potential scenarios of great import to the business, such as a market shift or the death of a major executive

When we call one of these conferences, people know right away whether, why, and when to attend. Keep video calls to five to seven participants, for the most manageable dynamic. Once you get a formula together, you’ll be able to schedule meetings by heart.

Direct the action

With firm boundaries, hosts can give direction fairly easily. Practise good listening, to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Ask clarifying questions to get full answers and repeat the main points so that every attendee hears the same message.

When you need to maintain interest and attention for longer calls, include a bonding element for your team. 

Since every day is now Take Your Kids or Pets to Work Day, why not start off by introducing a family member? Or, try breaking up the meeting with a trivia question or personal a Q&As session.

Consider video meetings and remote calls opportunities to bring your team closer together. Collaborative meetings should build trust and camaraderie while attending to business. And, with the right director and actors, there’s no reason they can’t be entertaining.

Leadership speaker Chris Dyer is a founder and CEO of PeopleG2, a leading background check company. He is author of The Power of Company Culture (Kogan Page, 2018)

Image credit: Gary Ramage/Getty Images

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