How to Make Distributed Team Meetings Engaging and Actionable

This guest post comes from Michael de la Maza, an Agile Coach for Miro. Miro is an online collaborative whiteboard platform. For more tips, templates and strategies on collaborating with your team while remote, read Miro’s full guide to remote work.

Meetings from home are hard. Take all the challenges of an in-person meeting, and add new tools to master, audio and video technical difficulties, children in the background and more; Just staying focused in a meeting while the cat walks by can be taxing. As global workforces dive head-first into distributed teamwork, there are lessons to be learned and applied to all types of meetings to make them action-driven and engaging.

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The foundation of a distraction-free meeting

Let’s start with the basics. Just like you keep your desk clean at the office, keeping your online workspace free of distractions will help you focus. Here are some tips:

  • Reduce your screens. Turn off your second and third monitors if you don’t need them during a meeting. Reducing the screen surface will prevent you from getting distracted by an errant tweet.
  • Turn off notifications. This means everything: your messaging systems, social media apps, and email. Sometimes you’ll have to hunt around to find the appropriate setting. For Google Voice, I discovered that I could turn off answering calls on the web so an incoming call would not disturb an online meeting.
  • Put your phone in a different room. Just having it next to you has been shown to reduce focus even when it is in airplane mode!
  • Change notification settings. The Windows and Mac operating systems both have features that help you reduce notifications. Use them. In Windows 10, there is a “Notifications & actions” pane under “Settings.” On the Mac choose “Notifications” under “System Preferences.”
  • Close down unneeded tabs and applications. This will also reduce load on your machine and internet.
  • Take notes. This will help you focus and prevent your mind from wandering. Even better, offer to distribute the notes to the rest of the participants after the call. You can even record a short video to capture what you got out of the meeting.

Increasing engagement in your meetings

Now that you’ve taken care of the basics, let’s turn to more sophisticated ways to make sure that meetings result in progress and not just talk. In a virtual meeting setting, it’s more crucial than ever to consider the structure, activities, and stakeholders for an effective and engaging remote meeting.

Keep a meeting moving with a facilitator

For any meeting with more than a handful of people, consider having a facilitator role (or at least create a structured approach to facilitating the meeting, like an agenda). An experienced facilitator will help the group stay on track and will notice when the energy of the group is waning. At Miro, our regular all-hands meetings have a facilitator who focuses exclusively on the meeting process and agenda, rather than content.

A neutral facilitator supports full participation while still moving the meeting along.

Invite people to get to know each other on a personal level

Having a facilitator is also one way to invest in people. When people are connected to each other on an emotional level, they are more likely to stay focused and engaged.

Another way to invest in people is to spend time in each meeting building the social-relational system. This can be as easy as doing a short icebreaker or breathing exercise, or it can be more involved.

For example, one activity I like is called “impromptu networking.” In meetings with 20 or more people who do not know each other, send people into breakout rooms with 2-3 people. Do this multiple times, giving each group a couple of minutes to know each other.

Build psychological safety into your meetings

People are naturally engaged and energized. It is when they feel psychologically unsafe that meeting participation drops.
The concept of “team psychological safety” was first introduced by Harvard organization behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson; It’s the belief that the team environment is safe for taking an interpersonal risk without being seen as negative, disruptive, incompetent or ignorant.

If companies and meeting facilitators are looking to boost meeting engagement, psychological safety is a key building block. Here are three simple techniques Edmonson recommends to build this into your everyday work life:

  • Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem. Say something like, “We’ve never been in this territory before, and we need to have everyone’s input.”
  • Acknowledge your own fallibility. Say something like, “I may miss something and I need to hear from you to make sure I don’t.”
  • Model curiosity and ask lots of questions. When people with positional authority ask questions, team members are more likely to speak up and answer.

Psychological safety is particularly important in remote work environments. Because the opportunity for informal communication is so much lower when we are not in the same physical space, intentionally working on psychological safety on remote teams will increase the quantity and quality of engagement. Here are two relevant tactics to contribute to psychological safety in a distributed team meeting:

  1. Acknowledge unusual circumstances. One way to build this while remote is by acknowledging that people are working under unusual circumstances. Some of us are working from our bedrooms, or patios, or have a house full of noisy roommates.
  2. Acknowledge interruptions. Acknowledging that interruptions can occur increases safety by reducing the chances that people will feel anxious about “looking professional” during a meeting. If a child or a pet does unexpectedly interrupt a meeting, make sure to make them welcome. That’s now part of work life.

When team members feel they can ask questions, offer suggestions, admit mistakes and otherwise be vulnerable in front of each other without being disparaged, embarrassed or punished by other team members, they are more willing to share, engage, and connect.

Bring physical objects into the digital world

Just because we are all online does not mean that we can’t use physical objects to help us run better meetings. In fact, addressing the individual environments your employees are in and asking them to engage in them can help dissolve the stark transition to a virtual workplace.

In one meeting I attended, we broke up into groups and competed to see who could finish a treasure hunt first. We had to gather household objects, like pillows and staplers, and show them on video. In another meeting, we were asked to bring crayons and sticky notes to complete a design thinking exercise. Once we were done, we uploaded photos to our online whiteboard.

These activities broke up the energy-draining screen time and deluge of tabs we usually are forced to trudge through while working from home.

Finish like a champion

Wrapping up a meeting in style is part of what makes for an effective meeting.

One sure-fire way to do this is by running a quick retrospective. What you learn from a retrospective can then be used to modify future meetings to make them more actionable. Powerful retrospective questions include:

  • What is one thing you learned in this meeting?
  • What can be improved?
  • What was the value of this meeting?

I also like to end meetings five minutes before the designated end time to give participants the ability to smoothly transition to their next activity.

People dislike meetings that don’t work for them. Meetings from home, especially when they’re happening in a complex and unpredictable context like today, require a new set of rules to be effective. By making meetings actionable and engaging, you’ll benefit your people, and your company.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Indeed.

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