Remote Meetings – How to Make Them Engaging and Productive

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Dessalen Wood
04/16/2020

A girl waves to other attendees of a remote meeting.

Remote work is more real now than ever before.  As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic wears on, many organizations continue to transform their in-person workforce into a remote-workforce.  It’s not been easy.  There are technology concerns to be ironed out.  Communication concerns as well. And of course, making sure every employee – regardless of physical location – is engaged and productive.

Meetings, even when they happen in-person, must be exactly the same way:  engaging and productive.

Remote Meetings

Why Have a Meeting? 

So, why have a meeting – of any type – in the first place?  According to Thoughtexchange Chief People Officer Dessalen Wood, there are four reasons.

  • To influence others
  • To make decisions
  • To solve problems
  • To inform and connect

Of those four, the first three are the most important reasons because those are the meeting where Wood says “big things are happening”.

That being said, how can you make those meetings functionally engaging and productive?  During her HR and Future of Work online event session, Wood focused on three action areas to help:

  1. Crowdsourcing agendas
  2. Inspire participation and connection
  3. Use of strong visuals

The Agenda 

We’ve all seen similar examples of agendas:  topics with multiple bullet points and data all laid out on a sheet of paper or in an email.  While some are encouraged by seeing a detailed agenda, others throw their head back in disdain. 

A sample of a meeting agendda

That happens for a couple of reasons.  Agendas like the one above can send the message that the meeting will be long, drawn out and boring.  On a more personal level, the employee looking at the agenda my only be interested in one to two items listed.  The rest are unimportant to their daily work life.

Meeting attendees struggle with boredom

As a result, attendees, especially in a remote environment, will feel disengaged and often times will lose focus.  That means they will start doing other things.  From the America in Meetings study of over 2,000 American adults, 38% say they zone out and daydream when they’re not speaking.

What else do Americans do during online meetings and conference calls?

A chart describing what people do in meetings

“This is really, I think, not a symptom of the fact that everyone multitasks and is distracted.  It’s that they don’t even know what the meeting is about or what role they play in that meeting,” Wood says.  Meetings that fall into this category can have huge implications for the business.  Wood points to a finding from Gartner:

“Decisions made by broader, and more inclusive and diverse groups have a higher likelihood of resulting in better business outcomes.”

With that in mind, Wood says you can counter negative impact meetings by crowdsourcing agenda items.  This should happen before the actual meeting is due to take place.  Using the Thoughtexchange solution, leaders would send a link to participants in advance of the meeting.  That link would allow participants to enter a Thoughtexchange and actually tell the leader what topics should be discussed.  In addition to sharing their opinions, participants could also read ideas from others and “star” those thoughts.  Those with the most stars rise to the top and now leaders see the topics they should focus on for the meeting.

RELATED:  Collaboration is the Future of Work

By discussing the topics most people want to hear about, you increase the chances participants will be engaged in the conversation, thus supporting the key finding from Gartner mentioned earlier.

There’s also an additional financial component that most people don’t think about.  As Wood pointed out, the more time spent in meetings the less time is devoted to productivity and more money spent.  She broke it down this way:

“Imagine 25 hours of meetings a week and that most meetings have at least four people attending.  Being conservative, that equals 100 hours dedicated to meetings.  Let’s say each of those folks make $40 per hour.  That equals $4,000 a week in meetings,” Wood explains.

Taking that information and accounting for four weeks of vacation, 48 working weeks multiplied by $4,000 means there is $192,000 lost in meetings.  The more people included in a meeting means an increase in money loss.

“We need to be better equipped at running meetings, because we are wasting a tremendous amount of resources,” Wood says.

Inspire Participation and Connection

Embracing this new paradigm means letting go of some old ones first.  Wood says it’s not always obvious when leaders are no longer providing the most important opinions.

“Just because you’re leading a meeting doesn’t mean you have the best information for that meeting,” Wood says.  She says people are very well informed as our environment provides huge access points to all types of information.  Leaders’ opinions can often impact the thoughts of others.  For instance, if a leader publically says he or she is against a particular recommendation, those supporting the recommendation are less likely to say so thus impacting the decision that needs to be made regardless of its import or impact.

To get these other opinions, Wood suggests using engagement tools that are often included in your remote meeting resources.  If the technology has a video function, she suggests keeping the cameras on, the volume up and the chat on.  As a result, people stay focused and engaged with the content being provided by those participating in the meeting.

Finally, Wood suggests while everyone is waiting for the meeting to start, maybe include some type of “fun” question for people to engage with and share their ideas with the group.  A suggest question she provides is “What advice would you give a couple, looking for a great new tv show to binge watch on Netflix this weekend?”

Strong Visuals

Most remote meetings include some type of visual; a Powerpoint presentation or other slide deck technology.  Generally speaking folks think the fewer the slides, the better.  Wood says it’s actually the opposite.  More slides are better.  Why?  Fewer slides means less is happening on the screen.  If there isn’t much happening, people will disengage from the meeting.

If you are changing slides often and at a much higher frequency, participants are less likely to “zone out”.

To solve for this, Wood says ask the following questions:

  • What do you want people to do as a result of the meeting?
  • What do people need to feel in order to do that?
  • What do people need to know to feel that way?

She used the example of a company wanting employees to stop using plastic water bottles in the office. That answers what you want them to "do" - stop using plastic. The key to changing behaviour is now selecting powerful visuals that make people feel an emotion.

Relaying the message that plastic bottles are bad for the environment and bombarding them with massive amounts of information about the problems caused by plastic water bottles won't make people take action. People already know that information and use them anyway. When trying to influence others, use images that hit home, such as kids swimming in a pool filled with plastic trash. The key to visuals is to use something relatable that will create emotions that numbers and charts simply can't and don't do.

In Summation

Throughout the article, the focus has been on keeping people involved in remote meetings, but there is a deeper point to consider.  It’s really about making people feel like they are being heard and have some ownership over the meeting.  When they feel involved and they understand their role in the meeting, they will naturally develop an emotional connection to the content.  That connection drives engagement and productive… and better business results.

Dessalen Wood is the Chief People Officer for Thoughtexchange.  Her HR and Future of Work presentation is entitled #SuddenlyRemote:  How to Run Engaging, Productive Remote Meetings.  Click here to watch a recording of the session.

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