The enormity of what’s transpired in the past few weeks is taxing the focus of remote workers in myriad ways. Immediate and pressing concerns encompass: The health and well-being of ourselves and others; job stability, personal investments, and the larger economic outlook; childcare and homeschooling obligations; and stocking the most basic, day-to-day supplies. In short, workers have never been so distracted, even as organizational leaders need them to concentrate now more than ever in order to help their companies weather the storm.
On top of all this, those new to remote work are learning on the fly that telecommuting comes with a unique set of challenges, which include far greater opportunities for distraction and miscommunication. It’s all too easy for teams to lose track or simply misunderstand who is responsible for what and when in an environment completely lacking the usual visual cues and impromptu reminders about what needs to be done.
Fortunately, there are best practices leaders can institute to help ensure their teams are marching in lockstep. This requires diligence surrounding remote meetings, which serve as the essential vehicles through which employees come together to successfully communicate, plan and collaborate, or–alternately–to go down the slippery and dangerous slope of working at counter purposes.
Here are some steps leaders and their teams should put in place for getting the most from remote meetings and to stay aligned during these challenging times.
Build in time for personal check-ins
Employees dialing into remote meetings are more likely to stay strictly focused on their specific to-do lists. While this might seem like a productivity booster, it isolates workers from each other–sapping morale and reducing crucial collaboration. To promote the connections individuals need–particularly now–to feel fully human and work productively, begin remote meetings with a meaningful question. You should even create an agenda line item for this check-in that allocates a certain amount of time for each participant to respond. This will give employees a chance to clear the air, let go of some stress and anxiety, get grounded, and then switch their focus to the matters at hand. The reduction in meeting time devoted to work won’t be an issue. Research has shown shorter meetings are actually more focused and have more impact.
Allow home and work to merge
With working parents struggling to babysit and homeschool children even as they put in extra hours to help their companies navigate this crisis, it’s crucial to allow for the occasional personal interruption during remote meetings. To illustrate, employees who aren’t comfortable asking team members to repeat themselves if their attention was pulled momentarily by a child might pretend to understand their marching orders when in fact they do not. What’s more, the blending of work and home life can duplicate the experience of coming together around the watercooler. It creates a gracious space for the human connections that encourages team members to help and support each other as they look to achieve collective, big-picture goals amidst stressful circumstances.
Be extra intentional with agendas
Following best practices surrounding agendas can go a long way to maximize remote meeting productivity. For example, agendas should always state the clear purpose of the meeting and what needs to be accomplished how and in what time frame. For example, a challenge might require a decision following a Q&A and brainstorm within 60 minutes. Also, there should be total clarity about who in each circumstance is responsible for creating and sending the agenda (along with related background information) and clear expectations about the need to set aside time to review so participants arrive fully prepared to accomplish objectives.
Recap. Recap. Recap.
At the end of remote meetings, it’s imperative to determine the next steps and a roadmap for achieving them. This verbal wrap-up can serve as a framework for a formal, more comprehensive written recap based on in-depth notes, ideally captured by someone other than the meeting lead. It’s crucial that prior to the start of the meetings, everyone knows who is taking notes and who is creating and distributing the formal recap, which should include immediate and longer-term next steps, parties responsible for deliverables and sign-offs, and a clear timeline. Being crystal clear about these responsibilities and the process(es) required to move forward is vital in a remote environment. Teams should be encouraged to overcommunicate as a fail-safe.
Make sure your technology works
Understanding conference call and video systems are a bit overloaded and may not be working as before, remote workers must do everything they can to make sure personal tech doesn’t interfere with meeting schedules. That includes workers having passwords at the ready, making sure they have decent quality headsets, etc. Large and/or especially important meetings, or those that involve components like a remote, collaborative PowerPoint review, benefit from having a pre-identified tech lead to handle such tasks as managing call volume and controlling who is featured in videoconferences.
Keep office traditions alive
To maintain a bit of workplace normalcy, look to maintain traditions from the physical workspace. For example, if teams previously had weekly walking meetings, look to keep that going via conference calls conducted via walks in teammates’ respective park or backyard. If a CEO always shared a nonsense memo on April Fool’s Day, make sure that continues. Remember, rituals offer tremendous comfort, helping get people through uncertain times when disruption of routines tend to add to anxieties. If nothing existed previously, think about something new, like remote happy hours, which are becoming increasingly popular.
Learning to ace the remote meeting now will not only help companies get through the next few difficult weeks but also adjust to a very likely new normal, in which both organizations and workers look to continue telecommuting, enjoying the well-established benefits and cost-savings.
Andrea “Andi” Summers is a Consultant at human capital advisory firm FMG Leading. She has introduced systems, processes and best practices to formalize ongoing work for teams of varying sizes and responsibilities. She is the author of a master’s thesis, “Creating Virtual Communities That Work: Best Practices for Users and Developers.”