Working in distributed / remote environments 3: weekly meetings (II)

This is the second and last post of the Weekly Meetings series. If you haven’t read the first one, I recommend you do before reading this one.

Where?

There is a very simple rule in distributed environments. If one of the participants in the weekly meeting is remote or at a different office, everybody is remote, or should be.

Take advantage of what the technology provides and participate in the meeting from your desk instead of from the meeting room together with part of the team. I pointed several reasons for this in a previous post. Let me develop further:

  • You do not have a white board to support your explanations. You will need a virtual one and its usage is more effective when everybody can collaborate, getting the same experience. There are plenty of tools nowadays for this purpose. Your screen is your projector. If you need to show something to others, sharing your screen becomes trivial compared to the set up required in a meeting room, no matter how prepared it is.
  • Let me insist on how important it is for building a healthy team that everybody lives the same experience at meetings. It is not just that participation and follow up is harder to those who are not present in the meeting room, it is that the meeting becomes less efficient because those joining remotely become listeners instead of active participants.
  • When teams are used to meetings at their desks, efficiency increases. It is easier to start on time, the sound quality is uniform, less time is wasted in moving to the meeting room, flexibility to organise meetings significantly increase, etc.

How many participants?

Since it is significantly easier to manage a meeting in person than remotely, I recommend to reduce the number of participants in these weekly meetings in distributed and/or remote environments.

It is a common mistake to assume that the ideal team size does not necessarily need to change when moving from collocated to remote. In my experience, distributed teams should be smaller than collocated teams. Remote ones should be even smaller.

Weekly meetings with 8 participants in a room are manageable if the team is disciplined. That is not the case, in my experience, with such meetings through video chat.

Meeting Length

I mentioned in the previous post that meetings in distributed and remote environments should be short. People gets tired of looking at a screen and talking through a mic. I also mentioned already that due to the need of talking once at a time, these meetings have a slower page, which bores people to death.

If you can, make them no longer than 30 minutes. Allow a little more for chit-chat if there are plenty of topics. but in general, avoid reaching the one hour mark. If you reach it on constant basis, analyse and distil the topics, try to preparation them better, send the descriptions in advance, promote offline discussions before bringing the topic to the meeting, control the time better, etc.

And if still is unavoidable, split the meeting in two 30 min meetings if your team can afford it in terms of agenda. Remember that for some, these meetings might require a personal sacrifice because they might need to happen very early or late at night. Two 30 min meetings are far more productive than an hour long meeting when managed correctly.

If any topic requires significantly more time than you can afford during the weekly meeting, propose an “ad hoc” meeting for it. Make sure though that the schedule of such future meeting becomes a a topic on the current meeting. Remember that schedule meetings for the whole team is hard, specially through asynchronous methods.

When?

Applications like Doodle or Pollunit (there are more) can help you and your team to decide in which time slots are better to schedule any meeting. The weekly team meeting is a good example. Every serious calendar has a free/busy time feature that allows you to avoid conflicts. Make sure you master them.

Ensure everybody adds in their calendars the working hours and you define yours so you get an alert when you are trying to schedule a meeting out of somebody’s working hours. I think I did not mention this on the post about the calendar tool. 😮

Serge Broslavsky showed my a trick I use ever since. In a sheet, he added the names of the team members (column B) and the UTC hours of the day (row 2). Then he marked in green, orange and red the times in which meetings were acceptable for each team member. When you have to manage a large number of people around the globe, that simple visualization makes scheduling meetings easier.

Avoid scheduling meetings out of green working hours. If you cannot, try at least to avoid putting any colleague in a position in which they cannot negotiate their own agenda in amber or red hours. In remote environments with different time zones involved, people need to be flexible about their availability, but being flexible does not mean there is no impact. Remember to promote the culture you would like to live in.

As mentioned previously, in DRE it is important to arrive to the meeting prepared so I tend to avoid “first time in the morning” meetings. Like everybody else, I hate interruptions so I tend to concentrate half hour meetings in 2 hours slots and have 1 or 2 hours slots free of meetings, at least a couple of days a week. Promote among participants to reserve a free slot before your team meeting starts.

If you are managing managers, it is extremely important to decide if you want to have your weekly team meeting before or after your colleagues (managers) have had their own weekly team meetings. By default I would prefer to have my weekly meeting after all my managers have had theirs but that depends on the type of job and how is it organised.

Roles

I like to pre-assign roles to avoid any discussion about who should play which role. I add to the meeting ground rules how the roles are selected. Pre-defined rotation is a system I have used. Let the team choose the one they prefer. The point is to start the meeting already knowing who does what. Start the meeting confirming who plays each role, after allowing one or two minutes for chitchatting. The roles are:

  • Scribe: everybody takes notes. Is one of the good things about having every participant in front of their laptops. But there is somebody responsible for completing the notes, record them and publish them.
  • Timer: this is critical since meetings needs to be short so participants need to be concise. The timer not just controls the time assigned to each topic but also that nobody goes off-topic or eat all the available time.
  • Topic lead: the meeting agenda should include a topic lead for each topic. That is the person in charge of making the discussion at the meeting worth it which frequently means that the right information has been sent in advance, questions has been asked and answered and that participants understand what is the expected outcome of the meeting. It will also ensure that the notes reflect the state of the art and will highlight if the topic needs a follow up in the next meeting, for instance. If there are actions points, the topic lead will ensure they have been recorded and/or properly tracked.
  • Meeting owner: I mentioned that you, as manager, should be the meeting owner which does not mean you manage the meeting. Make sure your role is clear, set the boundaries of such role and use your “power” wisely. Assign a person that will substitute you when you are absent.

You can add more roles but I only do in extraordinary occasions.

Some final tips

I will summarise some additional tips in no particular order:

  • Since the environment in these meetings is more hostile than face to face ones, making these weekly meetings short and to the point has to be an essential goal which requires more preparation in advance compared to face to face meetings.
  • Make sure the agenda is sent to participants in advance. Provide a time estimation to each topic, assign a person to lead each agenda topic and make sure you do not fill out the 30 min. I would recommend to not have a pre-defined agenda beyond 20 minutes. Meeting’s pace in DRE is slower than in face to face meetings. Include in the agenda time for AOB (Any Other Business) but be aware that this topic can be used to come to the meeting to discuss topics that has not been prepared in advance. Do not let anybody misuse AOB.
  • Every description, report, detailed opinion, statement or positioning should be sent in advance, as I have mentioned before, with enough time for others to read and answer in written form before the meeting. This saves long turns and explanations during the meeting.
  • When there are more topics than time, ensure those topics related with people management has preference. The others should wait until the next meeting or be a matter of a future “ad hoc” meeting. Since scheduling those topic-specific meetings is so complex, specially in remote environments, use the AOB section to schedule it or at least get a tentative date and time for it.
  • If part of the meeting deals with tasks, blockers etc., make sure the tickets have been updated in advanced so WIP (Work In Progress) can be clearly visualised by all participants. Provide the links to the dashboards to the participants in advance.
  • During the meeting, ensure that every time somebody makes a reference to a specific page, the link to that page, ticket, image, etc. is provided through chat to every participant.
  • I find slides very useful when describing a complex idea or when the amount of information to be provided is high. Screen-share is your friend here. I recommend though to make the slides available to everybody beyond that screen share. They will be easier to follow, participants can take notes, click on the links, etc..
  • I really like dashboards, specially kanban boards as a WIP visualization method (through tickets), even if you are not following the methodology. I use them during meetings to go through hot topics. When going over tickets, repeat the number and title of the ticket you are referring to more than once so everybody can follow you.
  • Predefine a way to communicate that somebody’s turn is taking way too long, or that the participant is repeating herself, that the information is irrelevant , etc. In summary, find a way for anybody to cut anybody politely. The timer role should be the default person for this, but everybody should participate on this tough task.
  • It is common that participants start talking while mute. It happens to me more often that I will ever recognise. There are video chat applications that has solutions for such cases like a notification, or the possibility for another participant to activate anybody’s mic. Try to use video chat apps with these features. If yours does not have it, use a keyword to notify to the person that she is talking while muted.
  • Since in a video conference only one person can talk at a time, muting participants should be a normal practice. Nobody should take offence. Sadly only most experienced people do not. Try to avoid muting people while speaking unless it is strictly necessary if your time has little or no prior experience working in distributed environments or remote. Assume by default that the muted person might have taken it as a rude gesture from you. Talk to the person offline to clarify the situation. Make it an acceptable practice (in specific circumstances) little by little.
  • When the connection of any participant introduces noise or is choppy, muting the affected participant is a must. Mention why you did it, and move on. You cannot afford stopping the meeting flow because of somebody’s bad connectivity. Participants should have alternatives for these cases. I usually have a 4G connection as secondary line in case my default internet connection fails. If the affected person is the topic leader, move on to the next topic. If it happens to a different pre-defined role, make the next person in the queue adopt the role. If it happens to you… well, use the opportunity to “lead by example”.
  • Do not join team meetings through wifi. Do not underestimate the amount of bandwidth that several participants require, even with the best video chat app or plug-in. No, shutting down your video camera is not ok. Take the meeting as seriously as everybody else.
  • Do not close the video chat room once the meeting ends. Allow some minutes for off-topic chatting. Stay once in a while a few extra minutes yourself to participate in those off-topic conversations.

It takes time for any team working in DRE to have smooth and productive team meetings. Keep pushing and do not accommodate, tendencies are usually perverse when it comes to meetings dynamics.

I would like to finish pointing that weekly team meetings for groups that work in distributed or remote environments (DRE) might be the only time where they get together during the week. It is essential to keep in mind how hard it is to generate a sense of team work when there is little or no face to face interaction. This action, the weekly team meeting, represent the best opportunity generate a team spirit, which is a fundamental mission for every manager.

I am sure I have left behind important tips or you might not agree with some of the above. Please let me know. This is not a science.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.