Distributed Team Meetings That Work

Jul 30, 2015

Status meetings are essential for effective and efficient collaboration. They keep your distributed team on track. They are one of the reasons why people working in different parts of the planet stay informed and connected. And yet...

A couple of recent surveys have shown that 46 percent of employed Americans would rather watch paint dry or do some other unpleasant activity than sit through a status meeting, and 69 percent admitted that they are working on something else during virtual meetings.

The reason for such stats is quite simple: an overwhelming majority of leaders and managers just don’t know how to hold team meetings so that they bring benefits to the company as a whole as well as to individual employees.

Your team doesn’t have to feel negative about team meetings. In fact, with just a little effort you can easily get your team to be attentive and productive in meetings. With over 15 years of experience in facilitating distributed teams, we know how to keep team meetings short and sweet, and finish them before the attendees start to lose focus. You, too, can make your team meetings work, following these 5 simple steps.

1. Set a Clear Goal

If your meetings usually take too long, it’s probably because you don’t know exactly when they are supposed to end. Before scheduling your next meeting, ask yourself: “What exactly do I want to achieve as a result?” By setting a clear goal, you will be able to cut the duration of your meetings and keep the attendees focused. This tip sounds simple, but in fact, it’s often overlooked.

By setting tangible goals, you create a time frame both for yourself and for your team. When your meeting starts (better still, a few hours before it starts), tell the attendees: “We’re done when we reach [the goal of the meeting].” Your team will have a clear picture of what you want from them and will work together to reach a common objective.

2. Reduce the Number of Attendees

When it comes to the attendee list, don’t be nice. If there’s a number of people who won’t contribute to a discussion and won’t decide anything, there’s no reason why they should be in the meeting. Invite only those people who will help you reach the goal of your meeting, and don’t waste everyone else’s time. With fewer team members involved, your discussions will go much faster.

3. Choose the Right Format

Choosing the right meeting format is crucial. Don’t start your meeting with “Well, how’re things?” and expect it will somehow evolve into a productive discussion with all the attendees equally involved.

Many distributed agile teams have made it their habit to tune in for daily 10-15 minute virtual meetings. In these meetings attendees take turns to share what they did yesterday, what they are going to do today, and whether there’s anything that keeps them from making progress.

Ideal for agile teams, this format also works well for groups that often complain about meetings being too long. After a 15 minute check-in everyone can go back to work. We doubt anyone would complain that your status meetings are stealing their working time.

If you feel that meeting every day is too frequent, run a remote team meeting once a week. This format takes a bit longer, up to 50 minutes. This is how it works: once a week, the team produces a weekly status update; at a given time all team members join the call and read the update together; next, every attendee has 5 minutes to ask questions about the update.

4. Break Up the Agenda

Grab a pen and write down all the agenda items you want to discuss in your meeting. Next, try to estimate how much time each of them is going to take. If you see that you have too many items on the list, or that the meeting will take too long, break it up into a few shorter sessions. We are sure your team won’t mind.

There’s something else you can do. Analyze your agenda and ask yourself whether you will actually need all the people on the attendee list to handle the items. If you realize that it will only take two or three team members to deal with some areas, keep them for smaller sub-group meetings.

5. Give Your Team Time to Get Ready

Once you’ve narrowed down the list of items you want to discuss, forward the agenda to the attendees. Your meetings probably involve some kind of status reporting, so give your team an opportunity to jot down a couple of key points about their progress beforehand. This way they will feel less pressure during the meeting, and you will save plenty of time overall.

Following these steps, you will kill all the time wasters and quickly get to the core purpose of your team meetings — making decisions and taking action. 

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