What it takes to run better remote meetings — the experts weigh in

Engineering leaders answer your burning questions on remote and hybrid meetings

December 2, 2021Yellow Squiggle

You asked. They answered. In our latest Lead Time Live panel discussion, we posed some of your top questions around remote meetings to eng leaders from five different companies to get their take.

Their advice will help you tackle common remote and hybrid meeting challenges, like lack of engagement and conversations veering off-track, and give you tangible ideas to take back to your own team.

With a little intentionality, meetings (even remote and hybrid ones) can leave people feeling energized and more productive towards their work, instead of like “ugh, that was a total waste of time.”

Meet the experts

Watch the full panel discussion

Challenge: Lack of engagement

“How can I get more folks to engage in remote and hybrid meetings? It always feels like some people limit their contribution to their bare minimum.”

A lack of engagement in meetings usually stems from other underlying issues, so it’s important to understand those before coming up with solutions. Think: what barriers might be preventing people from participating in the first place?

Some common barriers include:

Ideas from the experts to improve meeting engagement

Tip #1: Give people non-verbal ways to participate

“Sometimes we confuse someone being introverted with them being not engaged, when that’s actually not the case. I like giving people a space that isn’t verbal to contribute. Maybe that’s a Slack chat or a document people can comment on ahead of time. This makes it a lot easier for folks who don’t like interrupting or don’t like speaking in public.” — Juan Pablo Buriticá

Tip #2: Use 1:1s to help people prep

“Sometimes I’ll spend 1:1s with people preparing them for what might come up in important meeting discussions so they feel more empowered and prepared ahead of time. This helps them formulate their thoughts and encourages them to express them when the time comes.” — Cate Huston

Tip #3: Give folks time to gather their thoughts

“Predictability in meetings is really important. When you’re asking people to share, try giving a prompt and allocating a minute or two for people to think through their responses. Calling on people right away can create anxiety.” — Jean Hsu

Tip #4: Ask for feedback to help you facilitate better

“Ask your team what you can improve. Maybe the meeting is boring or it’s not relevant to someone and they genuinely have nothing to share. Maybe it’s a hybrid meeting and the facilitator isn’t calling on remote folks enough, so they just give up. There could be a lot of barriers there that you aren’t aware of.” — Katie Wilde

Get 8 more tips to improve meeting facilitation

Challenge: Moderating when things go off track

“I’ve struggled with time-boxing and moderating conversations when they turn unproductive, especially in situations where leadership is involved.”

Meeting facilitation is a skill that requires practice and, when possible, some training to get right. Many challenges can come up when facilitating a large group discussion — unclear meeting objectives can lead to side conversations and seemingly necessary tangential discussions — and these can be exacerbated even further when you’re remote, hybrid, or dealing with power dynamics.

Ideas from the experts on getting meetings back on track

Tip #1: Agree on norms for how you handle tough situations

“This one is a hard problem to solve. What’s helped is making sure all our meetings have some semblance of structure so people know what to expect going into it, and then also having a culture of ‘no cross talk’ — and having people really understand what that means. Being able to say things like ‘this seems like another topic, should we add it to the agenda if there’s time at the end?’ — stop words or phrases that everyone agrees on.” — Harper Reed

“Have a set of phrases that you keep in your back pocket that everyone can use. Something like ‘We have 20 minutes left and I know we wanted to get to 3 more topics. Are those still things we want to cover today?’ It makes it easier when there’s a power dynamic too, because it feels less personal and more like a team norm.” — Jean Hsu

Get more go-to responses in our meeting facilitation cheatsheet

Tip #2: Pull side conversations back to the bigger picture

“When people are talking past each other, one thing I find really useful is to listen, and then find a way to reconcile what they're saying and bring it back to whatever you’re actually supposed to be discussing in the meeting. For instance, if we’re in a meeting that’s about strategy and people start going off the rails about details, I’ll say ‘It sounds like there’s this theme of details that falls under X topic. What else do we want to cover for X topic?’ This is a way to make people feel heard, pull them out of the rabbit hole, and get the meeting back on track.” — Cate Huston

Tip #3: Normalize taking a pause or break

“Make it OK to say ‘I need some space and time to think through this, can we reconvene?’ It doesn’t have to be tomorrow — it could be in 15 minutes, where everyone goes and grabs a drink of water and collects their thoughts. Just taking a pause or reset in situations like this can be really helpful.” — Harper Reed

Challenge: Ad-hoc meetings

“When meetings are scheduled ad-hoc, there’s usually not much context shared beforehand. This can feel like a waste of everyone’s time because the meeting is then spent answering basic questions that could’ve been addressed offline.”

Last minute or ad hoc meetings are a normal part of working on most projects, but just because something is thrown on the calendar without much lead time, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be given thought beforehand. How would you like your team(s) to show up to meetings, and is every meeting on your calendar even necessary?

Tip #1: Align on some basic requirements for all meetings

“There’s definitely a need for ad hoc meetings, but even those should have a basic minimum when it comes to structure. What will we be discussing? How can I think about it or learn about it beforehand? The worst is when I get an invite that’s like “Brainstorm X’ — what is X and why are we brainstorming about it? People work differently and the structure we give them allows them to have expectations and work their own way.” — Harper Reed

Tip #2: Throw friction at the meeting to see if it needs to happen in the first place

“When I get a meeting like this on my calendar, I try to throw some friction at it and challenge whether it’s necessary or not. Sometimes I’ll drop what I already know about the meeting into a doc and add questions I have around it. A lot of times, people are just busy and create meetings as a chance for them to think. Sometimes taking 5-10 minutes to show them that we can actually work on this together asynchronously saves everyone a lot of time.” — Juan Pablo Buriticá

Learn more ways to reduce meeting dependency on your team

Tip #3: Ask for context, or to reschedule

“Ask for more information about the meeting ahead of time. ‘Where’s the agenda? What should I read beforehand?’ — if they don’t have it, ask if it’s possible to reschedule to the following day after they’ve had time to share those contextual pieces.” — Katie Wilde

Looking for more ways to smooth out the kinks in your remote and hybrid meetings?

We put together a playbook with everything you need to know about running effective and engaging meetings.

Get the Meeting Manual

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