Are you having problems connecting with people in your distributed meetings? Do you feel like you and your remote colleagues don’t meet goals in your meetings?
The problem may not be with the meetings. It might be the culture in which you run your meetings.
When looking at the challenges of meetings and culture, I prefer to use Edgar Schein’s definition of culture: Culture is what people can discuss, how people treat each other, and what the organization rewards.
This is where meetings can give you a window into your distributed team’s culture: What can be said and what should not be said? Who can contribute to the meeting? Who feels unsafe contributing? Other than the facilitator or the leader, who can steer the meeting?
Just as you tend a garden with small actions of weeding, planting, fertilizing, and watering, you can take small steps every day to build a culture of communication and collaboration in your distributed teams. Some of these small steps happen in the meeting or even around the meeting.
How can we improve culture inside our meetings?
As you observe what happens in your current meetings, ask the following questions:
- What do attendees hope to get out of this meeting?
- Does everyone have the same goal or different goals?
- Can anyone stop the meeting to point out issues, such as conflicting goals, that may make it difficult to achieve anything in the meeting?
- Are there some attendees who do not participate in the meeting? What’s in it for them to just “listen in?”
- Does everyone have opportunities to reflect on the meeting?
- What can you do to improve your meetings?
To begin answering all the questions above, start with the last question—what can we do to improve our meetings?
You could take 5-10 minutes at the end of the meeting to run a quick retrospective. One of my favorite exercises is called the 3H’s, from the Agile Retrospectives book. You can create a chart online (either in a shared document or some shared board) and have three areas to collect answers for these questions:
- What “helped” this meeting today?
- What “hindered” the meeting today?
- What “hypothesis” do we have about improving the meeting?
After gathering answers to these questions, you might go through them one by one, or you could ask people to vote on each answer they feel needs more discussion. If you have a few minutes left, discuss the top-voted answers right away.
What if you don’t have enough time? The beauty of working in a distributed environment is that people are very accustomed to working asynchronously. You could do this same exercise as an online survey, or set up a new chat channel to discuss ideas to improve the meetings, if they already gathered and voted on their answers. Or, you could spend a few minutes at the start of the next meeting to discuss what you might want to do differently.
Following up is the critical step, and how you do that depends on your culture. Regardless, collect the feedback in a way that all meeting participants can have a voice.
With one new distributed team I coached, I met with them one-on-one to see what they liked about the overall process and where I might help them. Two themes became very clear. First, they were suspicious of the role of “coach,” because they believed that coaches change many things (and not always for their benefit). Second, every person felt their meetings lasted too long.
The solution seemed obvious. I let each of them know I was only there to help the team improve and had no intentions of making sweeping changes. Next, every meeting I led went through aggressive facilitation:
- Clearly state and agree on the goal of the meeting
- Walk through steps in the beginning to make sure we could meet our goal
- “Park” any discussion that did not follow those steps or help us meet our goal
- End the meeting by checking that we met our goal, knew who had action items, and cleared our “parked” items to ensure we had other ways to cover the miscellaneous topics.
We typically ended each meeting 10-15 minutes early, for which I jokingly apologized to the team for adding some free time back to their day. The comments I later got through direct messages indicated that the team felt their concerns were heard and they appreciated the changes.
Using Humor in Your Meetings for Connection
As you can tell from the previous story, I sometimes use my sense of humor to connect with distributed team members. Another distributed team I coached was apprehensive about using video and only met via phone. On rare occasions, they would share screens. It was very difficult to connect with people on the phone or sometimes even recognize who was speaking. I struggled with this for several weeks trying to find a way to really connect with the individuals.
I decided to try an experiment. Being a TV and movie fan, I tried ending meetings with different phrases that some participants should recognize, such as “that’s all folks” and “now’s the time to say goodbye to all our family.” I got little to no response from my team members. Then, one day I ended a meeting with the phrase “and on that bombshell, we’re done.” Five minutes after the meeting, one of the quietest individuals messaged me directly and asked if that phrase was from Top Gear UK (It was.). He mentioned he was a long-time viewer of the show and we now talk about it and how much we don’t like the other versions of Top Gear. Connection achieved.
What else can you do to inject a little humor and connect with others on your distributed team? As the previous example shows, simply injecting humor can work well. The team culture was stronger than individual cultural backgrounds. Humor becomes a powerful tool in distributed teams, but should be used with caution when the team culture is not well established and your team members represent different cultural backgrounds.
How to improve culture around your meetings
When looking at the effectiveness of your distributed meetings, you may also want to look at what happens outside your meetings. How would you answer the following questions?
After the meeting, do you reach out to people who don’t participate?
When you notice that someone is not participating in a meeting, what do you typically do? Ignoring them will likely lead to a problem festering in the background that can pop up later. It may even pop up unexpectedly in your next meeting. Calling them out in the meeting may put the quiet person in an awkward position. If they are an introvert, they may just need time to think through conversations and their implications. I prefer to reach out to the quiet participants after the meeting one-on-one. This allows me to discreetly ask them about the meeting and if there are other ways I can support them.
Proactively, you might provide more context about the upcoming meeting just prior to or at the beginning. Be sure to discuss this with your regular meeting participants and don’t just impose this change.
Does your culture support pop-up conversations?
Some people may refer to these as water cooler or casual conversations. Do these easily occur in your online culture? Do co-workers start such conversations? Do others participate? If an organization supports a habit of pop-up conversations, I find that regular meetings tend to be more engaging.
Be careful when choosing a “solution” to support pop-up conversations. In some organizations, a chat tool like Slack or Facebook Workplace may work well. But don’t just drop these solutions into the team space. Discuss the concept of pop-up conversations with members of your organization who tend to naturally reach out to people. Ask them how they reach out. What might make their approach easier for others? Then, find a “solution” that supports this way of building culture through pop-up conversations.
Does the culture support sharing personal context and professional ambitions?
If team members can discuss more than just work, they develop a richer appreciation for each other. If they can share some personal context with close co-workers, they may be more accepting of change and the impact it has on meetings.
Often in small meetings, I’ll share that I have a video warning light outside my office and my kids understand that if they walk in while the warning light is on, they will likely be introduced to the team members. Any day might be “bring your kids to work day.”
Sometimes, a simple check-in process at the beginning of a meeting can help share how personal context may affect work in and outside the meeting. Some great examples include Red-Yellow-Green One-Word Check-in from the Agile Retrospectives book or the check-in ritual from Core Protocols.
If you share professional ambitions, then team members can use the time in meetings to discuss how they can leverage their work. For instance, if a back-end developer tells his team members he wants to learn front-end coding, the discussion in a planning meeting might be about cross training. If someone tells you they are interested in learning facilitation, you should work with them on basic skills and then ask them to facilitate some of the meetings you both attend.
Do you find out about outcomes and decisions in meetings that impact you?
The more your culture shares outcomes and decisions, the less likely people will be surprised by those outcomes. They also don’t feel fear of missing out (FOMO) and linger in your meeting when they don’t really need to participate. This helps your meetings become more effective and builds more trust into the culture.
What about tools?
I’ve said very little about collaboration and meeting tools in this article. Tools can only support what your culture supports. If you culture does not support openness, no virtual hand will be raised to call out a counterpoint and no comments will be provided in chat.
If your culture does not treat everyone equally, you will not mute someone who is dominating a conversation if they are seen as a leader “to be listened to” instead of “to collaborate with.” You will not push that mute button, even if it’s available . No one else will either.
If your culture does not recognize (or “reward” in Schein’s terminology) people who help connect others, it will not matter if you have a special bot in your chat tool to connect people in random 1-1 conversations. If the implicit message is to “keep your head down and focus on your work”, no one will socialize despite the tools provided. As humans, we need to socialize to better understand each other and how we can work together.
Culture requires human solutions and not tools. Tools just help us build more of what the culture supports. So, being human, you already have some of the best tools available to improve your culture: your brain, the ideas and questions I propose in this article, and the ability to reach out and connect with your team in multiple ways.
Let me know how it goes. I welcome the connection.
This article was previously published as part of a series on InfoQ in Aug 2019 that looked at how teams worldwide are successfully facilitating complex conversations, remotely.