Make Phone Meetings Great Again!

20 Oct

Remote teams live and die by phone meeting. So how can we prevent death? Channel Rumsfeld. Begin with known knowns of conducting a successful meeting: having a clear agenda, a discussion leader, and ending with a summary. Do those well. Then try out some ideas to address well-known challenges: disengagement, social friction, exclusion, time wastage, and inability to follow what’s going on.

  1. People on the phone can’t always tell between the two uses of brief silence—a brief pause and a signal for opening the floor for discussion. The speaker can address the issue by signaling the end of the speech with a phrase such as ‘I am done.’ A speaker may start the speech by noting: ‘at the end of what I have to say, I will formally open up the floor and go around alphabetically among those who are unmuted.’
  2. Having ‘too many’ people = wasting people’s time + disinterested participants. How many are too many? The maximum number of people who can productively engage when everyone is expected to contribute is probably as low as 4–5. What do you do when you have a large team? Divide and conquer. Split people into small teams and share notes.
  3. Prevent or Cure Rambling as side effects are the same as above—time wastage and disinterest. If people are having trouble articulating, the discussion leader should take on the responsibility of energetically trying to understand the point people are trying to get at. The discussion leader may also refer the person to the shared document to sketch out the idea and try again.
  4. Stuff in advance that everyone actually reads is important. Just tell people if you didn’t find time to read + independently think, just opt out (semi-private opt-outs with emails to meeting organizers should be allowed). The job of a meeting is not spoon-feeding.
  5. Keeping people on the same page:
    • Visual aids, e.g. slides, are useful in bringing people on the same page.
    • Taking notes on a shared screen can also help see people that progress is being made. The document can be shared and that allows others to contribute and organize simultaneously.

Most importantly, avoid meetings when you can. If the aim of the meeting = transferring information, it only makes sense to have a meeting < 10% of the time. Alternatives = write out a document, or create a slideshow or a video and send it along.