As a leader who primarily values team health, I place great value on the weekly 1:1 because it’s where I assess health. It’s my highest bandwidth meeting, and historically the slight to significant lag omnipresent in video conferencing impeded that bandwidth. It stilted the conversation.
The micro-second of lag was an omnipresent reminder of the distance.
Combined with the incredibly predictable audio-video gymnastics that accompanied the start of these meetings with the equally predictable quip, “There has got to be a better way.”
In the past three years, my perception is video conferencing is a solved problem. The combination of mature networking infrastructure and well-designed software (I primarily use Zoom) has mostly eliminated the lag of video conference and significantly decreased A/V gymnastics.
We still have work to do.
Let’s start with the word: remote. Remote team. Remote worker. The definition means “situated far from the main centers of the population,” which in the context of the workplace is usually factually inaccurate. A remote team or human is simply a team or person who is not at headquarters, but it’s the first definition that most people mean when they say remote, and that’s the first problem.
Let’s start by agreeing to two ideas:
First: let’s call these humans teams distributed teams. Distributed is a boring word, but it is in that boringness that we solve one issue. Remote implies far from the center, whereas distributed means elsewhere.
Second: Let’s agree that no matter what we call the situation that the humans who are elsewhere are at a professional disadvantage.1 There is a communication, culture, and context tax applied to the folks who are distributed.2 Your job as a leader to actively invest in reducing that tax.
Good? Let’s start with fixing meetings.
The Many People Meeting
The use case I’m going to talk about is a complex and wasteful one: the many people meeting. Much of the following prescriptive tactical advice applies to the 1:1 meetings, but let’s focus where there is the most pain, the most cost, and the most room for improvement.
In the many people meeting, you have two locations: Host and Distributed. Host is where the majority of the humans are located, and Distributed are the humans on the various other ends of a video conference call.
I’ve already written about the rules for the type of meeting here. I’d suggest reading that article with the following challenge: how do we make this meeting the same experience so as to create the same amount of value for the Host and the Distributed?
My advice, which is both lived and collected via Twitter, falls into three categories: Pre-Meeting, During, and Post-Meeting.
- Don’t chintz on audio/video hardware and networking.3
- As the Host, schedule meetings at X:05 or X:35 and get there at X:00 to make sure all technology is set up for a distributed meeting. Not only does this make sure the meeting starts on time, but it sends an important signal. How often have you had a meeting where seven minutes in someone asks, “Where’s Andy?” Well, Andy is distributed, and no one turned on the video camera. More importantly, Andy has been sitting in his home office for the last seven minutes wondering Did they forget me?
- Set sensible defaults in your software. Default your microphone and audio to off when you enter a new meeting.
- Check your background. Anything distracting behind you? Fix it.
- Is the whiteboard in play? Great. Make sure it’s readable to distributed folks before the meeting.
- Assign a Spotter on the Host side. This is the human responsible for paying attention to the distributed folks and looking for visual cues they are ready to speak.
- Understand the acoustic attributes of a room. First time this particular set of humans are meeting in a distributed fashion? Do a microphone check for everyone right at the start. If there is horrible background noise on the Distributed-side, headphones are helpful.
- Whoever is not speaking, hit mute. Microphones often capture more sound than you expect. Especially typing. Wait, who is typing? Same protocol as if everyone is in the same room. No laptops except for the note taker.
- When focus shifts to the whiteboard, confirm that distributed folks can see the whiteboard. Another excellent job for the Spotter.
- For a first time meeting with these humans or in this space, ask how it went for everyone. Fix things that are broken.
- They can’t hear? Investing in fixing bad audio in conference rooms. Especially in large Host rooms, multiple microphones can capture the strangest set of sounds. At a prior gig, the board room had microphones built into the table. One Exec liked to click their pen during the meeting under the table. For Distributed folks, it was a deafening CLICK CLICK CLICK that the Host room couldn’t even hear.
- Given the likelihood that the Distributed folks missed something during the meeting – which is a thing to be fixed – the distribution of the meeting notes are a critical feedback loop for everyone in the room.
- The room with the most people disconnects last. Respect.4
A Fact of Working Life
Why are we having this meeting? If the answer is, “We’ve always had this meeting,” then that’s a different problem and another article. The answer is likely, “This set of humans needs to be together to achieve a thing, and that thing is better achieved with these humans together.”
Humans together. Not sitting on the other side of Slack or email, but together. Doing what humans do best: gathering context, arguing, listening, debating, whiteboarding, arguing some more, and eventually arriving at the informed decision. Maybe.
Is a meeting the right solution to your particular decision? I get that it’s our default power move, but do you really need a meeting? There appears to be a new tool or service launched every week designed for Distributed teams. Is there a different approach to getting to your decision that doesn’t involve a meeting? No? Ok…
Much of the leadership work I’ve done around Distributed teams are not resolving concerns about how the audio/visual works in a meeting; it’s how a Distributed team feels treated by Headquarters. It’s never one thing, it’s a long list of grievances that combine into an erroneous, but the very real perception that a Distributed team is somehow less important.
Much of the above advice is tactical. Simple acts to facilitate better communication, but the combination of all the advice supports a broader goal: by making sure every human in the meeting has equal access to the communication and the context, we send a clear message that being Distributed doesn’t matter. There is no measurable difference if you are in the Host room or Distributed.
- Disclaimer. For this article, I am using a distributed team scenario where there is a headquarters. There is a base of operations that contains a good chunk of the humans. There is a version of distributed where everyone in the company is distributed around the world. That is super interesting, but I’ve never experienced it. There’s a chance that the advice in this article is useful in all distributed, but buyer beware. ↩
- And there are distinct advantages, too. ↩
- Think about how much you’re paying the team and then think about how much it costs you to have them inefficiently communicate with each other on crappy infrastructure. ↩
- I’m confident I missed essential tips and tricks. Comment on this post, or join the Rands Leadership Slack and join #remote-work channel. No, I didn’t name it. ↩