The Rise of the Remote Meeting
How to More Than Survive in a Virtual Work World
Those of us who chose to work remotely before 2020, at a time when we could move freely between our home offices and our communities, did so with immense privilege. I am one of these people.
Illustrations by Rachel Wui
By Ryann Hoffman, Founding Partner & Principal, Staircase Strategy
This past spring, a new work-from-home population erupted in the abrupt switch to virtual jobs and at-home families. Many newly remote cultures are a reactive attempt to slow the chaos and hurt of a pandemic for our most vulnerable, while the pain of chronic racial injustice flares. Prior to 2020, 1 in 50 Americans worked from home. The Economist reports that number is now 1 in 3. Our 2020 collective shift to working from home is not a straightforward experience of remote work.
Through exploring virtual communication to enhance workplace collaboration when it was an exciting choice, I learned there are well-founded cases to be made for in-person work between human beings. Touch, like a handshake, triggers endorphins. These endorphins make us feel connected to those we touch. Being physically near a person matches our heart rate to theirs and causes us to mirror their movement. These are two critical steps in achieving empathy. When we feel empathy for one another, we are more vulnerable. As vulnerability researcher Brené Brown has taught us, we then become more creative. If we trust and feel connected, we are able to incorporate new perspectives, and we can have constructive conflict. These are both necessary ingredients for solving complex problems with complex solutions. In short, successful in-person interactions fast-track the conditions for effective teamwork in a complicated world.
There are unique aspects of digital workspaces that can foster feelings of trust and connection remotely, but it’s harder than in-person. In an article in the June 2020 issue of Psychology Today, Sara Eckel overviews what can be lost in the digisphere to dehumanizing effect. “In our digital lives, it’s easier to turn away,” Eckel writes. “But each time we do, we lose our capacity for empathy.” It takes tips and tricks to game technology into working for and not against our collaborative natures. There are even aspects of remote environments that outperform in-person sessions, like ease of documentation. But it takes thoughtful design to create meaningful digital experiences.
One of my underlying goals in writing about remote work in this moment is to leverage my years of experience to benefit those facing the myriad of traumas of being alive at this time, those attempting to fundamentally change the way they work. My approach is to be a resource for people at a moment in time when the need is high while experience is low and to build on the body of documentation, frameworks, and approaches to remote work that keen thinkers will continue to aggregate and improve upon.
With that in mind, here are some approaches that have allowed me to frame, learn, and make decisions in the remote teams I collaborate with and lead.
Should This Even Be a Remote Meeting?
As you look at the virtual road ahead, it’s likely that most industries will require and benefit from remote meetings. There are many challenges in going remote, but it shines a glaring light on ineffective, unnecessary in-person meetings. Additionally, the meeting norms of many in-person work cultures take on a notably different tone when remote, including poorly scoped agendas, back-to-back meetings, 5+ hr brainstorms, or no concrete action items.
This leads me to the first question it’s important to ask: Should this even be a remote meeting? For groups of people working together, remote meetings are most valuable when they foster focused collaboration. Focused collaboration is work that requires a group to center on a cognitively demanding task that requires considering broad perspectives and debating them. Examples of collaborative, focused work include problem-solving activities, like data analysis or ideation, or getting a group in alignment around direction or strategy, like planning and decision-making.
Many parts of a collaborative workflow, however, can be done asynchronously. Asynchronous work indicates processes where individuals contribute to the same work product at different times, like multiple people contributing to a document over time. The tools of asynchronous work range from emails, to comments in documents, to video messages. To be clear, asynchronous and synchronous work are not in competition, one isn’t better than the other. Context matters and systems matter. If live meetings are a company’s default mode of work, it follows that their asynchronous systems are either less developed or they aren’t effective.
It is advisable to complete anything that can be done asynchronously before the meeting to make the best use of collaborative time. For those designing meetings, this means:
- Setting the expectations for prep work being completed
- Communicating what the pre-work will be used for in the session
- Stating the impact of not completing it on the team and on the work
- Getting clear prep work instructions and relevant materials to participants in a courteous and reasonable amount of time.
When the prep work is used in the session to good effect, and it’s clear who hasn’t contributed, most people step up. This is especially true when leadership is on board and follows up with those not completing prep.
Remote meetings still hold a critical place when considering people, their emotions, and their relationships. Communication via video call can be critically important when communicating anything where tone and body language can tip the balance. Things like delivering sensitive information, celebratory information, anything that’s time-sensitive, and “virtual coworking,” where colleagues are online at the same time but working independently on different projects. While it’s easy to see what’s gained when colleagues aren’t just dropping by your desk, it’s also easy to forget what is lost. It’s important to get into the habit of scheduling time for pure human connection, best done through live meetings. It is also helpful to include time for coffee breaks, small talk, icebreakers, check-ins, and other non-work content activities in remote meetings, which enable coworkers to know each other as people and strengthen their connections, their wellbeing, and as a result, their ability to collaborate well on difficult challenges.
Building in buffer time to account for unpredictabilities with technology is also crucial in planning remote meetings. A good rule of thumb is keeping around 20% of a total meeting time unallotted. In each meeting, participants must be able to use the tech to contribute value, so creating time and activities for onboarding and working out any difficulties is critical to the successful outcome of the meeting. Ask yourself questions like, what are predictable hiccups? What alternative tech can replace core meeting software? What would have to happen to require rescheduling?
Recap: When you Need a Meeting
If more than one person needs to collaborate on focused work, like defining a goal, aligning around a goal, or deep thinking toward a goal, you might need a meeting.
If that work cannot be done effectively asynchronously, you probably need a meeting.
If you want to connect on a human level around emotions, personal stories, or a relationship, you probably need a meeting.
Should This Remote Meeting Be Designed?
The easiest way to determine which meetings to design is to think about that meeting’s impact on your team or organization, and the intricacy projected in its successful execution. Designing meetings is like designing anything else, in that you collect and analyze data to come up with ideas to be tested until you arrive at a meeting format that’s successful. What’s notable about meetings is that they’re intangible experiences, like services, and can be difficult to prototype. Not every meeting needs to be designed.
Not taking a comprehensive view of your session(s) results in missed opportunities, unanticipated frustrations, and unintended consequences for both participants and facilitators. To be clear, these blunders are not carelessness—designing interactions with and across people that touch objects and software is complex. The field of service design has been grappling with the challenge of designing intangible systems since at least 1984, when G. Lynn Shostack was featured in the Harvard Business Review for her work designing services using a type of flow chart diagram, called a Service Blueprint. I have found adapting the Service Blueprint to be the best way to deeply understand the sequential and layered consideration of facilitated experiences—they are, after all, a type of service to our participants.
Using this approach, which I not-so-originally call a Facilitation Blueprint, we can do two things that have a critical impact on our participants’ experiences in and around our sessions:
- Map out the timeline of the meeting
- Think deeply through the experience layers of the meeting participants and the facilitator
This approach provides an expansive visualization of time, behavior, and tools that make up the meeting experience. It allows the meeting designer to visualize the product they’re working on and experiment with changing the variables and touchpoints to think through how it might alter the event. Using a Facilitation Blueprint to design your remote meetings makes the intangible more tangible, easier to study, prototype, and test, and thus a better-designed meeting for participants and facilitators alike. Since not every meeting needs to be designed, the Facilitation Blueprint doesn’t always need to be used as a tool, but can help map out the plan for when design is needed.
Download a PDF of the Facilitation Blueprint
Should this Remote Meeting Be Facilitated?
Once you’ve decided that yes, this should be a meeting, the next question is: Does this remote meeting need facilitation? At its heart, facilitating is focusing on process so others can focus on their work. There are many ways to support people through reaching solutions that aren’t facilitators, which range from bosses to rigorous project management processes. Sometimes, all you need is an agenda and a team that actually adheres to it. Other times, though, a team needs more. There are cases when professionals or specialists are called for, but it’s important to keep in mind that the behaviors of facilitating are more important than who is facilitating.
Remote Facilitation Considerations
Facilitating from a distance adds further layers of complexity. While the technology for remote conferencing capability is rapidly expanding, the shift to a virtual collaboration environment is overwhelming for most groups, and most facilitators.
For participants, warped interactions collide with new software, all cloaked in ever-looming technical difficulties. The resulting inefficiencies evoke emotions of frustration, derailing motivation and feelings of progress. For facilitators, orchestrating and executing collaboration is compounded by managing live technical workspaces and the communication cues lost in virtual interactions.
But, the benefits gained in distanced work can also be leveraged to create workflows, work products, and work experiences that outperform in-person exchanges. The ability to easily document discussions and deliverables online gives remote groups the immense advantage of accessing the collective intelligence of a group. When in-person, conversations, important points, and major insights are often lost, unless meticulous notetaking is upheld and ample photos are taken and then organized. When participating virtually is a norm, those in remote locations, those with young families, and those with disabilities that keep them at home, can be heard as loudly as those who normally dominate workplace discussions. Most digital collaboration tools allow for simple use of photos, video, and other rich media, enhancing communication and thinking.
Oftentimes, simply acknowledging the reality that we can’t read each other as well remotely, setting some ground rules, and teaching a few key phrases or gestures is all it takes to overcome this hurdle.
Challenge: Absence of Physiological Factors in Trust and Empathy
While physical proximity is not possible with remote meetings, one important component of human connection, eye contact, can still be simulated when everyone is looking at their cameras. This is an acquired habit for most, and it’s hard to rely on participants new to remote meetings to get this set up right and be consistent with it.
There are ways to hack human connections using virtual tools and psychological tricks. The goal is to reinforce verbal descriptions with visual aids, giving listeners multiple media to grab onto and retain. Visual introductions or connection activities, where participants are asked to bring photos of themselves, or even find images they relate to online, can add dynamism to how a person describes themselves or how they’re feeling. Most virtual whiteboards and collaborative slide-making software can be used for this purpose.
Rituals are another psychological device facilitators can play with to reinforce feelings of connection. When people move in the same way, when we see others mirroring our behavior, we automatically feel more connected to them—religions, sports teams, and the military have long used these tricks to good effect. Easy ways to do this are through hand gestures, like hands up in celebration, or rituals around drinks, like a toast. One team I work with all bought the same tea and starts important meetings off by sipping their cups at the same time. Another sent each team member ’80s-style headbands that they’ll all put on and wear during celebratory meetings. The ability to create bridges between physical and virtual spaces in these rituals allows for a lot of creativity.
Challenge: Lack of Visual Communication Cues
When interacting online, our ability to see and be seen is hindered. While we can catch some facial expressions virtually, we often miss important body signals about how people are feeling. Moreover, the limitations of video conferences, like the small size of the video box, the difficulty of reading a group’s energy at once, and delays in communication, make it hard to see the visual cues we do have.
While there is a wealth of information carried through inflection, tone, and word choice, most people learn social interacting in person. A simple phrase like “I’m not sure…” can communicate an array of vastly disparate messages without ample visual aids. Silence is particularly tricky to parse when remote, further complicated by the etiquette around muting. Are people attentive but politely quiet or disengaged? Are they silently in agreement or quietly seething in dissent?
Oftentimes, simply acknowledging the reality that we can’t read each other as well remotely, setting some ground rules, and teaching a few key phrases or gestures is all it takes to overcome this hurdle. Simple ground rules like: when in doubt over-communicate, raise your hand if you’d like to contribute to a discussion, and use the “thumbs up” emoji in the chat if you agree but don’t want to interrupt, give participants a way to preemptively work around the hurdles that a lack of visual communication presents.
The facilitator is also key in translating visual cues. It’s as easy as including phrases like: “It seems like Mia is thinking quietly for a minute, we’ll come back to her unless she communicates otherwise,” or “We’re waiting for Daro’s laptop to bring up the slides!” Your speaking acts as narration through the story of your session, and fills in the gaps for participants.
Managing Technology on Top of Facilitating
In an ideal world, every team would have the possibility of establishing a facilitator, to be attentive to the process for the group, and a producer to manage the technology for the session. In reality, this is a luxury. Putting a little extra time into planning and testing your tech will save you a lot of heartache. When all else fails, transparency and humor can get you through almost any moderate technical difficulty gracefully, providing clarity and levity to an often frustrating part of remote life.
Foundational Behaviors of Facilitators
What the following list should drive home is that everything a facilitator is focused and evaluated on relates to process. When a designated individual focuses on a process, everyone else can focus on content. Having a facilitator frees up mental space and minutes for team members to practice deeper thinking and engage in critical, challenging interactions.
- Clearly introducing a meeting’s purpose and or/activity instructions
- Keeping time, enforcing time limits, and adjusting time when necessary
- Democratizing participation in activities and discussions
- Staying on task and shepherding task completion
- Stewarding both divergent (open-minded) and convergent (evaluative) thinking modes
- Ensuring the group solidifies action items for next steps
- Receiving feedback and modeling healthy feedback practices
Work culture is at the eye of a cumulation of storms, and they’re changing course and proliferating at faster rates than we can understand them. Our habits, rituals, environments, schedules, and interactions shape our emotions and our identity, and they’re all changing at once. Whether you work from home, are an essential worker, or are looking for work, you’ve experienced something big.
While it may seem unexpected to address weighty, emotional topics in an article about remote meetings, it’s hard to pretend that the pressing needs of virtual work environments are independent of the underlying pressures that brought us here. There is a loss of the way some things were and a loss of how we envisioned things would be, uncertainty for our moment and our future. There is sadness for our lives, our children’s lives, our BIPOC loved ones and neighbors, our careers, our communities, and the world. The normal ways we’re accustomed to assessing situations and making decisions are too slow, and the layers of stress, grief, and trauma overwhelm our nervous systems, clouding our judgement, making it exceptionally difficult to be proactive, to think, and act strategically.
My hope is that the information in this article acts as a compass to make one of the many seismic changes in your life and business more manageable. A way for you and your team to transform your collaboration habits and systems for the better, and to nimbly adapt as a unit. A way for us to know each other deeply, to support our livelihoods, and to change the course of history while we charge ahead into the blurry, distanced future, together.
From Design Museum Magazine Issue 016