Five Simple Rules for Making Distributed Meetings more Effective

Know The RulesMost of us today spend more time in meetings with people who are somewhere else than we do with our colleagues down the hall. And while most of the “rules” for leading face-to-face meetings also apply equally well to distributed meetings, the situation is clearly different.

In many distributed team situations the members live far away from each other and/or the central office. They may never have met in person, or they may see each other only occasionally.

When team members are not co-located, they typically have relatively independent personal lives and social-support systems. Realistically, they just don’t have a lot in common beyond their work. They go to different churches, synagogues, and mosques; they participate in different local town events; their children attend different schools and participate in different sports programs. And they just don’t bump into each other at the grocery store or on commuter trains and buses.

If you are leading a distributed team you need to take that reality into account, and to plan and lead your conference calls differently than you do when everyone is in the same room.

Here are five simple rules that will make your distributed meetings both productive and popular:

Rule #1: Be exceptionally clear about the team’s mission, purpose, goals, and success measures. That kind of clarity helps keep the conversations on track and reduces the temptation that some team members might have to listen to the conversation with only one ear because the topic seems irrelevant.

Rule #2: Be certain that everyone on the team understands their own roles and responsibilities – and everyone else’s as well. That way whether you are reviewing project progress or brainstorming, participants are more likely to listen to each other and build on each other’s ideas.

Rule #3: Be far more explicit than usual about individual activities and experiences both inside and outside of work, as well as personal relationships and task interdependencies. Again, because team members spend so much less time in each other’s presence, it is your task as team leader to be more proactive about bringing up these “invisible” elements that so often make or break a team.

When everyone is co-located there are many informal opportunities between group meetings to resolve issues, build common understanding, and just stay connected, When people are physically dispersed those opportunities are much harder to come by, and realistically they don’t happen by themselves. Your responsibility as a team leader is to create conversations during team meetings that fill in that gap.

Rule #4: Develop explicit communication protocols and etiquette guidelines – and define them collaboratively. It’s far easier to call someone out for speaking inappropriately, for being excessively passive, or for multi-tasking during your group meetings if you and the whole team have actively discussed and agreed on how you will work together. Set up a regular, predictable meeting schedule, and then either work off a standard agenda or send one out in advance of each conference call.

And be explicit about conversational protocols as well. Agree on formal rules (or at least guidelines) for how long anyone will speak on each topic, how to respond to others, how to resolve conflicts, how to reach decisions. Focus on the same principles you know you have to follow for in-person meetings but that, again, are harder to enforce when people aren’t looking each other in the eye.

It’s also effective to [Rule #5] precede each conference call with an email that defines the meeting’s goals and desired outcomes as well as an agenda. Then follow it up with a meeting summary or, if appropriate, a formal set of meeting Minutes. These kinds of formal documents help to make the meeting more tangible, and they help everyone understand the outcomes of the meeting. There’s no way to claim the conversation was ambiguous or unclear when you (or someone on the call) has produced a document that makes the outcomes and commitments to future action explicit.

Remember that after a distributed meeting you don’t have the luxury of following up on tough issues “offline” during a walk down the hall back to your team members’ individual workplaces. But don’t forget that you can always pick up the phone for a private conversation after any group call, or in advance if you want to ensure that you and others are on the same page regarding controversial topics or particularly complex challenges.

Note: This post is excerpted from my forthcoming book, Making Meetings Matter: How Smart Leaders Orchestrate Powerful Conversations in the Digital Age. Follow that link to visit the book’s website, where you can sign up for advance notes about the book, download other excerpts, connect with other readers, and contribute to my ongoing research about what makes for a good conversation.

Contact me today for a free 30-minute conversation about how you can make all your meetings and corporate conversations both productive and popular. Please download this brief overview of my new service offering for making meetings matter to explore what’s possible.