A Comprehensive Guide to Hosting Productive Meetings Online
Meetings are essential — when they’re done right. Yet an organized and effective meeting can sometimes feel like a refreshing change of pace, with Atlassian reporting that workers spend as much as 31 hours every month in unproductive meetings.
Hosting a productive and eventful online meeting means that you need to invest more than a solid block of time talking to each other. An effective meeting is much like effective goal-setting: it requires definable objectives while staying on target. And keeping a meeting on target can be just as big a challenge online as it is in person. To make your meetings more than just a hangout, set clear expectations and stick to the plan.
1. Start Every Meeting at a Consistent Time
When coach Tom Coughlin first arrived to take over the New York Giants, he ruffled a few feathers with his meeting policy.
Coughlin instituted what’s known as “Coughlin time.” Coughlin time is simple: you set your watch five minutes ahead. Each player was expected to attend each meeting five minutes early. Players who showed up even two minutes early were considered “late.” When they arrived, the doors were already locked. Team leaders like Michael Strahan were irked, even insulted.
The practice earned Coughlin some ire when the team wasn’t performing well. But Coughlin never budged. To this day, Strahan told the NFL Network, he remembers the lessons of punctuality and professionalism. He sets his watch five minutes ahead.
The lesson isn’t that “Coughlin time” is a great policy. If anything, it’s silly. The lesson is the consistency with which Coughlin applied it. Everyone — including the occasional superstar — was expected to adhere to the rules. No exceptions.
Dara Fairman of Simple Better Solutions argues the same, pointing out a youth soccer coach in their community who’s earned a reputation for always starting practice at the exact same time. To earn the same reputation, that means always starting the meeting when you say you’ll start it — no exceptions. Remember that punctuality is a form of respect: pay it to others and expect it in return. Without a proper start, your meeting is already playing catch-up.
2. It’s Okay to Get Down to Business
To apply a better form of “Coughlin time” in your own professional life, always makes sure to start a meeting when you say you’ll start it. That means that you leave small talk at the metaphorical door. If you show up 5 minutes early to an online meeting and have time to catch up with an old friend, great.
But once those doors close, it’s business time.
It’s best to handle this with tact. “Okay, guys, stop chit-chatting” will make people feel like they’re back in high school. But if you say, “Okay, let’s get started,” you’re not singling anyone out. You’re simply taking the lead of the meeting and moving it forward.
3. Aim for a Specific End to the Meeting
Meetings for the sake of meetings are the enemy of true productivity. In fact, Tim Ferriss of 4-Hour Workweek fame argues that you shouldn’t even agree to a meeting unless it has a set end date and a clear objective.
The key here is to make these objectives clear to every meeting participant ahead of time. Even a simple statement at the beginning of the meeting — “Okay, my goal today is to decide on a color for the new logo, and I hope to have you all out of here by 4 o’clock” — will set expectations.
If you achieve the goal before the meeting is scheduled to be finished, let people out early. Not only will this earn your meetings a reputation for efficiency, but people will be more likely to attend your meetings in the future because they know you respect their time.
4. Take Responsibility for the Meeting’s Tempo
This is especially a challenge for online meetings. Everyone is in a different room, often in different time zones: eventually, there are going to be problems like two people speaking at once, or one person taking over the conversation.
As the meeting’s host, it’s your responsibility to keep things moving. Here are a few tips:
- It’s okay to interrupt and ask for clarification. If someone starts monopolizing a meeting or getting off on tangents not related to the agenda, simply step in and ask that they clarify or stay on track. You’re the meeting host, after all. It falls on you to keep everyone moving at the same speed.
- Ask for input. If you notice yourself doing all of the talking, stop and ask for input from someone who hasn’t participated yet. You invited them for a reason — give them a chance to contribute.
- Wrap things up, even if you can’t put a bow on it. Even if you don’t quite meet your objective, you should at least come away from the meeting with a plan of action. Simply saying, “Unfortunately, we have to leave it here” will help you stop a meeting in danger of going on too long.
It can be tempting to overdo these points, so remember to let everyone make their contribution as well. As long as you’re consistent about the meeting length and its objectives, you should remain flexible enough for give and take.
5. Do Your Time Zone Configuration in Advance
Using a service like GoToMeeting allows you to set your specific time zone so that all meeting times automatically adjust as needed. But that doesn’t prevent some people from getting in their own way and sending five different emails just to get on the same page.
Set a meeting by your time zone. Anyone else using GoToMeeting will have it adjust automatically to their local time. Try not to change this unless an attendee has a request about scheduling, at which point you can change the time zone for a specific meeting.
While you’re hosting the meeting and it’s each guest’s responsibility to attend, there’s no reason you can’t accommodate, either. You can simply send out a meeting invitation (which will include the relevant time zone for each GoToMeeting user), or even send out a general email that notes which time zone you’re using for reference.
Ultimately your goal should be to have the software handle issues like time zone translation for you, but if you want to ensure everyone’s on the same page, an extra step here and there will prevent a meeting from being completely lost.
6. Pick a Productive Time for Everyone
Across different time zones, this can get tricky. But as long as most meeting attendees are on the same page, it’s probably best that you don’t schedule your meeting for Monday at 7:00 a.m.
Lifehacker found that the most common available or agreeable meeting time was Tuesday at 3 p.m. Afternoon meetings tend to mean that attendees aren’t worrying about lunch. It also gives them most of the day to prepare if need be.
Sometimes, necessity will dictate that you have to pick a meeting time that’s less convenient than Tuesday at 3. If you have an early-morning meeting, complete any and all prep work the day before. And if there’s anything else you can provide to help attendees prepare before an early-morning meeting, make sure to send it out a few days in advance.
7. Come Out of Every Meeting with Action Steps
If you achieve your goal for the meeting, you’ll still need to define the next steps. If you don’t achieve your goal for the meeting, you’ll need to know how to achieve it in the future. Either way, coming out of a meeting with clear action steps and assignments is essential.
Think of an online meeting as the business equivalent of a controlled burn in outer space. When the Apollo 13 mission was navigating back to Earth, most of the time was spent with their burners and computers off. It was only during brief, intense sequences of manual burns that they corrected their course.
Most of your time in business will be spent doing work outside of these meetings. Use the meetings as a way to collect input and gauge the direction of your team. The question What do we need to do next? is important in every meeting. It’s the question that takes you from a meeting to a list of steps that will take you closer to your objective.
8. If You Need to Inform, Try PechaKucha
PechaKucha is a Japanese style of presenting important information quickly and to the point. The general idea is to communicate twenty ideas with twenty seconds each. In a slideshow format, that means 20 seconds on 20 different slides.
The exact numbers aren’t as important as the idea behind PechaKucha: when it’s your job to instruct, this technique will force you to self-edit and explain only what’s necessary for the meeting to be successful. Clocking in at under 7 minutes, the PechaKucha technique will also set the tempo for the meeting itself.
Even if PechaKucha is not possible for large, big-picture meetings, remember that you can use any of your presentations to both inform and build the context for the online meeting. It’s up to you to open it up to questions and input. It’s up to you to make sure everyone is on the same page, at least for the moment. By editing down your points to the essential, you improve clarity and reduce distraction.