Better Zoom Meetings

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Zoom Meeting

In one of my training classes, there is an exercise to conduct a daily stand-up meeting.  The meeting should be no longer than 15-minutes and be well structured.  In class, we challenge the leader with common distracting and unproductive behaviors.  Watch the clip, the results are often hilarious. 

Disruptive and unproductive meetings are common and just do not happen in practice exercises.  Most meetings stink!  Over 90% of meetings are ineffective, and three-quarters of attendees are not paying attention.  Since COVID, we attend more and larger meetings.  Our workdays are at least 45-minutes longer, and people increasingly report having “Zoom fatigue.”

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to make things better.

Have a Proactive Facilitator

Virtual meetings require active facilitation.  The role is more than administering access and reminding people to mute.  Attention wanes after the first 10-minutes, and the facilitator is responsible for keeping participants engaged and productive. 

Facilitators, at a minimum, are responsible for:

  • Maintaining the meeting timebox;
  • Reinforcing ground rules;
  • Ensuring everyone has the opportunity to contribute, and no one dominates the discussion;
  • Monitoring items for “meet after”; and
  • Watching out for ELMO. 

The facilitator should suggest a “meet after” when forward progress on a topic stops.  In the “meet after” only people that need to be part of the solution attend.  Everyone else is free to return to work. 

Some teams establish the Elmo Rule.  This is not the Sesame Street character.  It stands for “Enough!  Let’s move on.”  People can show a picture of Elmo or change their background to indicate it is time to stop swirling. 

Establish Ground Rules

Ground rules create group norms.  It is never too late to establish, articulate, and document what we expect from our colleagues in our online meetings.  We should also periodically review the guidelines based on our emerging experiences. 

General ground rules might include:

  • Be on time.  Nearly 40% of meetings start late;
  • No distractions.  If you are multitasking, you are not paying attention;
  • Cameras on.  Everyone feels more engaged when we are looking at faces rather than names on screen; and
  • Use mute if not talking. 

Protocols for the COVID might extend to:

  • Acceptable strategies dealing with distracting children and pets; and
  • Protocols for coordinating a discussion, so everyone has the opportunity to contribute.

Go Shorter

The standard duration for in-person meetings is an hour, with the first 45-minutes being the most productive.  Our online meetings need to be shorter. 

TED Talks are 18-minutes long because neurological research found this was the best duration for a successful business pitch.  It is long enough for the speaker to present a concept and short enough for listeners to digest the information. 

Staring at a computer screen creates is tiring.  The 20:20:20 Rule helps reduce eye strain.  Every 20-minutes, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away. 

Try scheduling online meetings for 20 to 25-minutes.  It is long enough to get things done and short enough to keep people focused.  It also gives participants a quick break and reduces Zoom Fatigue

Keep it Small

Google established the “10-person rule” for its meetings.  Amazon has the 2-pizza rule.  Agile teams have fewer than 11-people.  Limit your virtual meetings to less than a dozen attendees.

Small meetings are more effective.  People are more likely to contribute and are less likely to get distracted. 

My non-scientific observation is that when fewer than a dozen people attend a Zoom meeting, it is possible to have a conversation.  As meetings grow, having a constructive discussion becomes increasingly more difficult.

Be Focused

Having an objective and agenda improves meeting productivity.  For our 20-minute meetings, we should have a specific, well-defined purpose. 

Rather than meeting to discuss all of the <fill in the blank>, have a series of shorter meetings to address component parts.  For example, if we want to review or demonstrate new application features, schedule two or three 25-minute sessions instead of a single 2-hour one.  Shorter meetings will be more productive—generating better insights in less overall time.

An agenda contributes to a focused meeting.  However, only 37% of sessions use an agenda.  A good agenda lists each of the topics, the presenter, and the start and end time for each item. 

The facilitator is responsible for keeping the meeting on track.  The facilitator should bring agenda items to a close when time is up.  They may remind the group to move to the next item, suggest a “meet after,” offer to add the item to the next meeting, or ask if this is urgent enough to continue the conversation.

Use the Timebox

The “timebox” is a limit on the amount of time allocated to an activity.  We can use the timebox to govern each agenda item and the overall meeting length.  This creates a predictable sense of rhythm and cadence to the meeting.

Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time available.  You would be surprised how concise we become when our time to talk is regulated.

I invited an agile coach to help my leadership team embrace the principles of lean management.  After monitoring my staff meetings, she suggested using a timer and limiting status updates to 2-minutes per person.  We cut updates in half without any adverse impact. 

Use Visual Cues

Over half of communication is visual.  Visual cues and guideposts help people stay engaged in our meetings.  Using a PowerPoint where each slide displays the basic information for the agenda item helps focus attention. 

I strongly recommend that all participants have their cameras on. Talking to someone’s face is far more appealing than to their initials on a black screen.  From infancy, we look at others’ faces to measure approval.  When cameras are off, we receive no visual feedback, which is unsettling. 

Before COVID, 80% of agile project teams had virtual members.  Even after we return to “normal,” most of our meetings will still have remote participants.  Technology helped us clear many of the hurdles.  Now, we need to adjust to being more effective in the “new normal.”

Take Collaborative Meeting Notes 

How often do you leave Zoom meetings feeling that you’ve forgotten something important, or confused about exactly what you should be doing next? This is especially true for virtual meetings, where it’s easier than ever to lose track of information or feel like things slip through the cracks. The best way to solve this problem is by notes.  I recommend ensuring that key decisions and action items are captured.  For action items, assign an owner and a due date—that way everyone knows what to do when the meeting ends. Using a resource like the Hive Notes app for Zoom makes it easier than ever for all participants to collaborate in real time (google-docs style) from right inside the Zoom window. It’s the best way to make sure everyone shows up prepared, stays productive throughout the meeting, and leaves with clear next steps. 

You can download the Hive Notes app in the Zoom App Marketplace before your next meeting. Create an agenda, share it with all of the participants, and you’re already on your way to the best Zoom meeting you’ve ever experienced. 

© 2021, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

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With COVID, our workdays are getting longer.  We are spending more time in less productive meetings.  This article provides constructive and tangible recommendations for improving how we meet online.  Try them out, let me know how they work.