How to Fix Meetings - Part 2 of Best Practices for Remote Work
2020 was a year of disruption in so many ways (no kidding!), one of which was shock therapy in remote working, especially for those who weren’t used to home-office life.
Founders and senior leaders in my network were skeptical at first, but those who realized the potential ended up thriving in this format. They improved own and teams' quality of life, launched new products and services, and generated major cost savings.
Last year I worked with a CEO who was looking to implement best practices in taking his startup fully remote and preparing for a global expansion. I conducted a benchmark with some of the best remote-first startups (Expensify, Trello, Basecamp, Collabora) and I would like to share 3 of their approaches with you:
Focus on written communication
In the world of infinite Zooming (and infinite face-to-face meetings before that) we feel overwhelmed by participating in endless meetings (and sound checks) to later realize that nothing got done and we need to schedule another meeting.
There are better ways to communicate when working remotely:
Asynchronous meetings may sound strange at first but they are essential for productivity. Expensify uses them (via tools like Slack or shared Google docs) for all management meetings, especially since their employees are located in the US, Europe and Australia whose time zones range makes scheduling too difficult. The meeting owner presents the key discussions in bullet points and all participants have 24-48 hours to chime in. Once time is up, the owner summarizes the decisions and next steps and ensures continuity by assigning action items. He or she then communicates major decisions via e-mail to the entire company.
Meeting templates help keep everyone aligned and on track (agenda, next steps, action items). Templates are also useful for "live" meetings because they encourage participants to come prepared and keep discussions (especially sales or operational updates) succinct. In the process of creating such templates, managers may identify opportunities for some of these meetings to be replaced with dashboards or e-mail updates.
Process documentation - onboarding new employees is more challenging in a remote environment because they can't just walk over to a colleague to ask a simple (or complex) "how to?" question. They are then left to fend for themselves and may lose precious time trying to figure out everything from scratch. This is especially detrimental for companies that have high turnover (aka most startups). Documenting how key processes work, what the company is all about and where to find important information may not be sexy. However, it is absolutely key for getting new employees up to speed and can boost productivity significantly. Trello is one company that really embedded this practice into their culture. They even make their templates available to other companies (check out their new employee onboarding template, for example).
Hiring for strong communication skills - this one is pretty self-explanatory but may not be obvious for roles that are more technical in nature. Yet, working successfully in a remote world requires a certain maturity and ability to sometimes over-communicate in order to be understood. When hiring new employees for a remote company, one could easily test for writing skills by asking them to describe their vision, answer a typical client question, or explain the functionality of a piece of code. Basecamp's founders share some additional tips on how to hire the right profiles for remote work in their book Remote: Office Not Required.
Plan Around Time Zone Differences
I have been working on global teams and projects for the past 15 years. In all of these environments, time zones were a drag on productivity and made scheduling painful. They were also a source of frustration for those who had to dial in at crazy hours because leaders organized meetings around times that were convenient for headquarters, disregarding everybody else's needs.
There are a couple of simple ways to do this better:
Create empathy around time zone differences. Educate employees to figure out the time at their collaborators' location and take it into consideration when scheduling meetings.
Rotate meeting times to make them convenient for people from different locations. Here's a very simple tool I use to figure out the time in different places around the world.
Block collaboration time: Make work hours flexible but block out time when people from all time zones need to be available online. Most of the remote-first companies I interviewed have this time blocked in the middle of the day US time (for example at 12-2:00 pm EST).
Reserve Face to Face Meetings Only For Special Occasions
One CEO told me how upon announcing that his company was going remote and shutting down its office, a senior leader requested to reserve a co-working space for his entire team.
He was not down with the remote program. It could have been an issue of communication or one of old habits die hard.
A co-working space is a great solution for holding group meetings and allowing employees an occasional space to work from, especially if they don't have a designated home office or require special accommodations. Collabora, for example, used a co-working space to host its pre-covid summer internship program because they saw that junior employees needed more attention and didn't work well completely remotely.
Nevertheless, moving the entire team into a co-working would have completely missed the point of having a remote company because it would have created different classes of employees (those that work at the office and those that work from home) instead of one company culture.
Although committed to the remote format, all the startups I interviewed emphasized the importance of occasional meetings in the real world to create a bond, align priorities and solidify working relationships among employees.
Company-wide: Most hold annual or bi-annual company meetings where they spend at least a day doing fun activities together. For example, Expensify takes this to the next level by flying the entire company to work from an international location for three weeks that are peppered with social events. Families are also invited to join during the last week of the trip.
Department/team level: Aside from virtual happy hours and weekly check-ins online, departments and/or teams meet quarterly to revise results, define goals and strategies, and discuss any other work-related issues. A Trello employee shared that over time various team communication issues start to escalate and by the end of the quarter, they really feel the need for a F2F meeting which helps them iron out everything and start afresh.
Running a remote company effectively is not trivial but it's certainly doable with the right leadership behaviors, hiring practices, systems, processes, and rituals.
What strategies have been working for your company?
p.s. want to learn more about How to Have Fun With Your Remote Team? Read the first article in the series about remote work here.