How to Have Productive Meetings Remotely

Matt Farmer is a veteran remote collaborator. He leads Wizeline's delivery organization for remote workers and trains the team on remote work best practices. When the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Wizeline to go fully remote, Matt was ready. He's sharing his practical advice for more effective meetings online.

As more people start working remotely, communication can become a challenge. When everyone was in the office together, it was easy to ask someone a question face to face. It may be up for debate if this is the reason or if people are just looking for some human contact, but when we are remote, it can be tempting to schedule a “quick meeting” every time you have a question.

This can quickly lead to many ineffective meetings and a real drop in productivity. Add into this mix the normal distractions of working from home (the couch, the tv, and the fridge) and the COVID-19 specific issues (like needing to also provide childcare) and you can start to wonder how you’ll ever make this work.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s identify a few common challenges and some simple steps towards taming and mitigating them.

Why did we call this meeting again?

The following scenarios are all too common, even when working in an office environment. These pain points are only magnified in a remote environment. 

  • Someone calls a meeting that runs well over its allotted time. 
  • You’re in a meeting to discuss one topic and new topics are brought up faster than decisions can be made.
  • You have a subset of attendees going deep on a topic while others lose interest.
  • You can’t help but ask yourself… Was this the right time to bring up these questions? Did this meeting have the right audience?

The Fix:

All meetings should have agendas items, and each topic should have a clear time associated with it. Bonus points if this agenda can be contributed to by all attendees.

All meetings should have a “Time Keeper” assigned at the start of the meeting. It’s this person’s job to keep track of whether the meeting is following the agenda or not. It’s ok if some topics need to go over in time, but this should be something that is done consciously and with respect to agenda items that may come after the current topic. Alternatively, if a topic is going over and doesn’t have an end in sight, it might be worth tabling, preparing a bit more, and scheduling another meeting to follow-up.

What did we do in that meeting?

Sometimes, you may leave a meeting unsure of what was accomplished, what was decided, or if there are action items for you or your team.

If there isn’t a clear outcome easily identified after a meeting, it’s worth challenging if it was worth having the meeting at all.

The Fix:

All meetings should have a note-taker assigned at the start of the meeting. When possible, I like to share the screen of the note taker in real-time or review the notes at the end of the meeting, so that there’s agreement on what is said.

All meeting notes should have a section for “Decisions Made” and “Action Items.” There should also be a way to track action items across meetings. For recurring meetings, reviewing the previous meeting’s notes, and carrying forward any incomplete actions, may be enough. For other scenarios, it may be useful to use a tool like Trello or Jira.

What is this meeting about?

Agenda items can sometimes be short and lack the context needed for someone to come prepared to talk about the subject. An agenda item of “Staffing (15m)” often passes, but in itself isn’t actionable. Is this going to be good or bad news? Are we going to talk about hiring more people? Modify the process used to interview? Extend how long we are working remotely? There’s no way to know.

The Fix:

Agenda items should be expanded to give enough context to the people attending.

When people have this context they can be more receptive to the information than when they are blindsided. Similarly, if your agenda allows attendees to comment on it, the organizer can prepare answers to concerns ahead of time. If done right your meetings can become shorter since you won’t need to take as long to describe the concept being presented, and you may be able to make decisions in the first meeting, instead of needing to schedule follow-ups to address feedback.

Writing documents at this level of detail definitely takes time, effort, and practice, but the time it takes a single person to do this work can quickly pay for itself when meetings have several attendees. Remember a 1-hr meeting with five people isn’t a 1-hour meeting, it’s a 5-hour meeting.

There are other advantages to this approach as well.

  • If someone was unable to attend the meeting, they can review this document and see not only “what” was decided but also gain context to “why,” instead someone needing to rehash the meeting to them after the fact to the best of their memory.
  •  The message that is intended to be said is not always the same as the message that is received by all members. By writing down this communication there is a clear official record that can be updated as points of confusion are identified.
  • If documentation is important for your project or organization, this document can usually be easily adjusted to fill that role.

Who should be included in this meeting?

Finding the balance between inviting enough people vs. inviting too many people to a meeting can be tricky. 

 The Fix

If the meeting has a well-defined agenda with supporting content, one option is to invite people as optional (and mean it!) and let those people decide if they need to attend. You can always mark someone as optional when using Google Calendar.


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Matt Farmer, Senior Software Engineer and Delivery Lead at Wizeline
Matt Farmer, Senior Software Engineer and Delivery Lead at Wizeline

Nellie Luna

Posted by Nellie Luna on April 2, 2020