Ground rules are a lot easier to enforce when you can make eye contact or use body language to keep people in line. But when you can’t see people and can’t hear what people are doing on the other end of the line, it’s much harder to keep people focused and on track.
This edition of Communiqué offers a few important ground rules for running effective virtual meetings. You can add many more to this list that may be more relevant to a particular situation, such as asking people to state their names when voices are not yet familiar, or asking people to test run a new web collaboration application before joining the call. We invite you to adapt this set of guidelines for each unique situation.
- Give advance notice of ground rules prior to the meeting. Don’t surprise people at the start of the meeting by issuing demands that may be impossible to meet without notice. For example, if you are asking people to make sure they can focus 100% of their attention on this meeting (versus multitasking while on mute), they need to move everything else off their plate in advance to make sure they have uninterrupted time. Publish the ground rules in your meeting overview document sent at least a few days ahead. Highlight important points in the text of the email to make sure they are not overlooked.
- Make sure your ground rules are culturally and socially acceptable. People in some organizations may laugh at a ground rule that would prohibit multitasking of any kind, while others may praise you for helping people stay focused. In addition, people from some cultures may be reluctant to air sensitive issues with people they have never met, while others may feel entirely uninhibited. When in doubt, test the waters with a few team members in advance. It’s much tougher to enforce ground rules that seem unreasonable or unnecessary to most people on the call.
- Explain your rationale for the ground rules to help gain agreement. For example, when people balk at your ground rule that everyone stay off of mute, be sure to explain that this allows people to stay more present in the conversation and makes it harder to hammer away at their keyboards. Or if you ask that people announce when they have to leave the call for a moment, let them know that you want to make sure you don’t want to miss any of their intended input. People are more likely to accept ground rules if they help keep the meeting short and to the point.
- Ask for everyone’s commitment to adhering to ground rules at the start of the meeting. Even though you may have given advance notice of your ground rules in writing, review them at the start of the session and solicit everyone’s agreement out loud. Ask if there is anything preventing people from staying focused on this call. If so, ask people to spend one or two minutes clearing a path to full participation, such as finishing up a quick email or deactivating instant messaging. Promise that the meeting will be far more productive if everyone can stay focused at the same time.
- Test for compliance when in doubt. If people seem far too quiet or otherwise distracted, stop the conversation and state your observations, saying something like: “Only one or two of you have voiced your opinions on this topic, yet all of you had agreed that we need to discuss the pros and cons before reaching a decision. I’m concerned that some of you have lost focus or have somehow wandered away, and we need you to rejoin us so we can work together to get through this.”
- Name disruptive behavior out loud. If some members of the team are permitted to violate the ground rules, others are likely to follow. Although it can be awkward, especially if trust among team members has not been well-established, it’s important to call out transgressions in a way that lets people know you’re serious about keeping people focused. You might say something like: “John, I appreciate that you have a lot of experience in this area. Would it be possible for you to summarize your final point now so that others have time to share their views? Perhaps you can send us some related documents that we can read later on.”
- Insist on preparation by all. Since remote meetings must be kept brief to maintain focus and attention, make sure that you have a ground rule that spells out what preparation is needed by whom, and why. For example, if you ask everyone to review the latest business plan prior to the meeting, let them know which sections to focus on. Or if you ask people for new ideas, encourage them to select a couple of the best. The more focused and efficient the preparation, the more likely people are to adhere to this critical ground rule. Be fair about what you can expect. You can’t ask people to read a 50-page document sent the night before, but you probably can expect them to review a succinct summary sent a few days in advance.
- Create a parking lot for issues and questions that may otherwise throw you off track. Agree on the scope of the meeting well in advance. Test for shared understanding by stating desired outcomes as well as topics that are not on the table for discussion at this meeting. This way, it will be easier to quickly park those items that won’t contribute to your meeting objectives, allowing the team to use the allotted time to achieve the desired outcome. Try to keep the parking lot visible to participants at all times to reassure them that their issues have been captured, and make sure you set aside at least a couple of minutes to decide how to take parking lot issues forward.
Since time spent meeting virtually tends to be at such a premium, it’s especially important to establish ground rules that will help lead to a productive meeting. It’s usually a lot easier to inform people about ground rules than it is to enforce them. But if you develop a reputation for someone who is serious about providing an environment for a productive meeting through the use of sensible ground rules, you’ll soon find that your team will begin to create and zealously uphold its own ground rules, freeing you up from having to police the group.