As we shift from thinking of remote meetings as a blip on the radar to a new fixture in our work lives, the time has come to address the elephant in the room: an audio and video connection aren’t enough.
Video calls, often facilitated by Zoom, have become a staple of our work lives. And it’s easy to see why – Zoom gives us a fast, reliable audio and video link to connect while we’re physically disconnected.
Today’s video conferencing tools give us the minimum we need to have meetings, but we need much more to have productive and human meetings.
When our brains are taxed with the extra work of understanding how we’re in the same space but not in the same space, we need more tools to give us the same abilities we used to have in-person – or better yet, we need specially crafted tools to let us do things we couldn’t do in a conference room.
We built a tool to do just that – Parabol brings structure to your calls. The principles we used to create Parabol can help you make any meeting more productive and human.
1. Open with an Icebreaker
In person, most meetings start with chit-chat as folks filter into the room. Remotely, people often feel awkward chatting while on a video screen. If they do casually chat, it’s probably limited to ‘How was your weekend?’
When you don’t have the benefit of spontaneous connection in the office kitchen or on the way to the bathroom, you need to create opportunities to build rapport within your remote team.
That means starting with an icebreaker question, such as:
- If you had to describe how you’re feeling right now as a weather pattern, what’s your forecast?
- What was your favorite recent meal, and why?
- How do you recognize when you’re stressed?
Good icebreaker questions bring in a bit of the human element by letting team members express themselves and have fun before you get to business. Research also shows that when people speak once in a meeting, they’re more likely to speak again, so icebreakers make your meetings more productive by encouraging participation.
In Parabol, icebreakers are built right in. The tool automatically picks a question and moves to each person on the call, saving you that awkward ‘Who’s next?’ moment.
2. Build a Collaborative Meeting Agenda
In general, meetings are more productive when the group has a sense of what needs to be discussed and what you want to get out of the meeting.
Sadly, an agenda isn’t a built-in part of your video conferencing software. But you can easily create one.
Start a document in your preferred documents tool (Google Docs or Office, for example) and send out the link before the meeting, or include it in the calendar invitation.
Encourage everyone to add items as they think of them ahead of time, or when they come up during the meeting. For recurring meetings, use the same document, and just add a new space at the top for each meeting.
This simple practice does a few powerful things:
- It gives the team a place to record things they need to discuss, but that isn’t urgent. This lets folks stay focused, knowing their issue has been logged.
- It lets everyone have a say in what’s being discussed.
- For recurring meetings, it lets you remember recurring items, and also see what you spoke about previously.
If you’re ready for a more robust solution, Parabol lets any team member add agenda items at any time. These form the backbone of a check-in meeting, which is what we bill as the ultimate team meeting.
3. Establish an Interactive Shared Digital Space
When holding a video call on Zoom or any other tool, there are essentially three options:
- Look at everyone’s face in gallery view
- Look at the face of whoever is speaking
- Look at someone’s screen while they control it
At first blush, that might seem pretty similar to what happens in person, where you’re either looking at one another or you’re looking at a screen while someone presents.
But when you’re looking at faces, you’re not looking at whatever the topic of the meeting is – the agenda you created, the piece of work you’re reviewing, the ideas you’re brainstorming.
This option is more human but less productive.
If someone is sharing their screen, you’re either performing (as the presenter) or you’re consuming (as the audience). Again, you don’t have much power to shift the direction of the meeting, even if you have an important viewpoint.
This option turns out to be more productive but it is less human.
Instead, jump into an interactive shared space, meaning a virtual space where all participants have their hands on the work you’re engaged with.
Here are some examples:
- Take notes in an agenda: Rather than one person sharing their screen to look at the agenda, all participants can jump into it to add comments as you go.
- Collect feedback with virtual sticky notes: Parabol provides a virtual space to write anonymous feedback, work together to group your feedback, and discuss what themes matter most to you. Instead of watching someone else, the team all has their hands on the main piece of work for that meeting.
- Brainstorm on a digital whiteboard: Tools like Mural and Miro let you create a virtual whiteboard where everyone on the call can contribute ideas or sketch their thoughts. All participants can work on the brainstorm directly.
- Review your task board: Tools like Trello and Notion allow for low-weight task management. In a status update call, review your task board and let everyone move tasks freely. Parabol includes this as part of the check-in meeting, allowing each person to verbally share an update while the team can see the tasks assigned to them.
Because everyone has their hands on what you’re doing, the experience feels more human. And since space is focused on the work, the meeting is more productive.
4. Create Space for Non-verbal Input
In person, you can see the smile on someone’s face or watch them start fidgeting, and this non-verbal feedback gives you valuable information about what they’re thinking.
With Zoom, you have the option to raise your hand, add a reaction, or participate in the chat. These are all a good start towards giving participants ways to engage without interrupting the conversation.
Yet in most calls, these interactions are secondary – ignored at best, distracting at worst.
That means participants don’t have much choice but to speak, and some folks just won’t. They may be shy or introverted. They may be uncomfortable interrupting. They may have a noisy home or maybe forgot to charge their headphones.
Whatever the case – without providing non-verbal options, you’re losing out on their input.
To fix that and have more productive conversations:
- Find a way to bring the non-verbal interactions to the forefront: Whether that’s asking for non-verbal feedback like reactions or checking the chat at certain points, bring these options into your meeting.
- Provide options for input in your agenda: Participants can add questions to the agenda or note concerns. Directly reference these options so people will take advantage of them. As a bonus, that also means this input will be automatically recorded, where verbal feedback is generally lost after it’s said.
- Utilize a tool where text-based interactions are already at the center: In Parabol, participants can add tasks directly during a meeting, participate in a discussion thread, add reactions to one another’s feedback, or hit the ‘I’m Ready’ button to move on. These interactions are central parts of the experience, so team members aren’t missing out if they don’t feel like speaking.
5. Follow-up after the Meeting with Notes & To-Do’s
Of course, meetings are most productive when they influence the work you do between meetings. If your discussion and decisions are forever locked within the boundaries of the Zoom call, it hasn’t been a very good use of your time.
Traditionally, post-meeting follow-ups looked like meeting minutes or notes, either in an email or a shared document. You can bring this same behavior into virtual meetings –≠ assign a note-taker for each call and rotate that responsibility to keep it fair. If you’ve started with a shared agenda, you’re a step ahead.
But if you also have an interactive shared space, you’re several steps ahead. Capture a screenshot of your virtual whiteboard to record all of your thinking and sketching, or the status of your task board to record your overall status.
With Parabol, all team members get an automatically generated meeting summary at the end of the meeting, including what was discussed and the tasks that came out of the call.
Since this goes out to the whole team, regardless of who was on the call, it can be helpful to folks who were out and missed the meeting and want to catch up on what happened. You can even see past summaries in your timeline, and jump back into a meeting to view the discussion.
Start Holding More Productive & “Human” Meetings
More than six months into a mostly-or somewhat-remote work reality, the big changes we’re just starting to get used to seem like they’ll shift the way we work for a long while to come.
Among these, video calls through Zoom and other tools have become, for better and worse, the backbone of how we work.
By applying a few key principles, we can make these calls more productive and more human:
- Start with an icebreaker
- Build a collaborative agenda
- Establish an interactive shared digital space
- Create space for non-verbal input
- Follow-up after the meeting
With these practices in hand, we can level up our meetings, and maybe our work-life itself.
Aviva Pinchas is a product and marketing leader with a passion for remote work and organizational design. She currently leads growth at Parabol, a free online retrospective meeting platform. Previously, she led the ‘WooCommerce Marketplace’ at ‘Automattic’, one of the world’s largest fully distributed companies.
Aviva lives and works in Austin, TX.