How To Survive a Day In Remote Meetings

Going through a day spent in meetings is easy to underestimate. For those who never did it, it’s just a day spent talking. For makers who were forced to go through it, it’s easy to trash: “the best way to solve this problem is to never have it” or “this meeting should have been an email”. But crises do occur. High-volume, low-latency, space-distributed decision making is needed.

There is a difference between spending a day in the meeting room with other people and having group calls—with video or without, timezone-distributed or not. Beside all the specifics of remote (emotions travelling differently, empathy challenges, different energy levels), there is a lot of understanding and bonding coming from sharing a space for way too long that just doesn’t travel online. This puts an extra load if circumstances force remote meetings on people not used to them. It’s mainly on leaders to cope and it’s not easy.

Below are bits I found helpful after having way too many of those days as a CTO. I cover remote meetings a bit more broadly than just “whole-day crisis management” in hope it will be useful to more people.

Know Your Internet Connection Intimately

This is now the lifeblood of your team. If you are not blessed with completely reliable broadband connection, now is the time to know what it can take.

Until how many people is an enabled video fine? Is there something else on your computer that is occasionally taking resources, resulting in hiccups? Where at your place does your connection work well? Are there any interferences with your neighbours?

Having connection problems and forcing someone to repeat the last five minutes may be a great patience exercise, but I can guarantee someone’s going to lose it. You may also be the one asking for a favor and this may make people drop you. Plan for it.

When I first entered the corporate world and the abomination that WebEx is, I discovered one useful feature quite shortly after recovering from the laughter. If you can afford it, I highly recommend dial-in1 as a backup; unless your local cell network is melting from an emergency, it’s almost always more reliable. Zoom supports it as well.

The Art of Buffers

A 30 minute meeting should have a 5 minute break after it, 1 hour meetings should have 10 minutes. Beside obvious biological reasons, you need a break for context switch. This is not just a mental thinking switch, but mainly, especially, an emotional switch. It’s very unfair for a bad 1-1 to taint the next one, double so if the person on the other side is going to be your emotional rod.

This is easier said than done. The classic anti-pattern is for everyone to enjoy a friendly discussion for 49 minutes. At that mark, someone mentions there are 10 minutes left (and that we should end 10 minutes early, remember) so someone starts enumerating decisions and action items. Disagreements emerge and people start cutting into the meat 60 seconds before the end, at which point either a powerful boss overrules everyone at the expense of other people or a follow-up call is scheduled.

There are three crucial prevention steps:

Step One: Dive Right In

Especially in some cultures, it is almost mandatory to have an initial chit chat for people to get easy. While convenient, think twice whether it’s needed for this meeting in particular, especially if there’s an emergency. Even if you are not leading the meeting, you can say something along the lines of “I’d appreciate it if we could start with X since I have a hard stop at Y”.

Step Two: Ask for Decisions Right Away

Frame every discussion as a decision. This is to surface disagreements early and have people on fire before the clock starts ticking. Not all disagreements should be discussed on the meeting, not all decisions should be made! The larger the meeting, the higher the chance of a heated discussion between two people should be tabled as an action item for them—but the disagreement should be surfaced.

The magical phrase is “in the interest of time”. Just one thing: if you are a person of power, don’t be a jerk and don’t use it to just shut people down. If you feel you do that for a good reason, reflect on whether the offender should be attending those meetings at all.

Step Three: The Cleansing Ritual

Have something that takes your mind away and helps clear whatever emotions you’ve accumulated recently. It can be a few deep breaths. It can be your favorite beverage. It can be a (forcibly upbeat) message to your spouse. A short walk. Something.

This is both basic self-care as well as basic courtesy to all your colleagues. Unchecked emotions snowball and at the end of the day, they can crush legions under them.

Know Your Guts

This one is literal. Know what are your restroom patterns and plan accordingly.

It may sound like a small thing, but oh boy it’s major. You are going to project nervousness and impatience long before you realize it and it will affect your decisions as well as how other people feel. And taking a break in a packed, heated, 20 minute discussion may not be feasible (or you will annoy a lot of people).

Quite a bit of meeting veterans solve this by limiting the food and beverage intake. I would advise being better than this; it’s a slippery slope and there is a very unhappy body at the bottom.

The News Break

The world doesn’t stop just because you are in a meeting. Instead of trying to catch up during actual meetings, acknowledge it and plan at least 30 minutes a day to catch up. By this I don’t really mean scrolling your newsfeed or taking your daily anxiety influx from your favorite media, but rather catching up with your inbox, messages from friends and urgent calls from the family. If you have an assistant, this is the time to get in sync.

There is a trap: if you are on a meeting marathon, it’s easy to devolve into a state where every problem is a meeting. Don’t. Whenever I have a knee-jerk reaction to add another time-box to my calendar tetris, I do think twice about the invitees and whether I couldn’t cut them down to zero. It still goes into the calendar—but in that case as a working block since I can often get done more than just the scheduled problem.

Train People Around You

Remote work is a skill, leading meetings is a skill and attending meetings is a skill. All of those have to be trained and any deficiencies add up very, very quickly.

If you are new, look up resources and learn. If you are a seasoned veteran, be tolerant and mentor people. If you see someone doing the obvious faux pas, ask them for a fix politely and if you have at least some throughput, ask explicitly about their experience and offer help (doesn’t have to be you, point them out to someone else from your team who you know has the skills).

How to do this is another article (or a book), but as a crash course:

  • Mute yourself unless you speak

  • Have a meeting leader (if there are more than two of you)

  • Make frequent breaks when talking and ask for input (so people can voice their opinion without weird interruptions)

  • Frequently check on people to discover presence or connection problems on time

  • Take turns; allow people to finish their whole thought before disputing it. Beside that being a basic courtesy, interruptions don’t work well with lag

Take Advantage of the Remote

Remote can be challenging, but it offers its advantages—should you choose to do them.

Being Outdoors

Being “out” changes the how you feel and helps a lot. If your conditions allow it, I strongly advice doing it as much as you can, even if “outdoors” means “balcony” or “sitting next to an open window”.

Different meetings allow for a different degree of slack, but use it as much as you can.

The Walking Meeting

In a very related news, walking improves thinking, focus and makes you feel better. It is weird with video (don’t give people motion sickness!), but for audio calls I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Again: while walking in a park is ideal (and it is where dial-in bridges are super useful), even if you are confined to the four walls because of quarantine, walking around in circles is still better than nothing.

I always wondered how much would the perception of the meetings change if they would be hikes. Planning is needed for this one though; you may find yourself really missing a whiteboard at hand.

The Mute Button

Know well how to mute and unmute yourself. Various apps and accessories provide different ways and shortcuts to do it and accidental muting can be as annoying as unmuting just because you animatedly hit a random mic button twice. While Sparky can be fun, in the worst moments, you could also invoke the ear-popping arch-enemy of all calls: The Echo.

Yet, this allows you to be in conditions that would otherwise make a meeting unfeasible (see advices above). Don’t shy from using them, just pay attention not to overwhelm your cognitive capacity and still be present and focused on the call.

The Zombie Meeting

You may have the misfortune of attending the zombie meeting where a single high-power person requires a legion of zombies to attend a call that is only relevant to a few. It’s an advanced version of “Hello-Bye” meeting where you don’t even say those two words. Variation of that is a Blitzkrieg meeting: you are a zombie for three hours only to have your five minutes of sheer terror. This commonly happens with malfunctioning review meetings (especially for incident reviews) or reporting meetings (“what happened in the past week”). Companies that pride themselves in having a flat hierarchy yet deviate to the top-down approach suffer more often.

Given you are there against your will, I consider this the only meeting where it’s completely defensible to tune off and listen only to keywords2. Tips above apply even to a larger degree and I again advice against getting into a cognitively demanding capacity.

My favorite for those is house cleaning. It is moving around, emits an acceptable amount of noise, is easy to interrupt and makes both activities reasonably sufferable. Bluetooth and noise-cancelling helps, just pay attention to really stop all background noise when unmuting.

Know Your Peopling Limits

Even the party people have a limit beyond which human interaction is energy-depleting. Check-in with yourself frequently about where yours is. In my experience (and I generally welcome distancing) the remote is more draining than in-person meetings. In-person communication provides those little recharge moments that seem to be rarer remotely; watching the screen for the whole day doesn’t help either. Be conscious of it.

You may not have a power to change how many of those you have during working hours, but you can reshuffle the rest. Especially if you haven’t done this before, I highly advise reconsidering the rest of your day. You may need to change your habits in order to flourish long term. What exactly does it mean is personal preference, but you may consider:

  • Having a “just space out” break before engaging any other activities that involve humans

  • Actually toning down on social activities. They are your work now, compensate

  • Adding “lightly focused” activities that require enough focus to shut down the internal chatter yet not too much to be challenging. A lot of exercises fall into this category as well as a meditation or light book reading

  • Get your devices down, all of them

  • Eat it out. Obviously pay attention to get a healthy meal, but consciously enjoying good food does wonders

  • I do have to mention drugs. I am not recommending them, but people use them because they work. It’s very easy and subtle to slide down the path of substance abuse, especially if e.g. alcoholism is just part of your culture. If you go down that path, it’s good to have someone to check on you and ideally someone who considers your culture ridiculous. Be conscious of the effect on sleep which may make the overall relaxing effect negative

Give Slack, Take Slack

Everyone experienced tunnel vision. Not everyone is aware of its thinking equivalents. For managers and executives under stress, work is meetings and not working provides unacceptable delays.

I observed this as a core of a lot of problematic situations and meetings from hell. Idle chit-chat and the leader reluctant to start? Decompression and cognitive switch after what happened just before. People spending 15 minutes reading the information that should be read before? No News Breaks and “no time” to prepare.

Even people in power are (hopefully) human. I think it’s only fair to remind them and just ask. “Do you need a break? We can start in 10 minutes, you look/sound tired” can provide a leeway for everyone. If you are on the receiving side of this, pause and think. There is usually a reason if someone suddenly offers you a chewing gum.

Make frequent mini-breaks (can really be 10 seconds) to check with yourself. I’ve done “can we please move this by few minutes, I am angry and I don’t want to be angry at you” equivalent many times and I am yet to find someone who would hate me for it.

Find Schedule That Works

Remote can (and should) change the whole perception of work. You may be used to a typical in-office setup: arriving at work at a scheduled time, being present for a defined amount of hours and leaving work at work afterwards..

I see some companies insisting on the very same arrangement remotely3 and employ various surveillance and monitoring techniques to enforce it. For most knowledge workers, though, this breaks down very quickly and as a result, you should have more control over your schedule.

How many back-to-backs (meetings without any break in between) can you manage? Is it really better to have a single work block or do you prefer a longer break in between? Is it better to have a designated work space or is it better for your soul to change the environment during the day?

Those questions only you can answer, but experiment. If you have a workplace with at least a shred of sanity, I highly recommend sharing those experiences and what you are doing. Not only it inspires others, but also sets expectations around your schedule and responsivity (and being responsive does matter).

The Sleep Shutdown

The main challenge of timezone-distributed team (or a global company) is that world never stops. There is always someone awake and working who’d be delighted to have your immediate attention.

How high can fence around your work time is obviously circumstantial. I’d just note that a lot of people can be satisfied with a quick “scan break” somewhere in the evening where you identify important messages and reply with ETA.

Even this should be done at least half hour before going to bed and before going through “work shutdown” ritual. The ritual can be anything: a walk, a meditation, a book read, a spouse talk (or, in my case, a house chore). Consistency is the key: wire your brain to know this is when thinking ends.

In case the brain can’t be convinced that thinking can also be done in the morning and insists on post-processing the day, I found journalling very efficient (I just use a simple list into my bullet journal). Braindump the thoughts from the day on paper and also dump what should you process as a follow-up. The paper part is fairly important and before sleep, the no screen part plays a large role as well.

Summary

These are the strategies I learned from over a decade of handling them.

Spending whole day talking to people is a hard mental work and remote makes it both easier and harder. Focus on what you can change to make the experience better for everyone.

As always, knowing yourself is the hard part. I hope this guide helps you ask the right questions.

Thanks to Vincenzo Chianese, Daria Grudzien and Honza Javorek for editing and feedback.

Changelog

  • Grammar fixes on May 11, 2020

  1. Dial-in is an option to call a number on you phone which will be then used with conference audio. Video continues to be handled through your computer. Losing few dozens of seconds of video is way less critical than losing the same amound of video, unless your company is run by mimes. ↩︎

  2. Control freaks may be offended and require camera on. There is also actually a software tracking you eye movement to make sure you pay attention. In those cases, I am sorry. ↩︎

  3. This problem touches the very nature of employment, a social contract that works very differently in various cultures. Is your body and mind rented for a agreed-upon period of time or are you hired to deliver some work? If it is a rent, what amount of effort is required? If you fail to put it in or if you fail to deliver the results, how should it affect your compensation? This is mostly implied, rarely explicit and often leads to cultural misunderstandings. ↩︎

Published in Essays and tagged productivityremote workself organizationwork in IT


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