Zoom meetings

The coronavirus changed the world into a planet of remote workers, but several months into the pandemic some companies and individuals are still grappling with the challenges of working apart.

Employees have more distractions at home and some can find it harder to focus. Questions persist, such as: Can video conferencing be as effective as in-person communicating? Will workplace culture – and production – suffer from a lack of traditional human interaction?

“Many companies and employees weren’t prepared for this major life switch,” says Cynthia Spraggs a veteran of working remotely, author of How To Work From Home And Actually Get SH*T Done, and CEO of Virtira, a completely virtual company that helps other businesses work virtually.

“Companies became obsessed with maintaining their brick-and-mortar culture despite the fact their offices were completely deserted.

I heard several horror stories about companies mandating that employees eat lunch on camera or play bar games with cocktails on Zoom after an exhausting workday.

“Not only were these extra obligations not necessary, they didn’t take into account the busier new lives of harried workers – many now with homeschooled kids and juggling schedules with spouses also working from home. Some remote workforces have transitioned smoothly, but a great many need to learn how to adjust.”

Drawing from experiences she has had advising companies on how to work remotely and maintain performance, Spraggs offers some tips on getting the most out of online meetings:

• Flex your virtual meeting time. “From managing hundreds of regional and global online events, I can tell you the maximum anyone should be in an online meeting is four hours,” Spraggs says. “Two hours is much better for a maximum. When they run longer, your participants are going to experience significant muscle and eye fatigue, not to mention be tempted by the incredible distractions that come with working remotely.”

• Template everything. When managers ran meetings in a conference room, they could ban phones and have everyone’s attention. With remote meetings, managers have lost that control. “They need to build virtual walls and a structure to keep things on track,” Spraggs says. “This is where templates for meeting agendas, action items, business reviews, etc., come into play. Make these available from the central dashboard and reinforce on calls where they are and how to find them.”

• Protest pointless meetings. “Pointless includes inviting a whole host of people to a meeting who don’t need to be there,” Spraggs says. “Don’t take valuable chunks of work time away from team members for a call they don’t need to be on.”

• Treat meetings like contract discussions. Spraggs notes that back in the day informal meetings in a physical office sometimes allowed employees to shine in front of their bosses. “But online loosey-goosey meetings without any real point don’t get anyone anywhere,” she says. “To accomplish anything of substance, set a strong agenda and stick to it. Get opinions from everyone. For the introverts not comfortable with sharing, consider implementing anonymous input forms. You’ll be amazed how engagement increases. Like a contract, you need to document what the team decided, and what the priorities are. Put those in the meeting minutes, distribute, and follow up on them.”

• Don’t drive yourself to distraction. “Train yourself to cut down distractions to improve productivity,” Spraggs says. “Turn off your phone and notifications. Otherwise someone is going to ask you something and there will be that dead air as everyone waits for you to respond.”

“Many companies are trying to replicate the in-person experience by wanting to get everyone in front of a screen for multiple hours over multiple days,” Spraggs says. “But they have the opportunity to rethink and re-engineer the experience in ways that make sense in a new world, when nobody is in the same room for a meeting.”

Cynthia Spraggs is the author of How To Work From Home And Actually Get SH*T Done: 50 Tips for Leaders and Professionals to Work Remotely and Outperform the Office.

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