I hate meetings. OK, let me rephrase: I hate poorly run meetings. You know those ones with too many attendees, no agenda, a bazillion “priorities” and no clear direction on next steps. Yikes.
One of the perks of freelancing though has been saying goodbye to such meetings and saying hello to using Slack and Skype (or similar) to communicate regularly. These tools have made our lives considerably easier and more focused, but as with any tool (or meeting), they can easily be ineffective if not managed properly. Any meeting, be it online or IRL, should have as its aim to make sure it's the best use of everyone’s time – including yours.
So whether you’re using Skype or other options such as Zoom, Google Hangout, UberConference or even Slack’s internal call functionality, here are 10 tips to ensure that you have an effective and professional meeting - every time:
1) Be on time and stick to it
This goes without saying but particularly with Skype calls, it’s important that everyone joins the call at the same time to test sound and stability of the line. Ideally, it's best if you can be online five minutes prior to test your own tools in advance.
Also just because you have 45 minutes allocated, doesn’t mean you actually have to use all of that time. Stick to the agenda and GET. IT. DONE. If another meeting or chat between specific attendees needs to be planned, highlight this and let them arrange it themselves post-meeting.
Being online is no excuse for last minute cancellations, eg. five minutes prior. It says “I have no respect for your time.” Always give a minimum of 24hrs (48hrs is better) if you’re unable to make the meeting. Remember that Skype calls can happen anywhere with wifi, so if you can find a space to join the meeting, then do so rather than cancel (and if it’s properly planned, it won’t take too long anyways!).
Freelancers, make sure your contract with any client states the meeting cancellation time period. Set those boundaries early on to prevent yourself losing time because of poorly organised clients!
2) Set an agenda and a clear purpose
A meeting with several people should always be set in advance via a scheduling tool such as Google Calendar, with a clear purpose -- whether it be a weekly meeting, or a one-off get together. An agenda can be as simple as a couple of dot points via Slack or email prior to the meeting, or even a Google Doc that everyone has access to. Whatever you choose, setting a clear agenda gives the meeting structure and helps guide the meeting to be the best possible use of everyone’s time. Use a tool like World Time Buddy if there are multiple time zones at play.
Lastly, make sure it’s clear from the get-go where information from the meeting should be shared. I’ve been on calls where I’m getting an email from one attendee, someone dropped a link into Skype chat, and yet another into Slack. This is confusing. Keep it simple and share all via one channel (often preferably Slack) so everyone can easily refer to it post-meeting.
3) Forget the small talk
Some of the best remote meetings I’ve attended forget the small talk. Of course, we’re still friendly to each other and say hello but time isn’t wasted on talking about what we all did over the weekend. This can be chatted about on Slack or privately with those interested – this is meeting time, so best to keep it focused on this and potentially finish up early!
4) Invite only who’s necessary
You want to avoid “too many cooks”. This is one of the most common mistakes with meetings in traditional offices, so don’t make this one online as well. Some online technology won't allow more than a certain number of attendees (eg. Skype), so you will be forced to keep it strictly to who’s the most relevant to the meeting.
Of course, if it’s a team meeting, then the whole team needs to be invited (Zoom and Google Hangout can handle bigger teams), but if it’s to discuss a project or campaign in more specifics (beyond your Slack and project management tool such as Asana), then keep it to the most relevant people. Updates for the broader team can be shared in Slack.
5) Headphones are a must
Headphones make it easier for effective listening and are worth using for every call. Headphones with the microphone component are best for clearer sound, standard headphones will do the job but of course, you can invest in higher quality headphones from brands like Sennheiser or Bose if you make many calls. Just be mindful though that when using video, “big cans” might have better sound or “experience” for your gaming, but they can look slightly ridiculous during an important meeting. Consider what is most presentable yet also fits your needs and requirements for your call.
6) Ensure a quiet location
Consider your location prior to joining the call and assess how loud it is. Cafes aren’t always the best location for a Skype call, the sound of a coffee machine or people talking in the background can be distracting for attendees when you speak (even if you have the mute button the rest of the time). Basically, the quieter the background, the better. If you need a drink and are on video, keep it simple to a cup of tea or glass of water. Save the big iced coffee for devouring afterwards while processing the meeting’s learnings.
Don’t be afraid to use the mute button if you’re not speaking and be mindful of any noises you might be making while on the call. They may not physically see you, but they might hear you! Some specific noises such as cutting nails (yes, I have heard this before), eating chips etc will be picked up, so stay focused on the call, listen intently and keep noises to the unavoidable but understandable– eg typing notes.
7) Be presentable (if using video)
You may not be physically with the attendees, but if you decide to use video, you need to make sure you still look presentable for the meeting. Just because it's 8am doesn’t mean you can be excused for rolling out of bed and into the meeting looking a wreck. Be professional and ready in advance. You don’t need to be glammed up, but for both men and women, a presentable outfit, basic jewellery, brushed or combed hair and a a fresh face will make an impact. Oh and wear pants, not PJs!
Oh and don’t forget what is displaying BEHIND you on camera. If you have personal or work-related lists/notes on a wall behind you, remove them or consider a different location. No one wants to see your partner cooking, a TV on, or your drying laundry either (puppies are an exception). Do a quick scan before the meeting with your camera on to make sure you have a presentable background for the meeting.
8) Share your screen carefully
So you’re deep in the meeting, decide to share screens to showcase an important point and boom, all of a sudden everyone has a quick insight into your personal browsing history for the morning, your bookmarks toolbar, desktop files for other clients, or that silly desktop image that you find funny but isn’t exactly professional. It might be a minor thing but it could potentially be viewed as a negative by a client, so if sharing screens, create a new window and only show that. Do a quick tidy up prior to the meeting (good excuse to keep things organised anyways) just in case.
9) Have a back-up plan
OK, technology isn’t always reliable, so it’s important to have a back-up plan. For some reason, I often have issues with Skype being stable at times so always have Google Hangout ready to go in case. For Internet dropouts, I also keep a mobile wifi device handy to move to if it is a very important meeting that will be greatly affected if I lose connection. Be proactive and ready to handle anything. If you do have any issues beyond your control, make sure you have Slack or email access on your phone to let the team know why you disappeared from the call unexpectedly.
Meetings don't need to be stressful or hard work. They should be a great opportunity to nut things out (faster than typing it out online), solve a problem collectively or touch base with the client (or team). Don't let the above tips cause you anxiety, just be prepared, keep it focused and enjoy hearing each other's voices for a change!
Of course, with technology like Slack, most meetings can be avoided but if you do need to have one, make sure you do it right. Respect the time of the attendees and most importantly, yours as well. Make sure it’s a productive use of everyone’s time, and ultimately, you’ll walk away motivated and ready to attack the next steps with a smile!