Up until 2020, collaborating remotely was commonplace for those, such as myself, who work in a distributed setup: my team and stakeholders are scattered across the globe and although we were all aligned on the hurdles and problems we face while trying to make remote works, it doesn't mean it was always easy.
If you happen to be a newcomer to collaborating remotely—especially due to the work-related changes triggered by the pandemic—the thought of interacting exclusively through a screen can seem daunting. I can understand what you may be going through. As we don't know what the future holds, you might be waiting for the "normal way of working" to return or you have accepted there's a new reality you'll have to deal with. I believe you'll eventually have to adapt: at Thoughtworks we see the current changes impacting our industry in the long run.
This article shares tips and tricks learned the hard way while working on distributed teams. They’re intended to be easy to implement, hopefully making your adaptation to remote less stressful. I've split them into four parts: preparing, kickstarting, running and closing a session.
Note: I use Zoom and Mural for my remote sessions, so this advice focuses on those tools. Similar features may exist with other tools and advice is generally still applicable.
1. Preparing the session. The first step for running a remote session is to decide on what type of meeting you will have. The suggestions below are helpful for many different types of sessions, but especially for those that should be more interactive. As previously mentioned, we'll be using Zoom here, so go to your profile and make sure that the settings below are properly set up. These preferences will be found both in the meeting room preferences page and at your Zoom user profile page. Keep in mind that only the owner and co-hosts are allowed to edit meetings preferences.
Make sure the raise hand feature is turned on for your room. This is a lifesaver when facilitating large groups because it enables people to signal when they want or need to speak.
Enable the waiting room feature. That way you can make any last-minute changes with your teammates without having external participants join early.
Add alternate hosts (ideal setup is two + main host). The co-hosts can see who has raised their hands and un-raise hands after the person has started speaking. They can also accept users from the waiting room, record meetings, and more.
Activate nonverbal feedback. By doing this you can use the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ feature, for instance. People can also visually indicate that the presenter should move slower or faster.
Take advantage of the polling feature, which can be prepared in advance or during the meeting and you can choose whether or not to make it anonymous. It can be handy to collect information that will help you make last-minute decisions, such as whether or not to present a certain topic.
You have the option to remove the Zoom chat feature for all participants, but I would recommend maintaining it and having a facilitator keep an eye on it.
When it comes to chatting, you can agree with co-facilitators to use your preferred chat app (Hangouts, Slack, etc) to talk to each other or discuss questions in a secure and private way.
The breakout room feature is amazing for large groups. It allows facilitators to move participants into smaller virtual rooms. So, if you’re looking for a more hands-on experience or collaborative setup, make sure you have enabled it and learned how it works. It's pretty simple but can be tricky, so make sure you test it!
If possible, send the agenda and any recommended pre-reading in advance! This helps non-native speakers and introverts feel more empowered to share their perspectives and feel more comfortable during the session.
2. Kickstarting the session. Before starting the session, welcome people into the "room" and explain you’re allowing a couple of minutes for everyone to get ready, get something to drink, eat or use the restroom. Once most of your guests are good to go, share some recommendations so they know what’s expected from them:
Be sure to mute notifications from your chat and/or phone to avoid distractions out of respect for your attendees.
For larger groups (over 6 people can be considered a large group), explain at the beginning of the call that you want them to use the ‘raise hand’ feature.
Communicate that the goal is to give everyone a chance to speak and share thoughts or concerns.
Ask participants to try it out (generally one or two people won't know how to use it) to help them feel empowered to join the conversation.
Ask participants to keep their cameras on at all times, which helps establish a sense of connection.
This can’t be mandatory—because their connection may be unstable or their work area may not be tidy—but by requesting this, you will get more people using their cameras and paying closer attention to the session.
Share this right away so those who weren't prepared to turn on their cameras can do so.
Remind all participants (and yourself) to speak in a mindful way: as clearly as possible, in a pace that fits the audience, so everyone feels included in the conversation.
If there are non native English speaking participants, try using plain English and avoiding too many expressions, so that language doesn't get in the way.
This is always useful, because probably, someone's connection is flaky and this will help them out as well.
If you keep Zoom chat available, ask participants not to use it for side discussions. This way you keep focus on the main speakers.
Explain that attendee participation is crucial for the success of this session and that you're expecting interaction from them (if that’s the case).
As a good starter, ask people to rate their attention for this session: when we acknowledge that we're coming from some other activity or distraction, we can reset our mindset for better focus. Give people a minute to make a change that will help them to focus, maybe give them some examples such as turn off their notifications, get a glass of water, close a door... and then start!
3. Running the session. A lot of things can happen at the same time during the call, so plan to have a backup facilitator in case your internet connection fails. Consider these tips:
When you are sharing your screen, close all personal applications (such as a personal messaging app) or browser tabs.
I always prefer sharing only the window that will be used instead of sharing my entire desktop. This helps participants focus exclusively on what you’re talking about and not wonder what it's on your personal chat or email.
Have a facilitator to be the timekeeper! Also, consider building in time for breaks: people are people and they will get tired and/or need to use the restroom, get some water, etc.
Some tools such as Mural have a built-in timer that you can take advantage of. You can always use your phone's timer, too.
Keep an eye on participants’ faces. By doing this, you get visual feedback directly from their facial reactions and expressions; use this to define next steps of the call.
By clicking on gallery mode you can have everyone's camera visible at the same time. This can help you make sure everyone is following along. You can also notice if, for example, someone looks confused or is not paying attention.
Keep an eye on the chat! Do not let side discussions go on without addressing them. If the discussion on the chat is more interesting, people will shift their focus from the facilitation to the chat discussion.
Use your preferred chat group (Hangouts, Slack, etc) to talk to co-facilitators and discuss questions, concerns or last-minute changes in a secure and private way.
I don’t recommend using the Zoom chat for private messages between facilitators as you can end up accidentally sending a private message to all participants.
When selecting people to speak, don't simply follow the order of who raised their hands first; instead, consider getting a diverse perspective. For example, if there are less women or BIPOC during the call, give them more opportunities to share their thoughts so it's not a meeting dominated by men.
When you start an activity and you expect participants to do something, having a slide where you display, step by step, what is expected from them is a nice thing to do. This helps people understand what they have to do and feel empowered to join the activity while doing their best.
4. Closing the session. The feeling your guests have at the end of the meeting will shape how they feel about the entire session. Remember to properly summarize and close out your session!
Synthesise what happened during the session and pinpoint follow-up actions or expectations from participants.
Tell them how much you appreciate their time. Acknowledge that you empathize with how hard it can be to sit in front of the computer for long periods of time without losing focus.
Always ask for feedback from participants, so you can improve your next sessions and recognize what works best for this group of people. You can do this anonymously or not.
For anonymous feedback, you can simply use the Zoom poll feature.
I personally prefer knowing who suggested which piece of feedback so that I can follow up with them later on. To do this, I recommend setting up a form using any tool of preference and send them the link where their name is a mandatory field.
If you’re comfortable with your attendees and feel you’ve established trust, you can simply ask for feedback as a discussion at the end of the session.
Lastly, follow up with an email including references, slide decks used during the session, a brief summary of actions plus anything else you feel that can be useful for participants.
It sounds like a lot, right? I assure you it's not! Transitioning from in-person to remote meetings can be challenging, however it’s possible to adapt and hold effective sessions in a digital environment. As facilitators, we should do our best to make sure guests feel excited, empowered and comfortable about joining a remote session! With some practice, these arrangements become second nature and you’ll be running successful and interactive sessions in no time.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.