Virtual meetings have become part of our lives – especially in the past two years. But for remote-first companies such as ours, remote meetings have been the norm for a very long time. And when you’re working remote and async, you learn a thing or two on how to make every minute of an online meeting count. In this article, we’ll share some tried and tested tips for successful online meetings, including helpful insight from our operations and development experts!

1. Do you really need a meeting?

We’ve all experienced that one hour meeting that could have easily been an email. Meetings can be beneficial – but they can also hamper overall productivity. Writing for Harvard Business Review, Elizabeth Grace Saunders recommends asking these questions before scheduling a meeting: “Have I thought through this situation? Do I need outside input to make progress? Does moving forward require a real-time conversation?” 

If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to all these questions, it’s time to schedule that meeting – and move on to our next tips! If not – go ahead and send that email.

2. Choose the right platform for your online meeting

There are many options available for hosting online meetings and each brings something specific to the table. As an example: if you already know you’ll need over an hour for your meeting, then a call through a free zoom account is not advisable as it will cut you off at the 40-minute mark. You should also consider if the tool you’re using is available to everyone you’re inviting to the meeting. 

3. Set a meeting agenda and assign roles

Having a well-thought agenda helps the meeting move smoothly, and ensures that you don’t leave anything out! You can include the agenda in the meeting invite, together with the person responsible for that item, so that everyone invited is aware of what will be discussed and, if necessary, prepare ahead.

4. Include meeting notes/documents

For more effective, real-time online collaboration, provide background notes, and all applicable documents ahead of time so that attendees can have sufficient time to prepare. This is especially true for Development meetings: “Where possible, and to best prepare for Dev meetings, participants should ideally do any outside research before the meeting”, says Thomas, Ciloo’s Head of Technology. “As an example, if the meeting is about gathering data from an API, we dedicate some time to study it so that we don’t go into the meeting blind. Sometimes we study the authentication mechanisms of an API or study some of the available API calls and we also try to get up to speed on the language and terms/glossary used in the API. Each API uses its own terminology and glossary so this step is important”.

5. Stick to the agenda

Sticking to the agenda is as important as preparing one. When the discussion seems to veer off from what was initially planned, identify the issue and schedule it for discussion at one of your upcoming meetings. This allows you to return to the topic at hand and to meet that meeting’s goals.

6. Preempt follow-up questions

Guus, Ciloo’s Head of Operations, finds it helpful to take stock of any potential issues that may come up post-meeting. “Towards the end of the call, reflect on whether you expect any other questions to pop-up. If so, and if time allows, tackle them immediately to avoid stalls and reduce the amount of follow-up communication required.”

7. Identify an end goal

“For Dev meetings, we always go into the meeting with an end goal,” says Thomas. Having an end goal ensures that the meeting stays on track. “Sometimes the purpose of the meeting is to brainstorm ways we can build something, and we will try to get 1-2 solutions out of that call with a preference for one.” 

8. Map the way forward

Assign note-taking to an attendee or jot down notes yourself. As Guus explains, “once the meeting is over, share these points with all meeting participants to avoid loss of value or a need to retrace all steps”. Meeting notes should include all agreed points, actionable steps and the persons assigned to them.

9. To co-work or not to co-work

Live work sessions might look good on paper, but don’t always work out in practice. “Sometimes we do live working sessions but they can also be massive time killers, especially if the scope isn’t laid out beforehand,” notes Thomas. He says that for live coding, they found it’s better not to set a time limit to the meeting, and work at a relaxed pace instead. However, there are downsides to this, too. “Some programmers don’t program that well when they are in a call, as they get distracted by people talking or noises within the call itself. This can have unintended consequences, like not fully thought out programming solutions as they feel an urgency and apply a fix with the aim of not keeping others in the call waiting. Personally, I believe live working sessions are good for frontend visual development as it allows for multiple eyes to view changes as they come in; for any other type of development we prefer to do it off-call and use our calls to mainly figure out the technical scope”. In this case, you should see what works best for your programmers, and plan accordingly.

10. Don’t forget the social aspect

“Spend a moment on the social aspect”, says Guus. “One of the downsides of async might be the lack of human interaction, even more so than with synchronous remote working. We recognize we’re human and we also want to have fun interacting with our team members, partners and clients.”

Arriving at a place where you get the most out of your meetings when working remotely and async takes time. This is because what might work for one team, might not have the ideal results for another. That said, the ten tips outlined above should get you sorted quicker. Meetings do work, but only when they’re actually needed and are planned well!