Establish ground rules to smooth out your virtual meetings

The best meetings, remote or in person, have ground rules; a code of conduct that establishes expected behavior and standards for all attendees to meet. Virtual meeting ground rules must go beyond in-person expectations to be effective, as they need to accommodate for tech and the physical separation of attendees.

At this point, we’ve all had many months to become accustomed to meeting virtually. Some love it and some hate it, but either way, it seems that virtual meetings are here to stay – at least, they aren’t going anywhere any time soon. If your virtual meetings still aren’t going smoothly – perhaps they lack engagement or perhaps they’re a little chaotic – it may be time to go back to basics. Virtual meetings cannot be treated like in-person meetings put online. They are a different beast entirely and therefore demand an entirely new set of expectations. If you haven’t established ground rules for your remote team’s virtual meetings (or if your rules need an update), here’s how to get started.

Pro-tip: use our Virtual Work Guide to facilitate quality work with a distributed team.

Playing Your Part

Set your team up for success by introducing ground rules with enough notice to allow everyone to process and take the rules to heart. The advanced delivery of your agenda and any virtual tools that may be used is a perfect opportunity to introduce your ground rules. This will allow participants to visualize them in context with the upcoming meeting’s scheduled content.

It can be beneficial to explain why each rule exists; if participants understand why they are being asked to do something rather than feeling obligated to follow an arbitrary rule, they are more likely to cooperate. Explanations should be brief but give your team insight into the positive effect establishing the ground rule will have on the meeting.

Encourage your participants to speak with you privately if they feel they will be unable to follow a ground-rule. This is most likely to come up with matters of a technological nature; participants may have varying access to equipment or may have an issue with appearing on video. Approach these circumstances with understanding. Understand that virtual meetings often bring attendees inside each other’s homes and not everyone has the same level of comfortability with that. Participants may not have room in their home for a private working space, have small children that cannot be relied upon to remain appropriate in front of a camera, or experience a level of self-consciousness or distraction from appearing on camera that will interfere with their ability to remain focused.

Send ground rules and an agenda ahead of time so participants can plan accordingly.

Basic Ground Rules

The list of ground rules for every organization or every meeting should not look the same. They should be tailored to each team’s purpose and each organization’s individual work culture. There are, however, a few baseline rules that are highly likely to appear on most lists.

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  1. Keep muted unless it is your turn to speak: In-person, the person speaking during a discussion is likely to flow back and forth between different people or around the entire room. When this happens virtually, it is nearly impossible to follow who is speaking and what is being said. Participants should keep their mics muted unless it is their turn to speak.
  2. No multi-tasking, even if it’s quick: It is extremely tempting to check an email or send a slack message during a virtual meeting; participants are already on their computers, after all. Everyone must resist this urge. It is too easy for a quick look at one’s inbox to lead down a much more distracting path. Give the meeting your full attention.
  3.  Know how to use tools: Participants must show up to the meeting having already learned how to use any virtual tools provided with the agenda. This may include making an account for some resources. It might also mean that participants need to connect to the meeting via a laptop, not a smartphone if the virtual tools are incompatible or difficult to use with a smartphone.
  4. Turn on video (if you can): Virtual meetings see better connection and engagement if participants appear on video rather than just audio. If participants are able to turn the video on, it is best that they do.

Additional Ground Rules

After you’ve created a list of basic rules, it may be time to add some additional ground rules tailored to your team or organization’s company culture. You may see the best results in terms of both quality and participant compliance if you allow your participants to create these ground rules with you. If you have reoccurring virtual meetings with your team, one of these meetings could be a good time to establish tailored ground rules together. If this is not possible, consider allowing suggestions via Google Form, email, Slack, etc.

Here are some questions to consider or to pose to your participants that will help in establishing ground rules that are a good cultural fit for the team.

  • What time frames should we be available for meetings? What time frames should be off-limits?
  •  How should we handle unforeseen distractions or unexpected issues that need to be attended to during a virtual meeting? How do we signal to others that we must step away without causing a disturbance?
  • How far in advance do we need to know about pre-meeting prep work such as testing a new virtual tool?
  • How long are we comfortable being in a virtual meeting? How often do we need stretch breaks?
  • What method of communication should we use to communicate technical difficulties should they arise?

Try to avoid generating a long list of ground rules. Fewer rules tend to lead to better cooperation from team members–with the ground rules as well as with each other.  If your team raises a lot of matters that they would like incorporated into your list of ground rules, help them consolidate similar or encompassing matters. If you’re still left with too many, help them narrow down the list to what’s most important to them.

Don’t be afraid to revisit this discussion with your team if the list of ground rules turns out to be less than perfect the first time around. Your team is composed of members whose circumstances, attitudes, and experiences may change so it’s okay for your ground rules to do the same.

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