Productive meetings with remote attendees

The most difficult meeting to manage are ones where some attendees dial in, while most attend in person. The chairperson must walk a fine line of balancing the two groups.

Topic suggested by Stanford visiting scholar Niina Nurmi.


How do you run productive meetings, when you have attendees attending both in person and others attending remotely over a phone line?

That’s probably the most complicated constellation to be a chair person of. Some people are there present and others are dialing in.

The number one challenge in my mind is latency. People in one room, they know in a nano second when they can speak and when it’s their turn. People on the phone line need much more time to decide that it’s their time to speak.

As chair person, you must manage the cadence of the meeting. You must stop the meeting at times and ask those who are on the phone to speak up.

If somebody who is in the room is speaking for too long, you have to interrupt them and invite others to speak, because in a meeting with remote attendees, you have to have shorter intervals and you have to have longer breaks between when people are saying something. So that everybody feels good about speaking up, when they have something to say. And if somebody is not speaking up, then you should call out the person and ask for his or her opinion.

Another challenge is knowing who is saying what. Even if we think we know each other, we may be mistaken on the voice. Therefore, as a chair person, you can many times help by saying, “Thank you to Tim” or “this was Jane saying this”. Also if people in the room start making visual gestures that are visual only, you have to explain them. You have to tell those on the line that somebody stepped out of the room, somebody is showing a victory signal, somebody’s going under the table. Whatever it is, you have to explain it to those who are not in that same physical room.

It many times makes sense to repeat what the key points that were said, because in a distributed meeting, not everybody is paying attention at every moment, so you’ll give them a second chance to understand what’s happening.

My final piece of advise is to make a meeting really productive, it’s good to have an instant messaging session or another way for people to type in their comments and questions for everybody to see. This allows for there to be a back channel and a back discussion, that doesn’t disrupt the main discussion, but can add value to it. And you can handle the small questions in writing and let the meeting flow as it should flow.

When you follow these rules, that are simple rules, but not that simple to implement, you can run very productive meetings with both remote attendees and the attendees who are there in person.


Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply