Frustrated when your online meeting starts 15 minutes late because participants struggle to join? Annoyed by the barking dogs, background traffic and participant chatter? Can’t wait until this badly run meeting is over? If this is your experience as a participant, think about how poorly this reflects on the meeting chair and the firm’s IT support. If you are a meeting organizer or chair, you can control many of the problems, and save your reputation, by trying some of these tips.
This article addresses two types of meetings: (1) group conference calls, and (2) video conferences on platforms like Zoom or Go to Meeting. Tech preparation for the video conferences is more extensive. As chair of a meeting, you have to team with IT to fully understand the tools on the platform and be able to use them without much support. For example, on a conference call platform, can you mute all participants from the call originator? On a video call, do you know how to share the slides on your screen with others, then stop sharing?
Tech Tips Sheet
Working with IT, prepare a “tech tips sheet” that will go to all participants in advance. Some typical tips will include:
- First-time users should log on 15 minutes ahead of the start time, and have a “help” text number or email address to contact IT with concerns.
- All participants should be able to locate their “mute sound” buttons – phone, laptop or in the video platform.
- Know how to stop video and start it (while maintaining audio).
- Recommend that participants wear earbuds and use a headset if they plan to speak.
- Indicate the location and function of chat tool and “hands up” tool (on video platforms).
- Identify the meeting code (and password if required) with a colored link.
- Set out the “normal mode” expected for the meeting (e.g., all participants on mute until asked to speak).
Circulate the tips sheet when the call is first announced and again on the morning of the call.
An informative agenda, with suggested timing for each item, will help the chair keep the meeting on track. Timing should be in real time. For a 10:00 a.m. meeting, the overview and first information item might take seven minutes. The next item would be set for 10:07 a.m. In a video platform, you can share a slide of the agenda every 10 to 15 minutes, just as you would ask participants to look at their printed agenda in a live meeting.
I recommend an annotation for each agenda item. Is the item a matter for discussion and decision? Or is it for information? These codes will determine how to handle the item, as I discuss later. They also help you to sequence the agenda, with most information items toward the end. If you don’t get to them, you have other means to disseminate information.
If there is a presentation, and perhaps a different presenter, indicate something like “Jane Smith to present” beside the item.
At the top of the agenda, state the start and stop time in the time zone of the chair. I recommend 45 minutes for most meetings. Massive amounts of billable time are being consumed in most law firm meetings; remote work meetings could be worse. As with tech tips, send the agenda when the call is announced and again the morning of the meeting.
During the Meeting
The chair should start on time and should immediately request that all participants mute sound, and then direct them on video participation (camera-sharing or not). Refer them to the tech tips sheet then, again, start on time – no matter how many participants have joined.
Information Agenda Items – Protocols
If you have information items (updates, financial reports, directing participants to other reading, etc.), put one of these first on the agenda. This lets latecomers join while the meeting is not yet in discussion mode. Save other information items for “need to know” in advance of a discussion item or for the end of the agenda.
In a video platform, show a slide of the timed agenda and state your hope that the group can respect the allocated timing (but also demonstrate some flexibility). Whether in a conference call or on a video meeting, I recommend that comments and questions about information items should not take up meeting time. On conference calls, those comments or questions can be sent to your assistant’s email or a Slack channel. On video platforms, ask participants to type their comments in the chat pod of the platform. You will review and deal with them offline.
Discussion and Decision Items – Protocols
Items that are marked for discussion and decision can be managed with the acronym DAPS: Discussion, Decision, Action, Person, Summary.
Discussion and Decision
The chair should state the agenda item and the time allocation, then frame the decision to be made (e.g., “We’re here to decide whether to add two junior associates to the litigation department”).
To control discussion, a chair can benefit from the protocols of air traffic controllers (ATCs). ATCs are efficient and inclusive in their communications. Here’s an example:
ATC: “Delta 350”
Pilot: “Delta 350”
ATC: “Maintain 25,000 feet, to heading 270, call at beacon.”
Pilot: “Maintain 25,000, heading 270, call at beacon, 350”
This entire conversation can be heard by everyone on that radio frequency.
In a conference or video call with large numbers, it is more often a free-for-all than air-traffic efficiency. The first and loudest voice is heard – perhaps more often than most would care for. The chair can use the following protocols to avoid chaos and manage discussion:
- If you expect multiple speakers on an issue, ask for the names of those who want to contribute. Keep a speakers’ list.
- Recognize a speaker by name, and ask them to unmute.
- If there are subgroups by practice or by geography, canvass each group (e.g., “We’ll start with contributions from the Phoenix office”).
- Consider giving the speaker a time guideline, as TV interviewers do: “Jim, we have about a minute left.”
- Close that contribution with a thank you and a “please mute” suggestion.
- Toward the end of each item, ask for any additional speakers or limit to a couple more.
- State your view of the consensus. Votes tend to be infrequent in this type of meeting. Then declare a decision: “We’re going ahead with those two hires for this fall.”
Further action is usually required to implement the decision. The chair should state that action or ask for action. For example, on the hiring decision, the chair might say that he’ll put it in the hands of the recruiting committee. A participant might suggest that the diversity committee be involved as well.
The chair should name the person responsible to carry out the decision and report back, where that is warranted. Too many law firm decisions are left with no accountability or implied accountability, and timely implementation doesn’t happen.
Like the pilot receiving ATC instructions, the chair should succinctly summarize the decision, action and person. Ideally, a separate note-taker for the meeting will record this.
Video Call Practices
A video call, most often a webinar platform, has a tech method for recognizing speakers. There is a “hands up” tool that allows participants to raise a hand virtually, and thus signal that they wish to contribute. Here again, an assistant to the chair could help by taking down the names from the “hands up” tool. Your tech tips sheet will illustrate how to find and use that tool. Don’t take time in the call to try to train a user. In fact, even for a conference call, I think that a video platform, with audio only, is superior to traditional conference-call technology. You can present, you can mute speakers on most platforms, you can have a chat room and a “hands up” tool.
My colleagues at Edge suggest that for smaller video meetings (ten participants or fewer), a chair can ask for “hands up” in the old-fashioned way – by looking at the Zoom screen and seeing who has a raised hand.
A recent article from the New York Times offers a broader consideration of video call best practices.
Whether you realize it or not, your leadership reputation is going to be tested by conference-call and video-call management. We’re tempted to blame the problems on the users. Instead, meeting organizers should get ahead of the tech-challenged users, set timed agendas, start on time and follow proven protocols for efficient meetings of remote work forces. It’s a measure of effective leadership.