Remote 202: How to Join a Meeting

Photo by Jordan Epperson on Unsplash (edited)

“What do you mean, ‘How to join a meeting’?! You click a button, doofus!”

Yes, dear friends, and that is exactly the problem. If you’re not accustomed to remote work, you may not dwell much on the mechanical processes of remote interaction. It’s just always awkward, isn’t it? Every meeting starts with several minutes of fumbling with microphones and cameras and “Can you hear me now?” With each new person who arrives, the whole dance starts over again.

But what if I told you it doesn’t have to be like this? That it is, in fact, possible to have a remote meeting start on time, with everyone present and audible and ready to work? All it takes is a little preparation and a few organizational adjustments.

Take a Break

First and foremost, don’t schedule meetings back-to-back. Even the most plugged-in manager needs time to breath, stretch, use the bathroom, drink some water, and check their email. Ten minutes is not enough, especially since most meetings run ten minutes late anyway. A half-hour break is the minimum you can realistically get away with. An hour is better.

“But with half-hour breaks in between, how will I have time for six meetings per day?” You won’t. That’s the point. No one can sustain that many context-switches and still make meaningful contributions. With half as many meetings, and time to reset and gather your thoughts in between, you will be twice as productive.

Start Early

Secondly, start meetings early. That doesn’t mean the work of the meeting should start before its scheduled time, but that people should begin interacting in a virtual space before the scheduled start time.

My pre-meeting ritual looks something like this:

At T-minus-10 minutes, I get a notification from my calendar that the meeting is coming. I take a few minutes to wrap up whatever I’m working on and make a note of what I was planning to do next, so I can pick up where I left off.

Next, I check that my computer is ready for a meeting: headset plugged in, wired network connection in place, camera cover open. I turn on more lights so the camera image is clear. If you have a Zoom shirt, this is the time to put it on as well.

At T-minus-5 minutes, I join the video call. This means I have plenty of time to open the correct app, find the meeting link or access code, and restart that app or even my whole computer as many times as needed until it works. If the app offers a way to do it, I will test that my headset is working correctly.

Once I know I can connect to the meeting, I leave my desk. That’s right, I walk away and leave the camera pointed at my empty chair. Why do I do this? Well, I still want to take care of any physical needs before the meeting starts: use the bathroom, get a drink of water, eat a snack, etc. The video feed of my empty chair is there to assure other people that I will be participating in the meeting.

It’s disconcerting to join a videoconference and see no one else there. Doubts creep in: Do I have the right “room,” did everyone get the invitation, are they going to be here? Having everyone visible before the scheduled start — even just an empty chair — puts those fears to rest before they start.

Do not join the meeting without turning on your camera. That leaves everyone else in doubt — are you really there, or just your avatar? If I say hello, will they hear? The empty chair is a clear indication, “I will be here, but I am not yet here.”

By T-minus-2 minutes, I’m back at my desk. The meeting should not start early, even if everyone is present. Instead, use this time as you would in an actual office — chat with your coworkers, talk about the weather, share stories of your kids/pets or your progress in Animal Crossing. This gives an opportunity to sort out any audio/video issues with less stress. It’s also acceptable to use this time to make some last-minute notes on the work you left before the meeting.

By time T, the scheduled start time of the meeting, everyone should be present, connected, visible, audible, and ready to begin. The meeting organizer should announce the start, briefly state the goals of the meeting, and move forward with the agenda. You do have an agenda, don’t you?

The Elephant in the Zoom

I should acknowledge, of course, that all these recommendations imply certain lifestyle advantages. As a solo consultant and software developer, I rarely have more than one meeting per day. I almost always have the least calendar-pressure of anyone in that meeting. “Start thinking about a meeting 10 minutes early” is easy for me to say, much harder for others to do.

But I remain convinced that organizations which encourage a back-to-back meeting schedule are chasing a mirage of productivity they will never reach. Their employees are constantly distracted, stressed, and operating at less than half their potential. They don’t have enough attention bandwidth for the number of topics thrown at them daily.

“Go faster” has been the default in business for decades. But sometimes the only way to really get somewhere is to slow down.

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