Why You Should Shrink Your Remote Meetings

When you organise a remote meeting, my strong advice is to make it as small as possible. Invite only the people who really need to be there. 

As a facilitator, this makes sense to me on any number of levels. Small meetings are efficient, minimising wasted time (and associated cost). They  reduce groupthink. They tend to keep people engaged, rather than distracted. They are comfortable for a wider range of participants than large meetings. They strengthen relationships. They are flexible and easy to manage. 

But despite all of this, large remote meetings continue to proliferate. Why?

  • Freed of the need to book (and perhaps pay for) a meeting space, and keen to be inclusive, organisers tend to invite everybody who might possibly be interested in the topic. 
  • Freed of the need to travel to the meeting, and perhaps expecting to be able to multi-task throughout or to drop out at the last minute, potential participants tend to accept the invitation more readily than for an in-the-room meeting.

The result is, almost inevitably, another dreadful remote meeting. One or two people will talk. The rest of the group will struggle to pay attention… and eventually become distracted by emails etc. For most of the participants, the meeting might as well not have happened.

Worse, the talkers may get the mistaken impression that whatever they said was heard by the participants. They may even believe that what they said was supported by the participants, and has their full buy-in. If what was said was important, that’s important! 

Larger remote meetings can work in certain circumstances. Over the last few years I’ve facilitated remote meetings that have kept people fully engaged in real conversations, about important stuff, for many hours. 

For example, I organised an online Open Space event to close a recent Remote Forever Summit. It ran for about five hours, timed for the European afternoon, American morning. What we weren’t expecting was that one digital nomad, Andre Wyrwa, called in from a tent in Australia. He intended just to say “hi” – but got so interested that he stayed with us until his last set of batteries ran out, four hours later! He commented afterwards: “I was blown away by the atmosphere, the sense of community. There was a real sense of connection.” 

But, perhaps even more than “IRL”, larger meetings need to be carefully planned to maximise participation and engagement. The multiple possible distractions for participants are tough competition!

Organisers should be crystal clear about the meeting’s objectives, and design the event accordingly.

If the purpose is to broadcast important information to a large group, STOP! Don’t call a remote meeting! There are much more effective ways of spreading a message. Send an email, write a blog post, record an audio or video, and provide a system for Q+A.  (By the way, you do know that a lot of those “live webinars” you see online are in fact recorded, don’t you? The “live” element is faked to generate a sense of urgency/scarcity, in order to get you to buy stuff.)

If the purpose of your meeting is to involve people in making a decision and get their buy-in, design for that. Either in a series of smaller meetings, or one or more larger ones, you could make use of Liberating Structures, most of which work well online. 

Where networking is a part of the meeting objective, numbers still matter. Emily Webber leads Agile In The Ether, an online Agile meetup group and conference. It’s capped at 25 participants per event – and always has a waiting list. She said, “With 25 people (in Zoom) everyone can be seen, and you can really get to know each other.” Similarly, when I worked with large UK voluntary association The RSA to set up online networking events for its Fellows, we set a strict cap on the number of registrations. 

So, I repeat my advice. Make your remote meetings as small as possible! And notice what happens… 

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