Virtual meetings can be a challenge for law firms with multiple offices. If communication isn’t handled with care, these meetings can promote an “us vs. them” culture. Virtual teammates are 2.5 times more likely to perceive mistrust, incompetence, broken commitments, and bad decision making with distant colleagues than those who are co-located.1
However, if virtual meetings are run properly, they can be used to foster connections and build teams. If you’re the person whose called the meeting, you have a responsibility to ensure that not only is the meeting an effective use of everyone’s time, but that you do no harm to intra-office relationships. If you do a good job of leading the meeting, you can build better working relationships with your practice group, committees and client teams.
Video is better than audio
Without being able to see people as they speak, it’s not only harder to hear, but it’s more difficult to process what is being said. Without visual clues, you can’t always tell when people are not understanding or agreeing.2
It’s too easy for attendees to become distracted when no one is watching. It is almost a certainty that, at best, your colleagues will be multitasking or, at worst, getting a coffee.
An agenda is not an option
The agenda should identify the following:
- topics for discussion
- who will lead the discussion of each topic
- the time allocated to discuss each topic
Err on the side of over-estimating time. People will be grateful if the meeting ends early and unhappy if it runs late.
For lengthy meetings, build in breaks for attendees to check their emails and respond to telephone calls. Ask attendees to confine these activities to the designated breaks, to the extent possible.
More will be said about agendas below.
Circulate written materials at least 48 hours before the meeting
You can safely assume that attendees have other matters of equal importance and urgency on their desks. It’s not respectful of their time to circulate materials without giving them enough time to review them. Attendees will not be able to meaningfully contribute without having read the materials, thus diluting your meeting’s effectiveness. Further, attendees will be annoyed at your apparent lack of organizational abilities and disrespect for their time.
Be generous with information. It can fill the void that distance creates and helps to offset the distrust that can plague intra-office relationships.
If, for reasons beyond your control, you know that the written materials cannot be circulated in a timely manner, borrow a page from Jeff Bezos and allocate reading time in your agenda.
Last, if there must be PowerPoint, keep it to two or three slides or expect silent groans from your colleagues. Long presentations at meetings are hard to sit through at the best of times; they are worse in a virtual setting.
“Circle the table” (twice)
A recent Harvard Business Review article noted that when we are physically together, we can demand attention with “coercive eye contact”. In situations where we can’t demand attention with “ocular oppression”, we need to create a structure to ensure that attendees are attentive and participatory.3
A simple checklist or chart can help with this. For meetings with many agenda items that require discussion (vs. informational items), make a chart. List the name of every attendee under the heading for each discussion item. Beside each attendee’s name place two columns, one labelled “Discussion” and the other “Decision”. Creating the chart takes next to no time and you can even draw it by hand in those first few minutes while people are joining the meeting and greeting each other (but you’ll look more organized if it’s prepared beforehand). Let attendees know that you’ll be “circling the table” for each item and checking names off the chart to ensure that everyone has been heard at both the discussion and decision phases of the meeting. Of course, people are free to pass on contributing to the discussion. The important thing is that everyone is invited to speak.
If you don’t have many items on your agenda or you have only a handful of attendees, simply make a list of attendees and put a checkmark by their name as you circle the table each time.
Circling the table addresses three typical problems in virtual meetings.
- People talking over each other. If everyone knows that you will circle the table before the discussion ends, they know that they will get a turn. This may blunt their inclination to interrupt.
- Individuals dominating the discussion. Here’s where an agenda comes in handy. You’ve allocated a certain amount of time to the item. When it becomes clear that not everyone will get a chance to speak because one person is dominating the discussion, tell the speaker that you want to be respectful of the allocated time and that you’ll circle the table, and return to him/her once everyone else has had a chance to speak, time permitting.
- Inattention. Knowing that you’re going to be called upon forces you to more meaningfully engage in the meeting. It inhibits attendees from becoming casual observers. The casual observer role is an easy role to slip into in virtual meetings, particularly if you know you no one is expecting you to contribute.
By circling the table, none of the attendees will feel ignored or disrespected. (Lawyers are famously thin-skinned.) This process is less time consuming than it sounds. It shuts down people who can’t stop talking and eliminates the timewaster of people talking over each other. People who have nothing to say will pass, but at least have an opportunity to speak. It’s also a good way to encourage introverts and junior lawyers to participate.
Finish the meeting with these questions
- Does anyone have anything else to say or ask that has not yet been expressed?
- Are we clear about who will take actions and when those actions will be finished?4
It’s hard to lead a meeting, take minutes, and stay on top of a chart. If possible,
delegate tasks. It’s yet another way to engage your colleagues across the miles.
- How to Raise Sensitive Issues During a Virtual Meeting by Joseph Grenny, Harvard Business Review, March 14, 2017
- What Everyone Should Know About Running Virtual Meetings by Paul Axtell, Harvard Business Review, April 14, 2016
- How to Get People to Actually Participate in Virtual Meetings by Justin Hale and Joseph Grenny, Harvard Business Review, March 09, 2020
Copyright © 2020 Deborah Glatter. All rights reserved. Do not copy without attribution to the author.