How Management Teams Are Adapting to COVID-19 With More Effective Remote Meetings

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The COVID-19 crisis has prompted thousands of companies to shift to a remote work model. One of the most pressing issues that management teams are dealing with today is learning how to adopt new skills and strategies for operating meetings in the remote environment.

Summit Leadership Partners recently hosted a discussion with our CEO Dan Hawkins and special guest Dr. Steven Rogelberg, professor of organizational science at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Dr. Rogelberg is an expert on meetings, and is author of a book called “The Surprising Science of Meetings.”

Here are a few of the highlights and insights from our discussion on “Managing Your Business Remotely: Advice for Top Management Teams.”

Management Teams Are Meeting Differently

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, management teams were typically meeting once a month. Now, they’re meeting once or twice per day.

“In the early days of the pandemic, we were seeing management team meetings focused on crisis management, reacting to hourly, minute-by-minute information, with a focus on protecting employees, customers, and business continuity,” Dan Hawkins said.

In the past few weeks, after the initial upheaval and uncertainty passed, the situation has stabilized a bit. Management teams now have started to focus their meetings on future planning.

“In the last three to five weeks, I’ve seen management team meetings shifting their focus to addressing the business outlook for the future,” Dan Hawkins said. “Instead of worrying about these hour-by-hour decisions, teams are now talking about furloughs, layoffs, how to conserve cash, and how to plan for the next month, the next six months.”

Successfully Setting Up Remote Meetings

To have a more effective remote meeting, it’s important to understand the unique dynamics of helping people be their best in that virtual space. Dr. Steven Rogelberg offered a few key tips for how to set up an effective remote meeting:

  • Don’t invite too many people. “Remote meeting quality plummets as meeting size increases,” Dr. Rogelberg said. Identify the core people who need to participate, and then make the meeting available by recording to any secondary audience members.
  • Use video to avoid “social loafing.” Using video for remote meetings helps make it more “real” and participatory for people, instead of just listening in on a call. When people don’t feel identifiable on a meeting or in a virtual space, they tend to not work as hard. This is called “social loafing.”
  • Keep it short. “Don’t just default to an hour,” Dr. Rogelberg said. “Don’t be afraid to have a meeting for 35 minutes or 20 minutes.” Having less time to meet can sometimes focus the minds of your meeting participants. “Research shows that when groups are under moderate amounts of pressure, they even perform more optimally,” Dr. Rogelberg said.
  • Focus the agenda. Your meeting agenda should be framed as a series of specific questions to be answered.

Managing a Remote “War Room”

Today’s meetings among management teams have taken on a “war room” feel. C-suite leaders are convening remotely for tactical planning and crisis response, with a focus on key issues such as status of the pandemic, supply chain/value chain, cash flow planning, and communication to employees.

“Many CEOs are not actually leading these meetings,” Dan Hawkins said. “Instead, each C-suite leader has a role, whether it’s technology, people, or cash. The CEO will make the final decision if necessary, but they’re letting their direct reports take the lead and be the authority in their given area.”

Dr. Rogelberg describes this situation as a process of “engaging intellectual capital.” Instead of a top-down command structure where the CEO leads the meeting and makes all the decisions, CEOs in today’s war room environment are serving as facilitators who bring together the right intellectual capital and try to build consensus for better-informed decisions.

Here are a few tips from Dr. Rogelberg for effective “war room” meeting facilitation:

  • Active facilitation: Draw attendees in, keep track of who’s contributing.
  • Read the room: Be dialed in to the dynamics of the meeting. Directly ask for input, call for people by name, and be willing to interrupt if someone is rambling.
  • Make time for silent brainstorming. While your team is meeting, you can also engage with silent brainstorming via a shared Google Doc or Dropbox folder. Let people comment silently if needed, use a voting app, or contribute to a shared document for notes or information gathering.

Managing effective remote meetings is a new skill set for leaders, but it will be an essential strategy for management team for the foreseeable future. The old ways of in-person meetings are not likely to come back, even after this crisis ends.

Thank you to Dr. Steven Rogelberg for participating in our discussion! To hear a recording of the conversation, click here.