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How to lead a productive online meeting that doesn’t suck

Working remotely is a new normal for many companies—evidenced by the fact that people are downloading 30 times more video conferencing apps than they were a few months ago. 

The new working world is full of challenges, and online meetings can be especially tedious. Some employees play Conference Call Bingo to stay sane. Just as in Bingo, they try to fill in an entire row on a board. But on these Bingo boards, people earn points for the inevitable annoying moments that happen during most online meetings. For instance, there’s a space for when someone has terrible reception, a dog starts barking, or a colleague gives a monologue while on mute. The bottom line? Conference Call Bingo may help people find some levity in online meetings, but it demonstrates that keeping a team engaged and productive during remote meetings is not easy.

Whether your company is braving virtual meetings for the first time or you’re looking to improve your digital conference prowess, use the following guidelines to learn how to have a productive meeting, sidestep potential Conference Call Bingo moments, and keep your team engaged.

How to lead a productive online meeting that doesn’t suck

Can everyone see my screen?

Technical issues are one of the most prevalent pitfalls of online meetings. 

In one survey from Owl Labs, 15.4 percent of respondents said their most significant problem was starting the meeting. More than 10 percent of respondents said audio issues held them back. And the most common issue (impacting 18.5 percent of respondents) was sharing screens.

Technical issues come with a hefty price tag. According to the same survey, more than half of respondents say they’ve wasted 10 minutes each meeting on setup, with 83 percent reporting at least three minutes lost. All that wasted time costs U.S. and U.K. companies upwards of $34 billion annually, per research from conference call platform Loopup.

Preparation is the best way to avoid technical issues. Set up your space to make it easier to facilitate your meeting. For example, adjust your monitor or webcam so the camera captures you head on at eye level. Use a document stand to make it easy to glance at your notes. And make sure your room is well-lit with natural light. 

Next, choose the right meeting software for the job. Slack calls have a quick, easy startup and casual feel, making this tool perfect for one-on-one check-ins and impromptu chats. Meanwhile, Zoom takes a few more clicks to start up, but it’s easier to add multiple attendees all at once, and you can create meeting links ahead of time. That makes Zoom a better fit for large, planned meetings.

After you choose your tool(s), make sure all attendees familiarize themselves with this technology ahead of time. On the day of your meeting, log into the meeting room five or 10 minutes early and use the extra time to troubleshoot any surprises. You could also encourage attendees to arrive early for a few minutes of virtual watercooler conversation.

Finally, accept that issues with technology happen. When they do, be patient and have a sense of humor about it. Turn the awkwardness into a relatable moment of vulnerability to build rapport with your team.

Feedback, sirens, and silhouettes

During an in-person meeting, you control the environment. If an ambulance drives by your office, you naturally pause your presentation until it passes. If the sound system returns a high-pitch screech of feedback, you move away from the speakers. And if the room is dark, you open the blinds or turn on more lights. 

In remote meetings, you may not know environmental factors are an issue for attendees, and you have less control over them (unless they’re happening in your own space). But these interruptions can distract both presenters and attendees and leech value away from your call. 

Help attendees avoid distractions by sharing guidelines for remote workspaces in advance of online meetings.

  • Attend from quiet, well-lit areas. 
  • Use headphones to help prevent audio feedback and maintain focus. 
  • Whenever possible, keep a closed door between yourself and pets, kids, or roommates—or at least put your back to a wall so other attendees aren’t distracted while you chase your dog around the room.

In addition, try to plan meetings that work well for attendees’ schedules. Teams spread across time zones will find scheduling calls particularly challenging, so consider rotating meeting times so you don’t need to ask the same staffers to continually start their days early or stay online late.

How to lead a productive online meeting that doesn’t suck

*Awkward silence*

We all dread it: that moment of awkward silence after the team leader asks the group a question. This silence could be a sign of a lack of engagement—or it could reflect how hard it is to build rapport and trust without face-to-face interactions.

According to Doodle’s 2019 State of the Meeting Report, 76 percent of people prefer in-person meetings to other forms, such as video calls. But it’s possible to make virtual meetings even more engaging than in-office conferences.

Experts have discovered that following five rules during virtual meetings can result in 86 percent of attendees feeling just as engaged—if not more so—than they do in physical meetings. Researchers Justin Hale and Joseph Grenny explain these guidelines in a Harvard Business Review article. Here’s a summary.  

  • Rule 1: Make attendees feel the problem, solution, or topic in the first 60 seconds of the meeting. 

Use an anecdote, share provocative statistics, or choose a relatable analogy to grab attention right away.

  • Rule 2: Give each person responsibility for planning or presenting during the meeting.

Beforehand, ask for input on topics to cover and assign those to teammates. Ask people to prepare ideas to share and set the expectation of active discussion. In other words, turn attendees into participants.

  • Rule 3: Solve a problem during the meeting. 

Divide larger meetings into small breakout groups and assign each group a task such as to brainstorm ideas, learn about a topic, or discuss a common pain point. After a few minutes, reconstitute the group and ask a member from each breakout team to present their takeaways.

  • Rule 4: Limit data and slides. 

This type of information can be distributed in detail via email, so don’t waste valuable meeting time on it. Pull a handful of data points together and challenge yourself to present them in as few slides as possible (without using 8-point font).

  • Rule 5: Create interaction every five minutes. 

Avoid talking at attendees for more than a few minutes at a time. Instead, throw out questions, design activities, and ask for feedback throughout the call.

So … how’s the weather over there?

Without an actual watercooler or break room to gather around, it’s hard to build rapport and trust among co-workers. According to the Doodle report linked above, nearly all (95 percent) of people believe that face-to-face interactions are the most effective way to build relationships at work, but that doesn’t mean you can’t rapport digitally, too.

Many leaders plan to spend the first few minutes of a conference call chatting up their teammates, but weekend plans and the weather can only take you so far—especially if you have multiple meetings with the same group throughout the week. Instead, spark more meaningful conversations.

Bake social time into the meeting agenda and think of something other than the weather to discuss. Ask participants to share an interesting fact about themselves or play a quick round of two truths and a lie. Encourage attendees to invite a pet or child to hang out for a few minutes.

If you want to loosen things up, ask people to volunteer to share an embarrassing story about themselves. One study outlined in Harvard Business Review found that when a manager tells an embarrassing story before a brainstorming session, groups generate 26 percent more ideas once the brainstorming gets rolling.

How to lead a productive online meeting that doesn’t suck

ANOTHER meeting?

Staying connected is more difficult in a digital work environment, and many leaders overcompensate for a lack of facetime by loading staff calendars with meetings to keep everyone connected. But if there’s one thing work-from-home employees know, it’s that Zoom fatigue is real.

If your team dreads sitting down to yet another meeting before the call even starts, your job of keeping folks engaged is doubly difficult. 

More than half (57 percent) of respondents in Doodle’s State of the Meeting Report said relevant people are often missing from meetings, while 44 percent say too many people are in their meetings. 

Walk the line between these two pitfalls by limiting invitations to only those who must be present for the group to accomplish the meeting’s goal. Make other attendees optional and send a recording of the meeting to anyone who might want to watch it later.

Of course, even the right guest list can’t guarantee that attendees will feel like those minutes were well spent. To accomplish that, you’ll need to keep your team on-topic.

  • At the start of the call, review the agenda with the group. 
  • Point out one to three top-priority items and discuss them before anything else on the list. 
  • Encourage attendees to add to the conversation but steer the discussion back to your goals when necessary.

Finally, ensure you’ve chosen the right time length for your meeting, so you’re not rushing through items nor allowing too much time to meander off-topic. In the U.S., the average meeting is one hour long. But that might be too long for team check-ins or project kick-offs or too short for a town hall or training. Adjust accordingly. 


Two of the greatest challenges facing anyone leading a remote workforce are maintaining engagement and building trust among the team. Both difficulties can be either solved or exacerbated by virtual meetings, depending on how you run them. 

Spare yourself from becoming a Conference Call Bingo star by avoiding the most common remote meeting pitfalls. Ensure your (and your team’s) tech skills are on point, encourage low-distraction workspaces, and create engaging agendas. Allow time to chat socially before each call. But avoid meeting fatigue by pruning your guest list and staying focused.

Whether you need to know how to run a productive meeting temporarily or long-term, these tips will help you knock your remote meetings out of the park.

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