Mark Cruth, Atlassian’s Modern Work Designer, shares his personal “rules” for keeping virtual meetings engaging and productive with Trello Enterprise.
“I need three levels of approvals to spend a couple thousand dollars of the company’s money. But I can spend that amount just by calling enough people to a meeting and doing nothing for 30 minutes," says Mark Cruth, Atlassian’s Modern Work Designer and resident meeting expert.
Mark is a skilled facilitator who helps teams minimize meetings while maximizing their effectiveness. And he’s not wrong about the cost of meetings. Organizations employing 5,000 or more people waste about $100 million per year on nonessential meetings, according to a 2022 report from Otter.ai.
“It's been a passion project of mine to go out there and figure out, how do we have fewer meetings? How do we have better meetings?” he said. “And honestly, the thing is: It’s really easy to get better. It just has to be very intentional.”
Mark shared his personal “rules” for keeping virtual meetings engaging and productive, like establishing meeting rules and keeping things on track with Trello Enterprise.
1. Determine if the meeting is necessary
Before you send out a Zoom invite, be sure you’re scheduling a meeting that requires synchronous collaboration (and not something that could’ve been an email).
When you call unnecessary meetings, you don’t just waste the half-hour spent in the meeting. You also incur the costs of Zoom fatigue and context switching. According to a 2021 report from Qatalog and Cornell University’s Idea Lab, when switching between apps, people take nine and a half minutes to get back into a productive workflow.
“Start async, and then determine if it needs to go sync,” Mark says.
Brainstorming sessions, information sharing, and status updates can all be done asynchronously.
But sometimes—when you’re trying to solve a problem, and find yourselves in an endless back-and-forth via Slack, for example—it makes more sense to jump on a quick call and hash it out. One-on-one meetings are best held synchronously, Mark says.
“I usually want to have that sync time with my manager. We're going to have some deeper conversations, and that can be hard to do on a Confluence page or a Trello board.”
And there’s the human element to consider. “I'm a big believer that most things can be done async, but I'm also a person. If I'm just sitting with myself all day, every day, I'm going to go crazy,” he says. “A really important thing for us here at Atlassian is this idea of intentional togetherness—that’s important for me to have.”
It’s something to keep in mind when you’re trying to cut down your meetings, Mark says. “Don’t cut too far, you know? There’s a point where the tree dies if you cut it back too far.”
2. Make room for team building
For remote teams, meetings might be the only time they see each other—so that time for connection and catching up becomes more important.
Mark suggests working five minutes at the beginning of the meeting for team members to say hello and have a casual conversation. “I might have some music playing through Zoom or something like that. And then when it’s time, I’ll say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get started in one minute.’”
He does this to keep the meeting on track. “I’ve been in some meetings where it kind of got out of control—like 15 minutes into a 30-minute meeting,” Mark said. “We had a great time connecting because it’s a powerful thing, but we realized that the outcome of the meeting won’t be reached.”
Another way to incorporate team building into your agenda is to start with an icebreaker, which has the added benefit of bringing energy to the beginning of your meeting.
“Maybe I need people to get into a brainstorming mindset,” Mark said. “You can run an activity—like, take 60 seconds to come up with as many ways to use a paperclip as possible. And with that, all of a sudden, 30, 60 seconds into the meeting, I've got people talking and interacting with each other.”
Another way to connect with your team is to start with a simple check-in, writes leadership coach Shyamli Rathore in Harvard Business Review: “You can say, ‘Hello everyone, I wanted to begin this call with a one-word check in. How has this past week been for you?’”
3. Keep it as short as possible
Mark recommends scheduling remote meetings for no longer than an hour, but 30 minutes is preferable. He’s not wrong. In a LiveCareer survey, 52% of respondents said it takes 30 minutes or less to start losing attention in meetings.
As the leader, it’s up to you to keep things on track. “I always tell people, ‘Don't be a jerk, but also don't be afraid to cut somebody off in a polite way,” said Mark. “It's really hard for people to do that. But as the facilitator, that’s the job you’re taking on.”
If that’s not something you’re comfortable with, Mark suggests designating another team member to call out when folks are taking up too much time or going off on tangents.
A strong agenda will also help you keep things moving, Mark says. You don’t have to plan every minute, but designate chunks of time for specific topics.
4. Create and share a detailed agenda
A meeting agenda is like the GPS in your car: It tells you where you’re going and when you can expect to get there. An agenda also ensures your meeting achieves its purpose.
“A pet peeve of mine is looking at a meeting invitation, and there’s nothing in the description,” Mark said. “I think we’ve all been in those meetings where you get five minutes in, and you think, ‘Well, why am I here?’”
Some best practices for setting up a clear agenda:
- Set a goal for the meeting. What do you hope to accomplish? This goal will keep the meeting focused.
- Determine agenda items. What meeting topics are you going to discuss? What action items need attention?
- Set a time limit for each agenda item. These time limits will help you stay on track and get to each topic.
- Designate team members to lead parts of the meeting. That way, attendees know ahead of time to come prepared.
- Provide meeting materials ahead of time. For example, if you’ll be discussing a report, link to the doc in the agenda.
Mark likes to list his agenda items in a Trello board and share it with the rest of the team ahead of time. It might look something like this:
Then everyone can vote on which topics they want to cover using the Voting Power-Up—in effect, collaboratively generating the meeting agenda.
5. Identify follow-up tasks and other action items
Is there anything more frustrating than leaving a meeting where the next step is… to have another meeting?
According to a 2021 poll by SurveyMonkey, only 56% of team members said they leave remote meetings with clear action items “most or all of the time.”
Before your meeting ends, be sure to identify and assign any follow-up tasks relevant to the topics you covered. In Trello Enterprise, you can tag team members and add due dates to your cards, so people know what action items they’re responsible for and by when (and you don’t have to remember to remind them).
And for big projects, Trello’s advance checklists feature enables you to break down complex tasks into detailed to-do’s that you can assign to different team members with individual due dates.
Any team member tagged receives a notification when someone comments or makes changes to that card.
6. Start meetings at 5 after the hour
We’ve all been in meetings where the host has started with something like, “This won’t take long, and I’ll give you your time back.” But before you know it, it’s still going, and you only have three minutes until your next meeting.
Give your team members a break between meetings by starting five minutes late. Instead of scheduling your daily standup at 10 a.m., schedule it for 10:05.
“Even the most skilled facilitator sometimes will lose track of that time without really paying attention,” said Mark. “And then, boom! You're jumping into the next one.”
A five-minute buffer between meetings gives your team members time to take a bio break, refill their water bottles, or just take a breath.
“It's so much easier to just click on Google Calendar and it automatically sets up the time,” Mark says. “So you have to deliberately change the time. But the reward is so impactful to your attendees, and they'll demonstrate their appreciation with their energy because they're refreshed.”
7. Use a meeting template
A meeting template that’s accessible to everyone can help increase engagement and keep your meetings on track.
For example, Trello’s Weekly Team Meeting template provides a list of cards where you can add detailed information about every element of your meeting. If time runs out before a topic is discussed, you can just move the card to the list of topics to discuss at the next meeting.
You can also use meeting templates to engage participants ahead of time. For example, with Trello’s Distributed Team Brainstorming template, you can ask team members to add their ideas asynchronously before you get together.
Once your agenda is set, you can use Custom Fields to designate how much time you’ll dedicate to each item to keep your meeting on track.
8. Agree on a set of rules
Set expectations and keep things moving along by setting ground rules for the meeting. For recurring meetings, you can include the rules in the Trello template that everyone sees.
“I like to come up with a meeting agreement where we’ll say things like, all right, we’re going to turn off Slack, or we’re going to raise our hands using the Zoom gestures when we want to talk,” Mark says.
You can also create a rule for what to do when the team is having trouble agreeing on something. “I like to focus on this idea of consent versus consensus,” Mark says. “Consensus is one of the hardest things to obtain because we all have different opinions.”
The consent vs. consensus rule presents three levels of agreement:
- I agree
- I don’t necessarily agree, but I’m not going to stand in the way
- I disagree, and I think this will hurt the team
With this rule in place, participants who aren’t invested can “consent” to an idea—even if it’s not the way they would do it—so the meeting can move on. But if a team member is adamant, you’ll know you need to continue the discussion (which you can do in the meeting or later asynchronously).
9. Let team members stay off-screen
For some folks, being on camera feels awkward, and seeing themselves on screen can be a distraction.
“Honestly, I encourage people: If you're exhausted, don't put your camera on if you don’t need to,” said Mark.
“Another thing I’ve seen recently is participants have their profile picture up along with a note that says ‘I’m still listening.’ It’s a subtle thing, but it’s kind of nice—it’s a commitment you’re making to everyone in the meeting. A sense of ownership.”
To be fair, it is challenging to gauge people’s energy levels when you can’t see them. Mark says if he thinks engagement in the meeting is waning, he’ll try to inject some energy into the environment. For example, with a silly icebreaker activity like asking each team member what their superhero name and tagline would be.
10. Find ways for everyone to contribute
As a facilitator, Mark says, you should be aware of the different personality types on your team and find ways to get the valuable ideas and opinions of team members who are reluctant to speak up.
“I was working with a bunch of developers, and one would never talk in meetings,” Mark said. “He would talk to you afterward, but we needed to solve a production issue.”
To pull those folks into the discussion, Mark uses a brainstorming framework called “1-2-4-All,” a Liberating Structure designed to offer alternative approaches to team collaboration.
Here’s how it works:
- Each team member is asked to brainstorm an idea on their own.
- They move into pairs and battle for their ideas to choose one to move forward with.
- Then they move into quads and select one idea to bring to the whole group.
- The group chooses the winning idea.
More often than not, the winning idea came from the individual who’s usually quiet. “And it's because we gave him a really interesting way to share his ideas,” said Mark.
Or you could take a different approach.
To encourage participation in discussions of day-to-day issues, ask everyone to add questions and topics for discussion to the meeting template or use the chat function in Zoom.
Bonus tip: Make attendance optional (hear us out!)
It’s your job as a leader to ensure that the people who need to be in the meeting show up. Sell your team members on your meeting and give them a reason to want to be there. But if they have a reason to skip it, let them.
Mark shared an idea from Daniel Mezick’s book Inviting Leadership.
“Meetings are invitations,” Mark said. “If I’m hosting a party, you don’t have to come. And if you don’t, it’s probably because you weren’t the right person to invite, or I didn’t make it enticing enough.”
It all comes back to a good agenda, he says. “I focus on putting meaningful content in that agenda, so generally, I have a good number of people attending.”
Hold better remote meetings with Trello Enterprise
Engaging meetings are the glue that holds remote teams together. Learn how to leverage Trello Enterprise for more effective meetings in our guide, Virtual meetings with meaning: 5 ways to improve your meetings with Trello.
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