The unprecedented times that businesses are now facing with the onset of COVID-19 are introducing new business continuity considerations for many enterprise organisations. 

As a born-in-the-cloud professional services business, Contino is geared up to ensure that our consultants can still remain productive during these uncertain times by virtue of the collaboration tooling and working ethos we have in place. Invariably, by embodying a DevOps culture and applying the (C)ALMS mentality, (C)ollaboration is at the heart of everything we do. 

That said, not every organisation has the ability to leverage the smart digital collaboration tools now available: Google Docs to drive real-time collaboration on documentation, Slack’s convergent technology for multithreaded communication channels, or remote whiteboard tooling like Miro to get creative when designing application architectures or planning a public cloud migration. 

(The last one being my favourite…How many times have we all been on a conference call and someone has said “For the benefit of those on the phone, we are now drawing on the whiteboard, we will send photos after today’s session”? It just saps the enthusiasm out of your meeting.)

There are however, several basic things that we can all do to ensure our remote collaboration meetings, standups and retros are as productive as possible. And some, just require a little preparation/emphasis and won’t cost your business anything! Based on my experiences of working with globally distributed teams, I thought it wise to share ten things that have worked well for me in the past. I hope you find them useful.

#1 Always Have An Agenda

Everyone has been there, done that and got the t-shirt that says “I love enterprise meetings, especially those without an agenda”

To ensure your remote meetings don’t drift aimlessly, only meet if it is absolutely essential. In the scenario where you host meetings, ensure you have a strict agenda, with sections time-boxed to ensure you cover each matter you need to address. 

You could also get to the extent where you refuse to attend meetings that do not have an agenda in place. That will quickly ensure people pick up on the behaviour! 

#2 Validate Who Is On The Call

Make sure that you have all the right attendees to get what you need out of the meeting. If the key decision makers aren’t present then don’t proceed with the meeting and give everyone the time back in their schedules. Execute a quick roll-call before kicking off the meeting and if decision makers can’t attend, then ensure they have delegated decision making responsibilities to a direct report. 

#3 Don’t End Meetings On the Hour

Back-to-back meetings are the bane of our existence. How many times have you heard “Sorry for being late, my previous call overran...”

Back to Point Number 1! As a good practice and to allow people a moment or two’s preparation ahead of their meeting backlog, avoid completing your meetings on the hour/half hour. For 60-minute meetings, aim to cut it off at 55 minutes. For 30 minute calls, aim to cut it off at 25 minutes. It sounds obvious, but being diligent with your agendas and by introducing the 5-minute window between meetings, you’ve then got every chance of remote meetings being more productive and starting on time! 

#4 Go On Mute If You’re Not Talking

Billy basics, I know. And if anything it’s just professional courtesy. Make sure you’re in a quiet place when conducting your call and if you need to pop off for a cup of coffee mid-session, then just put yourself on mute! 

#5 It’s Good To Use Your Video

Over the coming months we are going to miss our usual level of interaction with colleagues. There are no two ways about it. If your organisation has had the foresight to adopt video conferencing technology through the likes of Cisco Webex, Amazon Chime, Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams then turn on your camera. It is really hard to read someone's general reaction to a comment or remark through just audio alone. With video facilities in place, you should be able to improve your read of a situation or a reaction from your stakeholders and subsequently tailor your approach to the meeting. 

Here is a tip…wincing and face contortion isn’t a sign that they back your plan of attack! 

#6 Close Your Notifications

“Sorry Jan, can you repeat that please? I got distracted by an incoming email and Dave from Finance is messaging me about Q2 forecasts”

In order to ensure you are 100% focussed on the meeting at hand, close your email, silence instant messaging communication channels and flip your phone to Do Not Disturb or Silent. 

It sounds simple and obvious but with our devices as interconnected as ever, closing down multiple communication channels during remote meetings will help prevent attention sapping. Constant context switching will stifle your focus and ultimately hinder your’s and your team's productivity. 

If you are also screen sharing a Kanban board or discussing an architectural pattern with your peers, it will save for any embarrassing notifications popping up from your partner asking “Why have you not taken out the trash?” and will allow your meeting to flow as smoothly as possible. 

#7 Minute Your Meeting and Share Them ASAP

For each meeting you have, it's always best practice to ensure that any actions, decisions or key areas of conversation are minuted. However, more often than not organisations are guilty of not following this practice and often resort to holding secondary meetings to reconfirm something that has already been agreed upon. 

For each meeting, delegate a scribe. Be clear on minutes, actions, action owners and deadlines for actions. These then need to be shared with everyone who was present in the meeting and those who couldn’t attend owing to a clash. Make these minutes accessible to everyone. Share them via real-time messaging, or have a commonly known place where they can be easily accessed on Confluence and clearly indexed with date and time stamps. 

This isn’t to hold people to account but merely in order to increase transparency of decisions across the team. 

#8 Ensure You Provide Multiple Ways to Dial-In

“Sorry, I couldn’t find the dial in details”... or…“I had to wait for the plug-in to install”. 

When you send out meeting invites, ensure you provide the link with each and every dial in code across the world! Include the Web URL to run the call via the WebApp and advise your colleagues that they download any available mobile versions of your collaboration tooling to their devices to reduce lead time to join your remote meetings. 

#9 Make Key Documentation Available Ahead Of The Meeting

“Which document are you referring to Neil? Page 1001 of the DevOps Dictionary, Alan”

If there are specific artefacts that are going to be discussed in your meeting, embed them in your calendar invite and set clear expectations about the decision point you need from your stakeholders and peers who are attending the session. I’ve also found it useful to re-share the artefacts just before the meeting, or even reconfirm the location of the documents in your initial invite, to ensure that attendees have all the right information to hand for a prompt kick-off. 

#10 Ask Yourself: “Do we really need a meeting?”

In the short time that a number of our customers have been working from home, some have actually indicated that their engineering teams throughput and velocity has increased by 30%. 

One could argue that there is a correlation between not being pulled into ad-hoc meetings and being able to focus on the key outputs and requirements that have been defined in your Sprint Planning Sessions and Daily Stand-Ups. 

Ask yourselves, do we really need this meeting or are we going to empower our employees to make the right decisions for our business?

Good luck! 

Evidently, this is all predicated on the basis that your internet service provider is going to be able to cope with a surge in demand for peak connectivity requests! If all else fails, you can always buy a couple of tin-cans and some string to stay connected. At least that will invoke fond memories of childhood nostalgia! 

We will be sharing more insights over the next few weeks to explain how Contino can help your organisation apply a cloud-native collaboration strategy and leverage some of the best practices that are allowing us and our customers to operate in a business as usual capacity as we jointly navigate these uncharted waters. 

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Ben Saunders

VP, Consulting EMEA

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