How do we make remote meetings not suck?

First we discussed the fact that technical issues cause remote meetings to suck.

Then, we discussed how even when there are no technical issues, remote meetings still suck.

They suck because they exacerbate a problem called the caucus problem. This is a problem even in meetings that are not remote, but remoteness makes the problem ubiquitous instead of isolated to some attendees.

One thing we did not do at the end of the last post is discuss how to fix the caucus problem. Instead, we took some time to reflect and absorb.

Now we’re going to talk about how to fix the caucus problem.

But first, we’re going to talk about how not to fix the caucus problem.

One-Remote-All-Remote Does Not Solve the Problem

Remote meetings have sucked since long before I wrote about why remote meetings suck. Several companies with relatively successful remote programs have already taken a pass at finding a solution.

For example, Trello and Litmus recommend a one-remote all-remote meeting policy to make remote meetings suck less. Justine Jordan at Litmus explains: “Unless every person is in the same room, all meetings are held over video conference,” such that everyone dials in with headphones and mic to a remote meeting service like Google hangouts, Zoom, or appear.in.

This is a good step to ensure that the remote frustration exacerbation level is the same for everyone: since everyone gets the same lag, the same audio, and the same proximity to others, everyone is more considerate of remote attendees because everyone is a remote attendee. This additional consideration makes an all-remote meeting suck less than a meeting where you’re the only remote pipe-in.

But it doesn’t solve the problem because it treats remote meetings as the problem.

Remote meetings are not the problem. The caucus is the problem.

Remoteness just exacerbates the caucus problem so that even people with high caucus scores experience it.

Suppose we had the perfect one-remote all-remote setup—think Jedi Council from the prequels. Such a setup would elevate remote caucus meetings to the level of engagement in colocated caucus meetings—which is a shame, because now we’re back to the caucus score determining who gets to contribute. That excludes potential contributors.

As we have established, excluding potential contributors is a major problem. 

Jedi council
This is a Jedi Council meeting in the Star Wars Universe. The ghosty characters are remote attendees.

Limiting/Eliminating Remote Meetings Does Not Solve the Problem

Jason Fried of Basecamp offers another solution: we expect less of our remote meetings (presumably to treat them as coordination meetings and whatnot), then very occasionally meet in person to do ideation. He argues that, since companies can only execute on a few ideas at a time, we don’t need to do ideation meetings often, so we can save ideation for a rare, in-person meeting.

I don’t buy this argument. Set aside the question of how often you need new ideas. This argument again treats remote meetings as the problem; it speculates that ideation happens best in colocated meetings.

Remote meetings are not the problem. The caucus is the problem.

As we’ve established, caucus meetings are not good for getting ideas from your whole team. They’re good for getting ideas from the loudest and least inhibited members of your team, who I guarantee you, remote or not, will find a way to share their idea anyway.

Telling People Not to Interrupt Does Not Solve the Problem

Let’s revisit our example of the caucus problem from the last post:

Latifah spends a few minutes presenting her perspective on something in a meeting. Her points are well-considered, and it’s clear that she has spent time considering this.

When Latifah finishes, Alessandra asks a poignant question the perspective Latifah just shared. Latifah (caucus score 6) has thought long and hard about that question, so she takes a breath and pauses for a moment to compose, in her head, a coherent explanation.

Just at that moment, Todd (caucus score 17) pipes up with his half-baked ramblings on the question. Latifah loses her chance to answer the question she was clearly well-positioned to answer, and the room spends 4 minutes listening to Todd umm and uhh his way to his opinion.*

What if Latifah takes Todd aside after the meeting and talks to him about what happened? She can express how it made her feel, he’ll feel bad, and maybe he won’t do it anymore. Maybe even Latifah’s manager joins her in the conversation to convey the gravity of the situation and address it on her behalf.

Sounds great, right? This is the Sesame Street solution that we were raised to favor: just talk it out! Unfortunately, this approach is not gonna solve your problem because it’s skipping a systemic problem and addressing an individual. By reprimanding Todd for interrupting, we’re cutting one flower off of our weed. But the root of the weed—the caucus—is still in the ground.

We’re treating Todd as the problem.

Todd is not the problem. Say it with me…

The caucus is the problem.

As a businessperson of some stripe I suspect you have read (or at least heard of) the canonical academic discourse about organizational incentive design: On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B (Steven Kerr, Academy of Management Journal, December 1975). In case you need a refresher, the crux of Kerr’s argument goes like this: If you’re rewarding one behavior while hoping for a mutually exclusive behavior, you are going to be disappointed because people will do the behavior you reward—not the behavior you say you want or think you want.

Caucuses give the speaking floor to people who take it. The meeting rewards ‘jumping in’. When you reprimand Todd for failing to ‘jump in’ perfectly, he’ll consider his decision on when to ‘jump in’ in the future. Sweet. So you’ll hear less from Todd the individual. Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s not.

But even setting that question aside, Todd is not your only Todd. There are other people in your organization—all people who, on the balance, want to contribute. The opportunity to contribute is granted to those who just start talking. Which means, at some point, this is going to happen again.

Are you going to talk to that person individually? Hmmm, maybe you can get out in front of it and talk to everyone about interrupting. So now you’re reprimanding people for interrupting when they haven’t done it yet (to their knowledge)—which can confuse them and make them feel micromanaged. And then what about when a new person joins the team, who didn’t hear your speech about interrupting? Someday in a caucus, they’re gonna interrupt someone. The interruptions will recur because we haven’t addressed the systemic problem: we’ve addressed an individual symptom. What we’re doing is asking people for a different behavior than the one we are rewarding. So, as Steven Kerr would say, we’re going to get A instead of B.

How do we solve the problem?

To solve the problem, we have to address the incentive structure that rewards interrupting, penalizes listening, and provides no feedback from excluded team members…that is, we need to address the caucus.

The effective routes, in my experience, start with alternative incentive structures that don’t reward taking the floor without asking and instead reward asking permission, uplifting the contributions of others, and keeping remarks concise.

You’ll notice that our topic here has diverged from remoteness, specifically. That’s because better meetings benefit us whether we have all remote attendees, some remote attendees, or no remote attendees.

We need an alternative to the caucus.

Instead of everyone talking whenever for however long, I recommend that you consider appointing a moderator for each of your meeting discussions. A skilled moderator can address the issues introduced by the caucus style and made universal by remote participation.

Allow me to situate the moderator role for you on the spectrum of roles that an individual can play in stewarding a conversation.

On one end of the spectrum, you have a chair. In meetings that use Robert’s Rules of Order (like United Nations Committees, Parliament, Congressional Committees, or Toastmasters Meetings), the chair usually refers to the person enforcing those rules. Chairs do not make the rules (though sometimes they modify them a little to suit the group). Chairs also do not involve themselves at all in the topic of discussion; instead, they make sure we go down the speaker list, they time each speaker, they ask how each speaker wishes to yield (spend) their extra time (to questions, to the chair, et cetera), and they process points of order or points of personal privilege (complaints and requests). They do not opine on the topic at hand.

On the other end, you have facilitators. Facilitation has a strong foothold in activist circles as a way to stoke discussion in groups of 5-20 people. I have seen it used in a couple of different anti-racist groups, and I have also seen it in a healthcare reform group. Unlike chairs, facilitators get to make up a lot of their own rules about who gets to talk, for how long, when to make exceptions, et cetera. Lots of facilitation guides and trainings also encourage facilitators to stoke discussion by involving themselves in said discussions. So you’ll see facilitators fact-checking what other contributors have said, editorializing at will on other people’s thoughts, mediating conflict, or guiding the direction of the conversation with leading questions. I’m not recommending that you do much of this for two reasons: first of all, if someone feels committed to a particular outcome for a conversation, they may rule on speaking rights accordingly. Second, it’s very easy for a facilitator to slide into centering themselves and their views in the discussion, instead of stewarding the discussion for the benefit of other contributors. 

In between the chair role and the facilitator role, there’s a moderator: someone who combines the informal style of a facilitator with the chair-like behavior of not getting involved in the topic of discussion itself. This person has one responsibility during a meeting.

Moderator’s only responsibility: give people the opportunity to listen by safeguarding their opportunities to speak.

How does a moderator do this? They employ a number of techniques.

  1. They make sure that everyone has the chance to see the agenda prior to the meeting so folks can take a look and prepare what they have to say.
  2. They make sure everyone has access to the agenda during the meeting, so there are no surprises as to where (in general) the conversation goes.
  3. They ask, before or during the meeting, who would like to talk about a topic. They make a list of these people. Then the moderator makes sure that these people get to speak, so they can stop worrying about jumping in and focus instead on listening to their peers.
  4. If someone else realizes they want to speak, the moderator adds them to the list until discussion time runs out on this agenda item. The moderator can collect names via hand-raising or eye contact in a colocated meeting. In a part-remote or all-remote meeting, it’s most inclusive for a moderator to collect names with a messaging or chat app.
  5. They stop people who interrupt the speaker and make sure the next person on the list is the next person to get time to speak.
  6. Importantly, if the same four people are doing most of the talking, the moderator prioritizes and actively solicits contributions from the rest of the group. ‘This side of the room has not said much. Would anyone over here like to comment?’ Or ‘Maria, I know you worked on this. Do you have any thoughts on it?
  7. If your company wants , you can try giving each speaker a time limit and, if they don’t use all their time, letting them accept questions with their remaining time if they want to. In this case the moderator keeps time for the speakers and, in the case of questions, reminds folks that questions are one sentence comprising a question: anything that’s ‘really more of a comment’ doesn’t belong here.
  8. If there’s more to be said after time runs out on an agenda item, the moderator chooses to extend the time or recommend a separate meeting at another time on only this topic. If it’s a large meeting with limited time, the ‘separate meeting’ option ends up being the more prudent choice in my experience.

In a moderated conversation, folks get the opportunity to contribute by asking the moderator for a spot instead of participating in a speed-based elimination contest that starts over every time another person’s monologue is coming to an end. Instead of the floor (speaking rights) being taken, the floor is instead given (the official term is ‘yielded’).

But Chelsea, we don’t want to moderate our meetings—that’s so formal!

So the thing is, human social relationships demand structure. We do not float around each other in a chaotic mass like amoebas in agar. In the absence of structural rules, we follow emergent social rules. Look at this entire article about how to walk on a sidewalk correctly. There’s a WikiHow page on how to ride an elevator. And you know what? Just because these rules aren’t “formal” doesn’t mean that people won’t think you’re just as much of a nincompoop for disobeying them. Go to New York City and walk down the left side of the sidewalk for ten blocks—I dare you.

These rules emerge in society, and they also emerge in your meetings. The unwritten caucus rule is an example of that. The rules that emerge in a caucus give more influence to the members of a group who already have the most influence. So if there are going to be rules anyway, there might as well be rules that help achieve the goal of the meeting—which is to gather valuable contributions from any/all meeting attendees (if the goal is instead to deliver info to the attendees, your meeting should be an email).

I suspect what you’re worried about is having meetings that feel too restrictive and too suit-and-tie. I have some good news:

  1. Moderation will feel more restrictive to those with high caucus scores, but it will feel liberating to those with lower caucus scores. This tradeoff is worth the additional perspective you will add to decision-making.
  2. You can have a moderated meeting that still feels modern and fun and looks nothing like a congress committee or Model UN.

In fact, you might have already seen some moderated or partly-moderated meetings in action without even realizing it.

Some meetings already have a moderator.

Have you ever attended an iteration planning meeting? This is where a software development team sits down at the beginning of an iteration and plans the work they want to get done. The product manager has already organized a backlog of work to be completed. The team starts at the highest priority item in the backlog: the product manager explains it, developers ask questions, and they estimate its complexity. When all this is done, the product manager moves on to the next item down, and so on until the team has discussed enough work to fill the iteration.

This is a moderated meeting. The moderator in this case is usually the product manager. They command the floor by virtue of the fact that engineers are asking questions of them—not each other. If the questions specific to technical implementations such that developers are talking to each other, we’re now at a deeper level than “how complex is this”—which means this conversation is not for this meeting. So the product manager pulls it back in. “Are we ready to estimate?” The product manager collects everyone’s estimation and moves on. It’s clear who is meant to speak and when. We don’t move on until everyone who wants to talk has talked. The product manager is the one answering the questions, so there are no loudmouth developers overtaking the meeting. There’s a well-understood procedure for how the meeting goes, folks follow it, and everyone gets what they need to a larger degree than we see in an unmoderated caucus. These meetings, by the way, are pretty seamless to attend remotely.

Have you ever attended an iteration retrospective? This is where a software development team sits down at the end of an iteration and talks about how they can improve the next iteration. To do this, they go to a whiteboard or a shared document and they make four columns: Stuff that made me happy, stuff that made me confused or worried, stuff that made me sad or angry, and action items. Everyone gets to write down whatever they want in each of the first three columns about their experience in this past iteration. People can put checkmarks or plus signs next to others’ comments with which they agree.

Now here’s where this becomes a moderated meeting: when everyone finishes putting their items, a moderator—usually the newest team member, in my experience, but that’s arbitrary—goes through action items from the last iteration and asks about their status. Once that is done, the moderator moves on to this week: the person chooses items from the first three lists in whatever order they like. The person who wrote that item talks about the item, the team has a brief conversation as needed, an action item is added if appropriate, and the item is crossed off. So on until all the items are crossed off, at which point the moderator assigns the action items. There’s a well-understood procedure for how the meeting goes, folks follow it, and everyone gets what they need to a larger degree than we see in an unmoderated caucus. These meetings are also pretty seamless to attend remotely.

Have you been in meetings that always followed the same structure? Have you been in meetings where one person oversaw who talked and when? Did you feel your brilliance squashed like a bug beneath the authoritarian dogma of the meeting? My guess is no, for the most part. In such a meeting, attendees no longer have to compete for their opportunities to contribute. This is not repressive. It’s relieving.

The more moderation people see, the less moderation they need.

I have noticed an interesting property of well-moderated meetings: by the end, the moderator doesn’t have to do much. Let’s take, as an example, a meeting on ethics in data science that I moderated and facilitated with some colleagues at a local conference in January.

My instincts are to avoid interjection, but I am a fairly firm moderator. If someone cuts in front of someone else to speak, I will calmly stop them and hand the floor back to the person who was previously speaking. Also, once I get a sense of who is doing the most talking, I’ll explicitly solicit the voices of those parts of the room that have so far remained silent, or I’ll use eye contact to signal to individuals and a subtle hand motion to inquire as to whether they would like to speak.

So I started off the meeting modeling that behavior. As is customary, toward the beginning of the meeting the higher caucus scores in the room made themselves known. They quickly and confidently signaled their desire to contribute on the majority of the questions I asked (question-asking is facilitating, not moderating. It serves a different goal than moderation. If you want we can talk about when and how to facilitate in another post). There were about four of them in a room of about eighteen. I gave them the floor, but once I had identified the pattern, I started to solicit input from the corners of the room that had so far not spoken. If several people wanted to speak at the same time, I explained that ‘John, you’re going to go, then Sarah, then Larry.’ If Larry or someone else started speaking after John, I would stop them and turn the floor over to Sarah.

Over the course of the meeting, people’s behavior changed—the group began to self-moderateSpeakers began explicitly turning the floor over to the next person in line. For example John would say ‘that’s what I think—I know Sarah has a great perspective on this’ (knowing Sarah’s turn was next). Or ‘I know Kai has an insight to share on this and Kai hasn’t spoken yet, so I’d love to hear from them.’ At one point toward the end of the meeting, my colleague Kat paused for a moment while considering her answer to a question someone had asked her. Someone else (let’s call him Bobbi) started to speak into the silence, interrupting Kat. I didn’t stop Bobbi—because as I opened my mouth to do so, a chorus of other people stopped Bobbi instead. Then all heads turned back to Kat, who smiled a little and finished her thought. After the meeting Bobbi apologized to Kat, but no one was upset with him. He had made a mistake in the heat of the moment, but the group had collectively limited its impact on the conversation, so no harm done. And I, as the moderator, didn’t have to say a word.

Conclusion

Remote meetings suck because they exacerbate a problem called the caucus problem. This is a problem even in meetings that are not remote, but remoteness makes the problem ubiquitous instead of isolated to some attendees. This is why one-remote-all-remote solutions, or only doing ideation in colocated meetings, do not solve the problem: they target remoteness as the problem, and remoteness is not the problem. The caucus is the problem.

So how do we solve the caucus problem? Not with symptomatic solutions, like reprimanding people who interrupt. Instead, we have to get at the root of the problem: the way that caucuses reward interrupting, penalize listening, and provide no feedback from excluded team members.

Instead, we need an alternative incentive structure that doesn’t reward taking the floor without asking and instead rewards asking permission, uplifting the contributions of others, and keeping remarks concise. We can find such an alternative in the role of a moderator in our meetings.

A moderator doesn’t have to be too formal, and a moderator should not involve themselves in the discussion itself. Instead they have one job: give people the opportunity to listen by safeguarding their opportunities to speak.

A moderated meeting might sound ‘formal,’ but it involves no more rules than your current meeting: instead, it replaces implicit rules favoring people who already have influence with explicit rules that equalize that influence in the meeting. It also means less change than you think: some of your meetings may already include some moderation. In addition, a good model of moderation inspires your meeting attendees to self-moderate.

This does two things for you: first, it allows your moderator to moderate less and less as meetings progress. Second, it creates a self-perpetuating example for your colleagues to cultivate inclusive habits in their day-to-day interactions. When everyone shares the mindset of doing little things to acknowledge one another, solicit quiet voices, and protect each other’s opportunities to contribute, you have sown the seeds of the rare and valuable Inclusive Company Culture. May your garden grow.

For more about remote meetings, check out:

Why are there always technical problems in remote meetings?

Why do remote meetings suck so much?

For more about inclusion, you might enjoy:

The Seeds of a Great Company Culture

How your DudeBros are losing you money

Disrupting Management

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