Ground rules are a lot easier to enforce when you can make eye contact or use body language to keep people in line. But when you can’t see people and can’t hear what people are doing on the other end of the line, it’s harder to keep people focused and on track. Here are guidelines on how to set ground rules that I follow with my clients when I’m asked to plan and run their virtual meetings.
1: Give advance notice of ground rules prior to the meeting. Don’t surprise people at the start of the meeting by issuing demands that may be impossible to meet without notice. For example, if you are asking people to make sure they can focus 100% of their attention on this meeting, they need to figure out how to move everything else off their plate. Publish the ground rules and send at least a few days ahead. Highlight important points in your email to make sure they are not overlooked.
2: Make sure ground rules are culturally acceptable. People in some organizations may laugh at a ground rule that prohibits multitasking, while others may praise you for insisting that people stay focused. People from some cultures may be reluctant to air sensitive issues while others may relish being totally open. When in doubt, test the waters with a few team members in advance. It’s much tougher to enforce ground rules that seem unreasonable or unnecessary to the majority.
3: Explain your rationale for the ground rules. For example, when people balk when you ask everyone to stay off of mute, be sure to explain that this allows people to stay more present in the conversation and makes it harder to drift off to email. Or if you ask that people announce when they have to leave the call, let them know that you don’t want to miss any of their input. People are more likely to accept ground rules if they help keep the meeting short and to the point.
4: Ask for everyone’s commitment to live by the ground rules right up front. Even though you gave advance notice of your ground rules in writing, review them at the start of the session and solicit everyone’s agreement out loud. Ask if there is anything preventing people from staying focused on this call. If so, ask people to quickly clear a path to full participation, such as finishing up a quick email or deactivating instant messaging. Promise that the meeting will be far more productive if everyone can stay focused at the same time.
5: Test for compliance when in doubt. If people seem far too quiet or otherwise distracted, stop the conversation and state your observations, saying something like: “Only one or two of you have voiced your opinions on this topic, yet all of you had agreed that we need to discuss the pros and cons before reaching a decision. I’m concerned that some of you have lost focus or have somehow wandered away, and we need you to rejoin us so we can work together to get through this.”
6: Name disruptive behavior out loud. If some members of the team are permitted to violate the ground rules, others are likely to follow. Although it can be awkward, especially if trust among team members has not been well-established, it’s important to call out transgressions in a way that lets people know you’re serious about keeping people focused.
7: Insist on preparation by all. Since remote meetings must be kept brief to maintain focus, make sure that you have a ground rule that spells out what preparation is needed by whom, and why. For example, if you ask everyone to review the latest business plan prior to the meeting, let them know which sections to focus on. Be fair about what you can expect. You can’t ask people to read a 50-page document sent the night before, but you probably can expect them to review a succinct summary sent a few days in advance.
Since time spent meeting virtually tends to be at such a premium, it’s especially important to establish ground rules that will help lead to a productive meeting. It’s usually a lot easier to inform people about ground rules than it is to enforce them. But if you develop a reputation for someone who is serious about providing an environment for a productive meeting through the use of sensible ground rules, you’ll soon find that your team will begin to create and zealously uphold its own ground rules, freeing you up from having to police the group.
Posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy