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The Secret to Effective Online Meetings: Quick Sync-Ups for Remote Teams

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Originally published at ・9 min read

Who would've thought the transition to remote work would carry over the nuisance of team meetups? Well, thanks to VoIP and video conferencing tools, our love-hate relationship with daily (weekly, monthly...) moots continues. Luckily, quick sync-up meetings are here to save the day.

In a now-famous email to Tesla employees, Elon Musk shared his formula for effective meetings. According to Musk, they should be small, short, and scarce. Teams should focus on getting work done instead of spending time in conference rooms.

While Musk's management style is anything but ordinary, he's absolutely right on that note.

Now that long, unproductive meetings have oozed into the remote workplace, it's time to find an alternative. With our thinking hats on, we set out to answer the following questions:

So, buckle up and let's dive in. 👇

5 Reasons Why Most Meetings Suck 👎

This is a clock ⏰. The clock is not your enemy. It merely shows how much time in a day you have left and how much you've spent on meaningful work pointless meetings.

That's right. If there's one thing that makes the perspective of another team meeting so oppressive, it's the fact that we know it's going to be an utter waste of time.

But time (and money) splurge is only part of the story.

  1. 📈 High frequency. Back-to-back meetups create an illusion of productivity. Lose a minute here, gain a minute there. Nobody really cares, as long as you care to show up. But at the end of the day, we can't even remember what it was all about.
  2. 🙇‍♂️ Low Engagement. Think back how many times you've fiddled with your smartphone or doodled during a meeting. Don't worry, you're not alone. The ability to keep people engaged throughout a meeting is a skill that's in short demand these days.
  3. ✏️ Lack of agenda. What's worse than a long meeting? A long meeting without an agenda. When teams jump on a conference call with no clue what they want to talk about, the only subject that's worth discussing is when to swarm out.
  4. 🧭 Unclear goals. The marketing guru Paul Arden once said that "(...) without having a goal it's difficult to score." When you call into a meeting and have no clue why you're even there, the best course of action is to leave, immediately.
  5. ✋ No CTA. Meetings are like marketing. You plant a seed, pique interest, and nudge people in the right direction to act on what you're offering. While some meetings manage to deliver the first two, few give people an incentive to take action.

It doesn't matter if you're half-asleep in a comfy bean bag inside a meeting room or sprawled on a sofa in your home office. A meeting that checks at least one of these five boxes shouldn't have happened in the first place.

Now, let's see how quick sync-ups can fix all that.

What Are Sync-Up Meetings? ⏱

ln a nutshell, sync-up meetings (a.k.a. huddles, stand-ups or check-ins) are short team gatherings that usually wrap in under 15 minutes. The shorter they are, the better. While there's no set expectation for how often they should take place, most sync-ups happen on a daily or weekly basis.

^⚽^ Teamwork Trivia: Sync-ups originate from what the world of competitive sports calls a "huddle". During huddles, players of one team gather in a circle to debrief, discuss the next move or celebrate scoring a point. The gatherings are brief and usually end with a motivational call-to-action so players can immediately apply the new strategy.

Sounds familiar?

Good. Sync-ups are essentially a standalone version of daily scrums. Daily scrums are used by Scrum product teams to reflect on what's been accomplished so far, plan what each member of the team will work on in the next 24 hours and identify any obstacles down the road.

While co-located employees usually run sync-ups in conference rooms or by a whiteboard, fully remote teams have much more flexibility in that regard:

  • 🎤 Conference calls
  • 🤳 Video conversations
  • 💬 Chat sessions
  • 📝 Digital whiteboards

Why Quick Sync-Up Meetings Rock 🤩

"A lot of time is wasted in meetings. Agendas get forgotten, topics go amiss, and people get distracted. While some circumstances call for workshops and more elaborate presentations, it's very rare that a meeting on a single topic should need to last more than 5-10 minutes."

---Sir Richard Branson

Unlike regular meetings, sync-ups are focused and intensive. With only 15 minutes to spare, teams have to hustle really hard to discuss, decide and act on everything they have on the agenda (provided there is one).

But there are other considerations too:

  • ⏱ Time-boxing. Burst meetings with a firm time limit are more manageable than long, "flexible" ones. Given the short time frame, everybody's compelled to show up and call in on time instead of running 5 or 10 minutes late (classic)
  • ☝️ Better engagement. We can think of at least a few more exciting things than dozing during an hour-long debrief. Sync-ups, on the other hand, let teams sync-up in short bursts. They don't sap energy and let all attendees stay focused till the very end

A chart showing attention span peak for 15-minute sync-up meetings\
Attention Span in Meetings via BOOST.

  • ⚡️ Instant feedback. Quick team meetups are easier to run and less disruptive to team schedule. They're especially effective for ad-hoc project updates, managing scope creep, realigning priorities and making sure everybody knows what the next step is
  • 🤝 Team camaraderie. Regular communication helps cultivate a spirit of companionship in remote teams. Quick sync-ups let teams break virtual walls, celebrate small victories, reflect on failures and realign with company goals and mission

7 Tips for Effective Sync-Up Meetings 🤳

1. Always Ask "Why" Before Saying "Yes" 🤔

Got a sync-up coming your way? Whoa, hold on a minute! We said that sync-ups are better than regular meetings, not that you should agree to every single one.

Here's the thing. Not every quick meeting is worth your time so be sure to ask yourself the following questions before calling in:

  • "Do they really need me in there?"
  • "Why have I been invited in the first place?"
  • "How much time is it going to take?"
  • "Do I have enough context to contribute?"
  • "What's the ROI of the time I put in?"

If you have a gut feeling a meeting's not the best idea, skip it and get back to work. And if you're still in doubt, take a look at this tongue-in-cheek flowchart from Wendy MacNaughton:

A flowchart titled "Shold You Call That Meeting" by Wendy MacNaughton\
"Should You Call That Meeting?" by Wendy MacNaughton.

2. Time-Box Everything 🎁

Sync-ups are so effective because they're short. But it's one thing to promise yourself (and others) that "it'll only be 5 minutes" and actually deliver on that front.

  • Aim for the sweet spot, preferably between 5 and 15 minutes
  • Let other attendees know both the start and end time
  • Bar people from calling in late and leaving the session early
  • Never exceed the set time limit and wrap every sync to the minute
  • Give everybody a heads up a couple of minutes before the time's up

Not sure how to effectively structure your sync-ups? These free templates will get you started:

3. Make Them Predictable 📅

Coordinating collaboration and communication across time zones is tricky. You have to consider each team member's local time and business hours to find the perfect overlap time for a sync.

  • Find suitable overlap time when everybody's online
  • Block time in a shared calendar and stick with it
  • Always run sync-ups at the same time
  • Never call off a meeting at a moment's notice
  • Plan any changes way in advance

Scheduling sync-up meetings in Taskade using Roadmap

Taskade Roadmap helps your team keep all events in view.

Predictability and transparency are key when meetups happen across time zones. Your team should know where to expect a meeting so they can prepare in advance and show up on time.

4. Chit Chat Instead 💬

Not every sync-up has to be an actual meeting. Sometimes, you can replace a 15-minute video conference with an equally productive chat session.

  • Default to chat for quick brainstorming
  • Use a collaborative digital whiteboard
  • Focus on maximizing creative input
  • Use on-project comments for feedback
  • Make sure to follow-up and discuss results

Chat sessions are great for quick, creative input. Since everybody can take the floor at any given moment, the dynamic is much more vibrant compared to other communication channels.

5. Always Come Prepared 🧩

"Give me an agenda or else I'm not going to sit there, because if I don't know why we're in the meeting, then there's no reason for a meeting."

---Annette Catino, CEO, QualCare Alliance Network.

It doesn't matter if you're discussing a skyscraper type of project or coffee break rules. All your sync-up meetings should have an agenda. If it doesn't, it's a waste of time.

A sync-up agenda created in Taskade.\
Taskade lets you create and share sync-up agendas in a jiffy.

  • Always create a meeting agenda and share it in advance
  • Focus on a maximum of three essential topics (Rule of Three)
  • Include the date, start and end times as well as the list of attendees
  • Define goals: informative, creative, decision-making or organizational
  • Create a template to kick things off quickly

6. Bar Any Distractions 🎈

The whole purpose of a sync-up is to touch base and take action in the smallest time window possible. At best, you have 15 minutes to call in, warm up and discuss what needs to be done.

Given the limited amount of time, you should weed out any distractions:

  • Bar smartphone use during meetups
  • Encourage attendees to turn their cameras on
  • Ban latecomers from calling in to meetings
  • Designate a "scribe" to take and distribute notes
  • Use the mute button when you're not speaking

7. Make Those 15 Minutes Count ✨

Sync-ups are a great opportunity to digest a lot of condensed, essential information with a relatively cheap investment of time and attention.

  • Actively participate and take initiative
  • Takes notes, especially when nobody else does
  • As questions when you need more information
  • Don't interrupt when someone's speaking
  • Prepare your own agenda before attending

If you're in a 5-people, 15-minute meeting and not paying attention, you're A) wasting your time B) wasting the time of others.

Conclusion 🐑

Let's face it. Spending hours in stodgy meetings isn't the most exciting thing in the world. If you're looking for some real action, make quick sync-ups a staple in your remote team's menu.

So, why not turn those marathons into sprints with Taskade?

Taskade helps remote teams stay competitive in the modern workplace by cutting down the unnecessary friction in planning, organizing, and decision making.

You can sign up for your free Taskade account ^👉^ here.

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