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The 4 stages of preparing remote sessions

Up until 2020, working remotely was commonplace for those, such as myself, who work in a distributed setup: my team and stakeholders are scattered across the globe and although we were all aligned on the hurdles and problems we face while trying to make remote work, it doesn’t mean it was always easy. 

If you happen to be a newcomer to this way of working—especially due to the work-related changes triggered by the pandemic—the approach of interacting exclusively through a screen can seem daunting and overwhelming. You’re most likely either waiting for “normal” to return or you’re accepting the “new normal” and actively trying to adapt. In my opinion, you’ll eventually have to adapt: at ThoughtWorks we see the current changes impacting our industry in the long run. 

4 stages of preparing remote sessions
This article shares recommendations learned the hard way while working on distributed teams. They’re intended to be easy to implement, hopefully making your adaptation to remote work less stressful. I’ve split them into four parts: preparing, kickstarting, running and closing a session. 

Note: I use Zoom and Mural for my remote sessions, so this advice focuses on those tools. Similar features may exist with other tools and advice is generally still applicable.

1. Preparing the session. The first step of running a remote session is to decide on what type of meeting you will have. The suggestions below are helpful for many different types of sessions, but especially for those that should be more interactive. As previously mentioned, we’ll be using Zoom here, so go to your profile and make sure that the below settings are properly set up. These preferences will be found both in the meeting room preferences page or at your Zoom user profile page. Keep in mind that only the owner and co-hosts are allowed to edit meetings.

  • Make sure the raise hand feature is turned on for your room. This is a lifesaver when facilitating large groups because it enables people to signal when they want or need to speak. 
  • Enable the waiting room feature. That way you can make any last-minute changes with your teammates without having external participants join early.
  • Add alternate hosts (ideal setup is two + main host). The co-hosts can see who has raised their hands and also un-raise hands after the person has started speaking. They can also accept users from the waiting room, record meetings, and more.
  • Activate nonverbal feedback. By doing this you can use the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ feature for instance. People can also visually indicate that the presenter should move slower or faster.
  • Take advantage of the polling feature, which can be prepared in advance or during the meeting and you can choose whether or not to make it anonymous. It can be handy to collect information that will help you make last-minute decisions, such as whether or not to present a certain topic. 
  • When it comes to chatting, you also have the option to remove the Zoom chat feature but I would recommend maintaining it and having a facilitator keep an eye on it. 
  • Breakout rooms are an amazing feature when facilitating large groups. If you’re looking for a more hands-on experience or a collaborative setup, make sure you have activated, tested and learned how they work. They’re pretty simple but can be tricky if you don’t test first!
  • If possible, send the agenda and any recommended pre-reading in advance! This helps non-native speakers and introverts feel more empowered to share their perspectives and feel more comfortable during the session. 

2. Kickstarting the session. Set the right tone for the rest of your session with these recommendations:

  • Welcome people into the “room” and explain you’re allowing a couple of minutes for them to get a drink or use the restroom.
  • Share some recommendations so they know what’s expected from them as participants, such as encouraging attendee participation if you’re expecting an interactive session.
  • For larger groups (over 6 people can be considered a large group), explain at the beginning of the call that you want them to use the ‘raise hand’ feature, which will give everyone a chance to speak and share thoughts. Encourage everyone to try it out to make sure guests feel empowered to join conversations.
  • Early on, ask participants to keep their cameras on which helps establish a sense of connection. This can’t be mandatory—because their connection may be unstable or their work area may not be tidy—but by requesting this, you’ll get more people using their cameras and paying closer attention to the session. 
  • Remind participants to speak in a clear and respectful way, especially if many participants aren’t native English speakers.
  • If you decide to keep Zoom chat enabled, ask participants not to use it for side discussions which will ensure attention is on the speaker.

3. Running the session. A lot of things can happen at the same time during the call, so plan to have a backup facilitator in case your internet connection fails. Consider these tips:

  • Be sure to mute any notifications to avoid distractions out of respect for your attendees and close personal applications and tabs prior to sharing your screen.
  • Keep your team and/or co-facilitator chat group open and visible to you only. This enables you to talk to each other or discuss questions in a secure and private way. 
  • I don’t recommend using the Zoom chat for private messages as you can end up accidentally sending a private message to all participants.
  • Consider building in time for breaks as people may lose energy and need a break. Some tools such as Mural have a built-in timer that you can take advantage of or you can use your phone’s timer.
  • Easily keep an eye on participants’ faces and engagement levels by using gallery mode. By doing this, you get visual feedback directly from their facial reactions and expressions. 
  • Keep an eye on the chat: side discussions can be distracting for everyone, so be sure to monitor this and ensure folks are paying attention.
  • When selecting people to speak, don’t simply follow the order of who raised their hands first; instead, consider getting a diverse perspective. For example, if there are less women or BIPOC during the call, give them more opportunities to share their thoughts so it’s not a meeting dominated by men. 
  • When you start an activity and you expect participants to do something, it’s recommended to have a slide where you display, step by step, what is expected from them. This helps people understand what they have to do and feel empowered to join the activity while doing their best.

4. Closing the session. The feeling your guests have at the end of the meeting will shape how they feel about the entire session. Remember to properly summarize and close out your session!

  • Synthesize what happened during the session and pinpoint follow-up actions or expectations from participants. 
  • Tell them how much you appreciate their time. Acknowledge that you empathize with how hard it can be to sit in front of the computer for long periods of time without losing focus.
  • Ask for feedback from participants. You can use the poll feature for anonymous feedback, use a form to collect names with ideas, or simply ask for verbal feedback in a discussion format at the end of the call if you’ve established trust with your attendees.

This may sound a lot, but I assure you it’s not! Transitioning from in-person to remote meetings can be challenging, however it’s possible to adapt and hold effective sessions in a digital environment. As facilitators, I believe we should do our best to make sure guests feel excited, empowered and comfortable before joining a remote session. With some practice, these arrangements become second nature and you’ll be running successful and interactive sessions in no time.

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