Surefire ways to enhance meetings for remote teams

The right hardware and software can help meetings with a distributed workforce run smoothly and efficiently.

remote employees

Like many businesses today, IT service provider Avaap has a distributed workforce: With offices in New Jersey, Minnesota and India, it also employs hundreds of remote consultants.

These consultants -- and their in-office counterparts -- rely on tools that help them have better meetings to keep business running smoothly, says Adam Goldstein, VP of service and delivery.

"The tools we use to meet and communicate with employees, groups and clients across the world have enabled us to extend our talent pool. Our focus is on hiring for core competency, not geography," Goldstein says. "Because we make that work, it outweighs a lot of the disadvantages of not being in a single office and talking face-to-face."

Making meetings work -- even without the added challenge of distributed workforces -- is a pain point for many companies. Meetings consume slightly over 16% of the average employee's workday, according to a Harris Poll published in October 2014, and were also cited as the No. 1 workplace frustration: Almost 6 out of 10 enterprise workers say wasteful meetings get in the way of their productivity.

"Employees always complain about meetings, whether it's that they're too long, unnecessary or unfocused," says Adam Preset, principal analyst at Gartner. "But meetings are not bad in and of themselves; it's bad meetings that are bad."

But even good meetings can be made unproductive when remote participants find themselves unable to, well, participate. Some of these problems are systemic, Preset says. Businesses might not have the technology they need to conduct productive meetings with remote workers. Other times, they might have too many tools, and sometimes they're just the wrong tools, he says.

Avaap, men's shaving startup Harry's and fueling equipment contractor Oscar W. Larson all turned to technology to better support their distributed workforces and facilitate better meetings. Here's how the three companies approached their search for the best tools, plus tips to keep meetings with remote workers focused and productive.

Standardizing disparate tools

Six years ago, Avaap relied on phone calls and a hodgepodge of communication tools -- including Skype, Google Chat, Yahoo Messenger and Trillian -- for meetings and everyday check-ins. As the company grew, the need for standardized tools emerged.

"Everyone had a half-dozen accounts -- you'd talk to one person one way and another person another way," Goldstein says. "We were a smaller business at the time, [but] as we scaled, it became apparent that the most important thing was to pick a tool."

Avaap pared down its tech portfolio, choosing Skype, which employees use for instant messaging and quick face-to-face video meetings, and Citrix's GoToMeeting, which the company adopted to fulfill an increasing need for a webinar tool.

"Our real requirement was that the tools were light and easy to use," Goldstein says. "GoToMeeting and [Cisco's] WebEx were the only two options with high-quality video at the time, and GoToMeeting was less costly. Skype was simply the most common platform among the teams in the U.S. and India, so it was easier to adopt."

Widespread adoption of these two tools has made meetings involving in-house staff, remote consultants and clients more productive and efficient, Goldstein says.

"We have always had a large blend of remote employees, and even the local employees are often remote at customer sites. Growth has simply expanded the demand on these tools as we don't just interact internally, but are very often using the tools to support customers."

Skype's mobile app, which he says is used most heavily by Avaap's consultants, lets them meet quickly, no matter where they are. GoToMeeting's uses are more diverse: Avaap uses it for internal meetings, meetings with customers, webinars, presentations and trainings. GoToMeeting's quality and cost have remained competitive, Goldstein says, which is why the company has stuck with it so long.

"We tried a few times to use free or lower-cost webinar and screen-sharing tools, but when you're presenting to clients and prospective customers, quality and ease of use is too important," he says.

This philosophy -- choosing a technology that simply works for you -- is better than agonizing over tools with the most bells and whistles, Goldstein says. "Find [a tool] that works for you, and don't worry about it being the best one out there," he says.

Videoconferencing connects remote staff

Harry's, an online subscription service for men's shaving supplies that launched in 2013, employs 100 U.S.-based workers, most of whom are located in its New York City headquarters. Harry's also owns a factory in Germany, which employs between 400 and 500 people.

Harry's recently relocated to a bigger office, which meant redesigning its headquarters and finding a solution to connect people in the factory in Germany, the company's remote employees in the U.S. and U.K, and its local team, which also has the option to work from home, says Matt Anderson, IT associate at Harry's.

"If you want to work remotely, you can -- that's why it was a focus for our team to put into action the technology that enables you to do that," Anderson says.

Harry's specifications for a tool were simple: It wanted a lightweight solution that was easy for employees to use, one devoid of dongles and cords that connect to computers, and something that was simple for IT to integrate and maintain.

"One of the most difficult parts of the search was that no one has integrated video really well," Anderson says. "We didn't want a [vendor] that knows a little about a lot, we wanted a company that specialized in it and did it well."

Anderson and his team settled on a videoconferencing, Web conferencing and screen-sharing solution from Highfive. Highfive's device weighs just a pound, measures 13.0 x 3.25 x 2.25 in. and plugs directly into any display with an HDMI port; it connects to the network via an Ethernet cable. The all-in-one device features an HD video camera and a built-in noise-canceling microphone; it also gives wireless access to its mobile app and Web conferencing tools.

Highfive's software (there are apps for Windows, OS X and iOS; an Android app is in the works) lets remote or onsite employees log in from their computer or mobile device and use any display that the Highfive device is connected to for sharing presentations or video chats. If their Wi-Fi connection is particularly bad, the remote workers can stay in the meeting as audio-only participants.

The Highfive devices cost $1,200 apiece; there are no user or usage fees. Harry's headquarters has the devices in every conference room, while the factory in Germany has a single device. Executive teams use the tool to meet face-to-face every month, while onsite and remote employees use it for their weekly meetings, Anderson says.

"We hold company meetings every Tuesday morning. No matter where people are, they can participate in it," he says. "It's also made presentations better and more productive because you're not wasting time trying to get projectors hooked up."

Along with the new hardware and software from Highfive, Harry's doubled down on making sure the time its workers spent in meetings was as productive as possible. This included creating agendas, recording meeting minutes and appointing a designated timekeeper. Meetings are scheduled via Google Calendar, Anderson says, which the company uses to block time for 30 minutes or an hour (the app lets Harry's designate 25 or 50 minutes for meetings as a cushion to prevent them from running long).

"Because of our corporate culture, we want employees to be productive wherever they are," Anderson says. "If you need to work remotely one day, we want to make sure that you're as engaged in meetings and as productive at home as you would be in the office. These tools help you do that."

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