How to Run a Remote Team Meeting

By Wade Foster - Last updated April 1, 2019 -

You are reading: Chapter 7 of 15

Most meetings in the modern workplace are pointless. We're meeting averse here at Zapier because we want avoid the distracting and unnecessary side meetings that happen every day in co-located teams.

That said, if done right, meetings can be an efficient way to work through potential problems and solutions. This is the case for a recurring "standup meeting" in a remote team, which gives teammates visibility into each other's activities and helps remove any roadblocks in the way of a colleague's responsibilities. It's also a nice reminder that you work with people who have personalities bigger than their group chat personas would ever show.

Over the course of Zapier's history we have revamped how we do our team standup meeting. After many—six at last count—unsuccessful iterations, we've finally found a meeting structure that drives meaningful discussion and visible results for the business.

Here's how we make the most of the weekly standup meeting:

Time and Meeting Frequency


Each week at the teams discretion (we have 3 teams at Zapier - support, marketing, and product/engineering) there is a weekly meeting. There's also a weekly lightning talk / demo meeting which isn't useful for working through the current roadmap.

In the past, we tried the agile version of the 15-minute daily standup, but we found this was too frequent. Most days, team members didn't have enough new information to convey, making a majority of the meetings not useful. The daily format also required everyone to slot some part of their day, every day to chat. That was a lot of wasteful meeting overhead.

So we settled on a weekly meeting. One week between check-ins tends to supply the right amount of activity where a team meeting becomes useful.

The best time is determined by each team. Support likes to do 8am PST on Monday's because it kick starts the week nicely. Marketing does Tuesday at 3:30pm PST because it plays nicely with Thailand. Engineering likes to do 8am PST on Friday because it caps the week of work nicely.

Meeting Structure

Past iterations of our weekly team meeting involved each team member verbally sharing the items they completed that week. However, that was an inefficient way to do a meeting.

Meetings are an awful place for information sharing. When we did so, we spent the entire meeting talking at each other about tasks we completed rather than discussing tasks that could drive significant results for the company.

So we pulled a trick out of the Jeff Bezos playbook: write your ideas out in complete sentences.

Meeting Preparation

Friday update

Before the weekly meeting, each teammate writes a short bit about what they are working on that week and what's on their mid term roadmap in a shared Google Doc.

  • Things I said I'd do this week and their results
  • Other issues that came up
  • Things I'm doing next week

Teammates aren't required to read these posts before the meeting. Instead, the first 10 minutes of our meeting is complete silence. During the silence everyone reads through all the updates from each team member.

Information sharing happens more efficiently via written word. Another benefit is that it's documented if it's needed later.

Once everyone has had the chance to read through all the updates we then turn to the discussion.

Meeting Discussion

Discussion in meetings is also a hard aspect to get right. In the past, we conducted a free-for-all for questions. This led to some people and projects naturally dominating the discussion. In the end, important questions weren't getting answered.

So we flipped the discussion aspect of the meeting on its head. Instead of allotting time for each person to answer questions about their weekly update, we give each person time to ask questions of their teammates that they formulated when reading the update posts.

Each person gets 5 minutes to ask questions, but they aren't required to use all 5 minutes if they don't need it. Since it's time-constrained, team members make sure to only ask pertinent questions and ask their questions in order of importance.

If discussions last longer than 5 minutes, it's a sign you either need to chat with the relevant parties later or your updates post didn't go into enough detail on that topic.

We also designate one person be the designated timekeeper. This way we don't waste time figuring out who is going to keep track of how long each person takes.

We also keep the order of team members consistent, though it does rotate. The question-asking order goes from nearest birthday to furthest birthday (at time of writing that means February birthdays go first, and January birthdays go last). This means you always know where in the rotation you come. (Bonus: You also always know when your teammate's birthday is right around the corner).

Meeting Equipment

One aspect we initially undervalued was the right equipment. As long as you have an internet connection then you should be good to go for the team hangout, right?

It's not quite that simple. A poor internet connect and poor headphone/microphone combination makes participation in the meeting almost impossible.

If at all unavoidable you should join the meeting on a strong internet connection; wired if possible. We also recommend teammates have a good set of headphones.

Why Does This Work?

Caveat: I'm not a behavioral scientist. After running these meetings for several years, I've found this meeting structure works well for the following reasons.

  1. It requires minimal preparation for everyone. All that's required before the meeting is a short update post on what you did that week.
  2. The meeting focuses on answering specific questions individual team members have. Information sharing happens before the discussion starts so there is minimal time wasted giving information vocally.
  3. It follows a specific structure. The structure allows the meeting to run quickly and smoothly. Little time gets wasted figuring out what should get talked about and who should be talking.
  4. Everyone gets ample time to have their questions answered, rather than a dominant voice controlling the meeting. The 5-minute circle makes sure all voices get heard.
  5. The 5-minute limit ensures the most important topics get discussed. It also makes sure everyone is succinct in asking questions and in answering them. There isn't time to be long-winded.
  6. Proper use of tools. Slack, Google Docs, GoToMeeting, Google Calendar and Zapier all combine to make sure that the meeting runs smoothly.
  7. Information gets documented. Because everyone writes their updates in Google Doc, the bulk of the meeting gets documented and saved for reference later.

How Will This Scale?

Truthfully, I'm not sure.

We used to do this meeting with everyone in the company. Now we've sharded to team meetings. Anecdotally, it seems like once you get to 10 or more people the usefulness of a meeting like this starts to decline so it's time to think of ways to restructure teams to be smaller. You can likely do more people if the topic is pretty narrow. The more divergent the topics the more you might need to split.

Either way, we'll continue to experiment and tweak as we grow. Even without an answer for scaling, this is a worthwhile meeting structure to share since it has been effective for us for quite some time.

Online meetings aren't enough, so in the next chapter, we'll look at how to run successful company retreats.

Go to Chapter 8!

Written by Wade Foster


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