06/23/2014 03:55 pm ET Updated Aug 23, 2014

Rules of Engagement For Remote Working

Small businesses have to engage with people all the time -- their own employees, outside vendors, customers. The default is usually to "have a meeting." But chances are, these aren't going so well for you. According to a survey reported by, executives say 67 percent of their meetings are failures. Yet, as much as 15 percent of an organization's collective time is spent in meetings -- and top management spends 50 percent of their day in meetings. Overall, Research Digest estimates businesses hold 11 million meetings across the United States every day, and $37 billion is lost on unproductive meetings.

All small business owners know that the best use of their time is engaging with customers and prospects, and useless meetings are simply intolerable. Moreover, even when you could potentially be meeting with those key audiences, research by Fuze shows that 92 percent of meeting participants multitask during the session -- 41 percent do so "often" or "all the time" -- while 69 percent check email and 49 percent do other, unrelated work.

It's no wonder meetings are so unproductive when participants are actively disengaged. And, as the proportion of remote workers increases for businesses, engagement becomes even more difficult because individuals at distant sites often have difficulty following along and contributing.

These findings don't mean, however, that your company should cancel all its meetings going forward; rather, you can find ways to help meetings add value to the organization by disseminating information, supporting individual and team efforts, making essential connections and -- above all -- keeping employees engaged.

Preparing for Better Meetings with a Remote Workforce

As a first step toward improving your meetings, you should ask yourself three crucial questions:

1. Is a meeting necessary in this instance, or can you communicate your message just as effectively by email or via managers to employees?

2. What do you want the outcome of the meeting to be, and can you achieve that outcome in less than half an hour?

3. Who absolutely must be at the meeting, and who can be designated as optional attendees?

When meetings are appropriate, consider preparing a "meeting contract" between the individuals who schedule the meeting and the people they invite. Through this contract, attendees will promise to:

  • Be on time
  • Come prepared
  • Leave politics at the door
  • Focus and engage, without multitasking
  • Communicate openly
  • Offer constructive input and feedback

In return, the meeting organizer pledges to:

  • Schedule only necessary meetings
  • Start on time and end early when possible
  • Outline clear meeting objectives and an agenda
  • Keep the conversation focused and interactive
  • Capture and distribute action items.

A More Engaged Workforce

If you're a small business, you're likely to be working extensively with freelancers, service crews and suppliers located far from your office site. You should take additional steps to ensure that meetings are valuable to these remote workers and that they remain engaged and focused on your objectives. While many businesses regularly use audio-conferencing as a way to include remote staff in meetings, today's online technology enables a much more effective way to communicate: live video.

Gone are the days of stuttering, pixelated video exchanges; today's technology offers high-definition video and audio. Small businesses can have the same power and quality for their videoconferences that large enterprises enjoy.

Studies of employee activity during meetings reveal that, while as many as 57 percent multitask while on the phone, only 4 percent multitask on video calls. That likely is because online video, viewed on computer, tablet or smartphone screens, helps participants feel more as if they are on par with attendees in the conference room. It also allows remote workers to see full-resolution PowerPoint and other visuals used by presenters, thereby clarifying communications.

Conducting small-business meetings through online video and audio can bring everyone into the picture and allow for a much better exchange of information and ideas. For instance, a video meeting to plan an event can enable everyone involved to collaborate, annotating documents and drawing on whiteboards, presenting with animated PowerPoint or sharing documents and applications on their desktops.

Meetings hold great potential if they work for your staff and not against them. Consider how you might improve your own meetings, and discover how an engaged team becomes a much more successful team.