3 Steps to Make Virtual Meetings Actually Productive

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Photo Credit: StudioC

This post originally appeared on my column on Inc.com on July 18, 2016.

Videoconferencing is revolutionary. It allows people in the East Village to connect with international colleagues in real time–not only hearing what they have to say, but also seeing how they gesticulate when they’re talking. Seeing as though much of human communication is nonverbal, this is nothing to take lightly.

At Fuze, I manage a team of Product Managers spread across four different time zones. And I’m proud of the fact that I’m able to use my company’s software to connect with my team. I spend about 50% of my time traveling since I believe face-to-face meetings are immensely important. However when I’m back in my office in NYC, my days usually consist of joining back-to-back virtual meetings from my office for hours at a time. How exactly can you and your coworkers stay productive when you’re in videoconferences all day long?

Setup your office correctly

Believe it or not, making a few changes to the way you configure your work environment can have a tremendous impact on your videoconferencing productivity.

Not surprisingly, videoconferencing drives engagement during remote meetings. Those who attend videoconferences hold their attention 52% longer than those their peers who meet via conference call. What’s more, in a recent survey, 56% of respondents indicated that they multitask often during phone meetings. Compare that to only 4% of respondents doing the same during videoconferences, and you begin to see how these modern meetings are more productive.

But this all doesn’t mean that switching to videoconferences will automatically make your meetings more effective. You have to set yourself up for success. Here’s how:

Use your hands

Having a wide-angle camera (I use this Logitech webcam) allows you to be standing in full frame three or four feet back from your computer. Other attendees won’t just see your face. Wide-angle cameras make videoconferences more authentic because they enable you to talk with your hands, making it feel as though you’re in the same room with remote team members. Authenticity comes from engagement; when your meeting attendees see you actively talking and gesturing they know you’re being serious. Since people can see you in totality, they’re not worried if you’re hands are off-screen typing or using your phone. Remember, just because videoconferences are more productive doesn’t mean attendees won’t browse the web here and there. A wide-angle camera cuts down on those unproductive habits.

Sketch it out

There’s certainly a lot of digital whiteboarding software out there and it tends to work well when needed. To best mimic the in-person experience, however, you may be better off pairing your wide-angle camera with an actual whiteboard that’s facing it. That way, other attendees feel that much closer to being the same room as you. Sketching is a great way to get your creative energy going and help come to consensus faster when brainstorming with another person.

Stand up

The last thing you want is to doze off during a videoconference–something that becomes more likely when you have to go long periods of time without talking. To mitigate the risk, utilize a standing desk. This will make you more alert–and more importantly, less likely to embarrass yourself or the speaker by falling asleep!

Get up and walk out

Lastly, above all else, don’t forget to get up and out periodically. Though you may be tempted to stay in your office all day when you have back to back meetings, sometimes it’s okay to change the environment even though it seems to be working well.

It’s easy to get caught up in back-to-back meetings where you end one videoconference and launch another. In some instances, this may be unavoidable.

You should block yourself small chunks of time you can use to go for a walk, bounce ideas off a colleague, or have a one-on-one meeting. Movement encourages motivation. So take a break, get water, or interact with a local barista to make sure you’re not sitting (or standing) in your office all day.

Videoconferencing can seriously improve productivity. But you have to set yourself up for success. Follow these tips and you should see your videoconferences become much more effective.

Back From Hiatus (a.k.a Being Flexible)

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When I am very passionate about something I find it hard to stop doing it, whether that being playing soccer in my Brooklyn Bridge Park league or mentoring startups here in NYC. Writing is one of those areas of passion for me and it’s why I really enjoy writing on my blog. I find it’s a great way to share concepts and ideas, and I love the feedback that I get from readers of all different industries and backgrounds.

I’ve talked in several previous posts about how I manage my time, like using “GSD” blocks on my calendar during the day or capturing early-morning time to blog and read the news. I also believe that you need to be flexible with you whatever systems you use for your personal productivity. The list of things you need to accomplish and the list of things your passionate about have to actually “fit” into your available time.

Earlier in my career I found I would get super stressed out when a significant change in my life threw a wrench in my personal productivity. I’m talking things like promotions, new jobs, giant new projects, or even new relationships. I would have to “change” my perfect email system or alter my by-the-minute fixed morning routine. Over time I’ve realized that the true productivity ninja is someone who can recognize when a big enough wrench is thrown into system and then react accordingly.

At the beginning of the summer I took a new role inside of ThinkingPhones that made my responsibility and scope grow by what felt like 100x. I also took on an Instructor position at General Assembly (more on that soon) that added four hours of class and six hours of prep time per week to my schedule. This had the predictable effect of disrupting my time management system almost immediately.

What changed? On the work front, my new role caused me to have to learn and be responsible for a much larger portion of our product portfolio and in parallel increased the amount of people on my team. My need for time to just read material on my own and also the time needed to hire and coach increased several fold. Teaching was an incredible experience, but there I quickly realized that to effectively prepare my lessons for class I needed to spend significant time on the weekends creating the core material and then a few hours the morning of each class rehearsing.

Something had to give. I looked at my tasks and my calendar and realized that the time I spent writing and curating was about what I needed to prep for class. So I decided to take a break from writing and use that time to tackle my new role at work and my class at GA. It was stressful in the short term because I missed writing and don’t like stopping things I enjoy doing, but that feeling quickly switched to relief as the amount of effort I needed for both work and GA increased over the summer.

I’ve been looking forward to writing again and I’m glad I had this London-bound-no-internet-trans-atlantic flight to write this post and get back at it. Talk to you all soon.

Thanks!
-m

Why I Wake Up at 4:22am

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I was having lunch with some co-workers last week and the topic of morning routines came up. Everyone was sharing what time they woke up, how much they liked or hated it, and the things they did immediately after their feet hit the floor. The conversation turned to me with the question of “Someone told me you get up super early, is that true?”

I’m usually hesitant to tell people what time I wake up in the morning. Sharing the time usually causes whomever I’m speaking with to say something like – emphasis usually theirs – “Seriously? WHY WOULD YOU GET UP THAT EARLY?”

That happened last week. When I told my coworkers that I voluntarily wake up at 4:22am every weekday they looked at me like I was crazy. They shared that familiar sentiment of shock and curiosity, colored with the appropriate observation of “WHY!? We don’t have to be at work until 9:15am.”

Let me explain.

Mr. Wizard

I’ve been a morning person since I was a little kid. As a young nerd I would stay up past midnight every night reading my Hardy Boys novels or writing programs in BASIC on my Apple IIGS (I really miss that computer). In the mornings, my parents would come downstairs when they woke up and often find me sitting by myself at 5:30am in the kitchen, eating Captain Crunch and watching back-to-back episodes of Mr. Wizard before getting ready for school.

There are numerous articles and guides that support the idea that mornings are a time when you’re more creative, energized and productive. The Journal of Applied Psychology even has a study that indicates a strong positive correlation between proactive people and morning people:

“Morning people were more proactive than evening types, and people with small differences in rise time between weekdays and free days were also more proactive persons. Sleep length (on weekdays and on free days) and total time spent in weekend oversleep did not show any relationship with proactivity. These results suggest that morning people are more proactive than are evening types.”

Before I share more, let me say that I do not believe that people who wake up at 8am (like my wife) are more lazy than others, or that people who need more sleep are some form of productivity laggards. The same study I shared above also highlights how differences in circadian rhythms, metabolism, and other individual factors strongly influence the amount of sleep you need and what time you need to wake up. Sleep length and times, like nutrition and many other things about our bodies, is inherently different across each of us and requires personal experimentation to maximize it.

I do believe that even if you’re not a ‘morning person’ in the traditional sense you can hack the early part of your day to make it more productive.

Being Principled

Like my email triage system and many other personal productivity hacks, I’ve spent a non-trivial amount of time ‘tuning’ my morning routine. I don’t want to get up early and waste the time reading Twitter and Instagram (which would be super easy), so I designed my mornings around these principles:

  1. Get chores out of the way
    I don’t get home until late and I hate coming home to chores (like taking care of the cats).
  2. Get my head on straight
    Plan my day, get my calendar in my head, and know what I’m doing that night.
  3. Get smarter
    Spend undistracted time learning new things. Get my tech news fix and re-share content.
  4. Get healthy
    Exercise and eat some good food.

The times below represent the goal state for how I want to spend my mornings. I think I do it with about 90% consistency. I believe that part of having a good morning routine is listening to your body and knowing when it’s telling you things like “Hey, you’re sick. You need to sleep in today.”, or the lovely “Yo dude, that fourth scotch last night was one too many. Take an Advil and go back to bed.”

The Routine

4:22am – Alarm goes off.

I set if for 4:22am because I believe that waking on the quarter or half hour makes it easy to say “I’ll just sleep for another 15 (or 30) min.” Sleeping an extra eight minutes feels less useful to me and incentivizes me to get up. I take those next eight minutes to actually wake myself up, trying to do it slow and with some degree of mindfullness. I sit up, clear my head, throw some sweats on, and put my contacts in.

4:30am – Chore duties.

I feed the cats, clean their water bowls, scoop litter, etc. We have three cats so this actually takes a few minutes. I’ll brew some coffee in parallel and also fill a giant bottle of water to drink before class. I run the laundry (I wash and dry, Amy folds), and do a little light vacuuming (with a quiet dust vac – I save the Dyson for weekends).

4:40am – Learn.

I’m trying to re-learn Italian this year, so I spend 10min every morning using Duolingo to practice different lessons. I found that it wakes my brain up and gets my Duolingo score up for the day. I then try to practice another 10min sometime during the day.

4:50am – Read.

I spend about 15min reading tech news sites. I like to read articles on their actual sites so I use a Chrome bookmark folder called “Daily Industry Review” to auto-open these sites and then click through them. I try to read 1-2 articles per site and will use Hootsuite to schedule them into my Twitter and LinkedIn feeds. Long articles get sent to Pocket for reading on the train.

5:05am – House logistics

I use this time to update our budget, take care of our rental properties, and deal with any household logistics that I need to via email. This is mostly managing our budget in the excellent YouNeedABudget software, emailing tenants about any issues, and reviewing notes from homeowners meetings.

5:15am – Plan my day

I spend the last 10min of this part of the morning reviewing my calendar for the day. I move personal and work appointments around as needed and generally get my head around where I’m going to be and who I’m going to be meeting with.

5:25am – Get to the gym

Get ready for the gym and bike to Crossfit. I usually get there about 15min early to stretch and warmup.

6:00am – Workout / Blog

I workout at Crossfit South Brooklyn on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays during the week, and both Saturday and Sunday on the weekend. Tuesdays and Fridays are rest days in our gym’s Crossfit programming, and on those days I use this hour to work on my blog.

Back when I first joined Microsoft I was single and had no after-work responsibilities. So I used to go to the gym after work but then wouldn’t get home until 11pm, all awake and energized from exercising. No bueno if you’re trying to get quality sleep (more on this later in the post). After a few months of dating Amy she asked me to not spend two hours per night at the gym instead of hanging out with her. A valid request, and my change to morning workouts happened pretty shortly thereafter. I quickly found I loved getting my workout in during the morning, a sentiment that has only gotten stronger since switching to Crossfit several years ago. It makes me feel energized, and I don’t have that nagging feeling of “damn it I have to go to the gym tonight” throughout the day.

7:15am – Cook, Eat, Triage

After I bike home from the gym I cook a quick breakfast for Amy and I. I’m usually starving since I work out fasted and will make (for myself) a four-egg scramble with bacon, sausage, and veggies, usually with yogurt and blueberries on the side. Yum. While I eat breakfast I take my first look at my work email, reviewing urgent threads and seeing what came in overnight. I keep Inbox Zero so anything in there is either new from the last 12 hours or returned by Boomerang.

8:30am – Head to work

Leave for work. I *love* the R train.

9:15am – Daily standup

Arrive at work for the daily scrum standup. Try to seize the day.

Small Goals, Big Results

As I mentioned earlier, this routine represents my ideal morning and I think I’m able to do it without about 90% consistency. The 10% is from things like traveling, being sick, having gone out the night before or having stayed up super late working. The times and structure for how I accomplish these task has come over time. A big part of the evolution has been setting small goals that work towards a bigger one. Many years ago I was waking up at 5am but I wanted to try waking up earlier. I knew I’d like an extra 30min in the morning, but that’s a big jump and also has a lot of impact on your evening. So I started small: my goal was waking up at 4:45am twice a week, then after a few weeks it became 4:30am, then after a few weeks I spread that out to all five weekdays. More recently that has worked with tasks like Duolingo, and even finding the optimal time to leave the house for the subway.

Count All The Sheep

If you’re still reading this (sorry it’s so long), you’re likely wondering what time I go to sleep since I wake up at 4:22 in the morning. When I was a kid doing the Captain Crunch + Mr. Wizard thing in the AM I was sleeping between four to five hours a night. My father is the same way and we’ve both maintained about five hours of sleep per night throughout our lives. I’ve never been tested but I’m fairly sure I have some variant of the ‘less sleep’ gene.

My goal for the past few years has been to keep improving the quality of the sleep I get by making small hacks and tweaks wherever possible. There’s a lot of good research and plenty of articles that describe how it doesn’t matter how much sleep you need – whether you’re an 8hr person or a 3hr person – it’s the quality that makes such a big difference and enables you to be more productive in the morning and the rest of the day. Unless I’m working late or am going out with friends, I’ll try to get in bed at 11pm on weeknights. Here are some of the hacks I do to get try and keep my sleep quality high:

  • No coffee after 3pm during the day. I’m uber sensitive to caffeine and only need my two cups in the morning.
  • No naps during the day.
  • I try to avoid using my computer or iPad for the 30min before I get into bed to reduce the amount of blue light pulverizing my brain. I have F.Lux running on all my devices to help with winding down when I need to work late.
  • I try not to eat my dinner right before bed.
  • I have a tablespoon of almond butter right before bed to help balance out my blood sugars.
  • I drink one full glass of water.
  • I spend about 15min reading on my Kindle Paperwhite after getting in bed.
  • I’ve found that using a sleep mask helps me a lot. A great side effect is that I’m now conditioned such that when I need to sleep in random places (redeye flights, trains, etc.), I pop the sleep mask on and literally start to get tired. #pavlov

The Reason

The best part about having a productive morning? When I leave work I feel like there’s nothing left for me to do except drink a glass of scotch, hang out with my wife and friends, or binge-watch House of Cards.

What’s your morning routine like?

* picture at the top from http://imgkid.com/cat-sleeping-funny-position.shtml

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The absence of a manager, or the structure of forced “360” reviews in a large company, means that for some growing businesses, those moments of reflection on performance and work experience are infrequent—and potentially not happening at all.

Happy Monday! I found some great self-reflection tips for Monday mornings that can help re-focus and boost productivity. I spend a few minutes every Monday doing this (usually while biking to the gym) to make sure I feel like I’m hitting the week strong.

http://www.inc.com/laura-garnett/5-questions-you-should-ask-yourself-every-monday-morning.html

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According to Meeker, more than 1.8 billion photos are uploaded and shared daily across these platforms. These photos are not findable: more and more people are choosing to share one-to-one, creating richer, more personal connections.

How Messaging Apps Are Changing the Way Businesses Connect With Customers” via @huffposttech 

Mapping this consumer trend to the enterprise world makes it clear that companies will need to focus on small team collaboration scenarios to drive adoption of new productivity tools.