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Leading an Organization Through the Uncertainty of COVID-19: Part 3

March 9, 2020

This post was originally published by Stan McChrystal on LinkedIn

Remote Communication: Best Practices

“Wait…how did you guys have a daily virtual meeting with thousands of people that didn’t turn into complete chaos?”

When I speak with corporate audiences and explain the Team of Teams model that Stan McChrystal designed while commanding a global Special Operations task force, this question comes up nearly every time. In that exceptionally complex and fast-moving environment, McChrystal created a geographically dispersed, remote workforce of thousands around the globe that re-synchronized itself every 24-hours for years on end.

But the current challenge we all face relative to COVID-19, maintaining corporate and economic performance while the threat of a deadly virus spreads quickly, is already requiring many large organizations to go into large-scale, remote work status. How can an organization do this while maintaining speed, strategic alignment, and cultural cohesion?

This is part three of our series on tackling the challenges of a large-scale, remote work organization. Today, I’ll discuss best practices for optimizing a remote communication forum, and how a leader can re-create the impact of face-to-face communication. From our time in Special Operations to a decade working with corporate partners, McChrystal has seen this methodology implemented across many sectors, and in organizations from startups to Fortune 10.

In a previous post, we discussed some of the technical systems and meeting structures you should have in place (IT, agenda construction, an appointed meeting organizer, etc.). Today, we’ll dive a bit deeper into individual technique and behavior to maximize your team’s performance when work styles change:

1.    Use Video: It requires more bandwidth, but the personal connection of seeing a teammate’s face far exceeds what a conference call alone can provide. Any good collaboration platform (at McChrystal, we leverage Microsoft Teams) will provide video connectivity that can put people “face-to-face” all the way down to smartphones over existing wireless networks. If your organization doesn’t use the video feature today, start practicing now. When bandwidth is constrained, the leader should maintain a video connection even if the other attendees cannot. This allows you to project calm and focus, as well as encouraging people to stay fully engaged in a remote meeting.

2.    Use Chat: We recommend a video platform that will allow chat rooms to run in parallel. Using the chat room attached to the meeting for questions or comments to the group to be posted without constant interruption and confusion. Chat is also a great channel for point-to-point communications around a meeting topic, and general comments that are not time sensitive.  

3.    Have a standard, scripted kickoff for virtual meetings: In an office environment, we stroll into meetings, catch the small talk in the hallway, and naturally orient ourselves to the meeting and the people around us. In a remote environment, we’re abruptly connected. Be aware of this difference and have a standard opening script. Welcome your team, make it personal, orient them to the meeting’s intent. We’ve all sat through countless painful conference calls where the first five minutes is people talking over each other until someone takes control. The owner of a remote meeting might start with:

“Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for joining. This is Mary Smith, Vice President for Supply Chain. I hope your week is off to a great start! It’s 2pm Eastern Time on Tuesday, March 17th, and this is the weekly regional resourcing sync. I run this meeting at this time every week, and the intent is to talk through any resourcing issues from the past seven days, and forecast requirements for the next seven days. It’s great to see that we have over 200-folks dialed in today! For those of you joining us for the first time, you should see our agenda on your screen, but if it’s not coming through, you’ll also find it attached in the calendar invite in your outlook. I’m running this meeting from my home office in St. Louis, and I see that we have folks dialed in from six time zones around the world! We’ll capture and send out detailed minutes at the end of this 60-minute meeting. If you have tactical questions throughout this meeting, please use the chat room, which I’ve asked Peter Jones, my deputy here in St. Louis, to monitor throughout the meeting. With that, let’s turn to our first region update…”

In less than a minute, you can quickly align hundreds of teammates around the world. Connect with them, orient them to where they are in virtual meeting space, underscore the intent, and set the parameters through agenda and time allocation. But remember, you’ll have new folks joining almost every time in a large and complex organization. Using the standard introduction every meeting will feel repetitive, but your remote employee who can’t rely on hallway conversations will appreciate the connection and feel like they’re part of the team.

4.    Offer guidance on sound discipline: We’ve all dealt with the conference call when you can’t hear Bob because his Bluetooth is crackly, or Sarah because she’s boarding a flight. In normal circumstances, we can live with this. But if large-scale, remote work is the new norm, it is everyone’s responsibility to be as clear and crisp as possible—out of respect to others in the meeting and in service to the mission, as possible. We recommend that you establish some standing norms, distribute them, and highlight them regularly.

  • Join remote forums from a quiet area out of respect to others on the line
  • Introduce yourself with name, title, and location if you ask a question or offer a comment
  • Speak at 75% speed and over-articulate your words
  • Ensure your microphone is well positioned. Headsets are better than laptop speakers.
  • If you’re speaking for the first time, ask for a quick sound check (from a specific person! Don’t ask 200-people, “can you hear me ok?”)
  • When you’re not speaking – go on mute
  • Turn on your video…it’s important that we can see each other while we’re remote
  • Most importantly – assume positive intent. There are challenges with large scale remote collaboration, but we’ll figure it out as a team!

5.    Call people by name: Don’t say, “ok, over to the New York office,” but instead, “OK, over to Laura and Mike, our co-heads in New York. Great to see you both, and thanks for dialing in. Really appreciate what you’re doing to keep our 50 teammates there tied in, and thanks for the report you posted yesterday. Laura, we’ll start with you.” 

It takes 30 additional seconds, but a little touch from you as a leader can overcome some of the challenges of remotely connecting your team.

6.    Let the meeting controller control: in our last post, we discussed the importance of a controller who introduces briefers, takes meeting notes, keeps the agenda on heading, and monitors the general chat room for key issues or questions to highlight. The controller isn’t the executive hosting the meeting – he or she is the chief of staff, director of operations, or director of finance who knows the whole organization well and can free up the executive to think and ask questions. Allow this person to do their job. If a topic is running over, the controller can gently nudge. “Team, we’re a few minutes over on this topic. I’d recommend that Ted and Laura have a side-bar call afterwards and update us all over email.” The executive who owns the meeting can always override, but it’s a great way to show the other 198-teammates that you’re being respectful of their time and focus.

7.    Have a scripted closing: just like the opening, have a baseline script that you close with. Thank your teammates, hit some highlights that jumped out at you, give some personal commentary about your focus in the days ahead. This is also a perfect time for things like, “and, happy birthday to Mitch, who is dialed in from his Seattle home office!” Little personal touches like that go an incredibly long way to keep people connected into the culture.

8.    Turn off your arrival/departure ping sounds. Folks calling in may experience connectivity issues and need to redial. Don’t let these glitches disrupt the flow of content.

9.    Record notes, questions, and decisions: This is a knowledge management tool. Record your meetings, and they can be watched by teammates that weren’t able to join, and can be available for future reference. This is doubly important for companies operating globally, so you don’t force people to dial into meetings at 3am local time routinely.

10. Be genuine: Most importantly, if you’re running a large, remote forum, try to forget that there are hundreds dialed in. Just be yourself, and talk as if there are teammates on the other end who need to hear from the real-you, and be reassured that they’re still part of an effective and cohesive team! This is where leadership matters most.

Each of these tips are small individually – but they add up to a completely different, and radically more effective, remote meeting. They take discipline from the executives and meeting controllers to enforce, but get easier with time and practice. Don’t wait until everyone is in a remote-work status to start piloting these rules! Start today, with a few of the steps above, and build up from there. 

Please continue to reach out with the great comments and questions!

Link to Part 1:

Link to Part 2:

McChrystal Website:

Stan McChrystal Biography:

Chris Fussell Biography:

About the Author
Stan McChrystal, CoFounder of McChrystal Group


More Resources:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5