I’ll admit it. Back in the early days of March 2020, I was one of those people. I was excited to be working from home. It’s a perk I’d fought for at my last job (eventually getting one day a week) and represented a workplace culture of understanding and trust. I saw working from home as working in slippers, having your own mug, being present on the school run and, best of all, no crowded commute. I am lucky not to be physically needed in the way medics, teachers, posties, bus drivers and so many others are. When people complain about online meetings, I cringe, because I’d rather be talking on mute by mistake than have to walk around a building with 2000 teenagers.
And yet there are problems to be smoothed out. Now that it’s November, we’re all sorted, right? We have shared to-do lists, we’ve sorted out the best productivity apps and we have the best free timesheet software. The only thing left to figure out is this. What are the rules for virtual meetings? Whether you use Zoom, Slack, Skype, Jitsi or Microsoft Teams for your work face-to-faces, it’s almost impossible to get a meeting to start on time.
Punctuality isn’t everyone’s strong suit, and lateness is something to be expected from time to time, whether you’re meeting in person or online. At least online excuses are relatable! Some examples we’ve heard include:
-My cat messed up my router
-My toddler was having a tantrum
-The internet is slow as everyone is working from home
-My last call overran (more on this later)
Aside from why you are late, whether or not tardiness is acceptable depends on how you are late. Communicating online requires an extra effort because body language and facial expressions are more difficult to read. If you log in inexplicably late and simply mumble an excuse, your colleagues may not be as lenient as they would have been in person.
In an office, people can see that you are at least in the building. They can assume that you’re just finishing up or getting a coffee, and you’ll be there any second.
Online, the best indicator of your whereabouts is a little green ‘online’ dot on your instant messenger. People will generally make the same assumptions for the first few minutes, but it’s important to understand the position your colleagues are in when they’re kept waiting.
There are definitely benefits to waiting in front of your computer, rather than in a meeting room. You can get on with other tasks, check your emails or update your timesheets. These smaller tasks can fill the gap.
If you’re waiting with others, you might be able to square away some of the smaller issues on the agenda that don’t need everyone’s input, saving time at the other end of the meeting. You could spend the time connecting with your colleagues, an important but often neglected part of working from home.
But once you’ve run out of quick jobs, your mind turns to the next substantial task on your to-do list. Bigger jobs require total focus, which can’t be achieved while you’re waiting for a meeting. That research paper, in-depth analysis, presentation deck, or coding nightmare can’t be achieved without getting into your flow.
You might think about making a start before your meeting, but it’s demotivating to know that you’ll have to stop again at a moment’s notice. The awareness that you will have to switch quickly between focussed work and communication can stop you achieving focus at all.
In this sense, waiting around is the same whether you’re in a room or a Zoom. It’s a boring, unproductive time that you could be using better.
The first time I hosted a “Family Zoom Quiz”, three people were late. One person hadn’t installed their webcam, one didn’t have any speakers so was looking for headphones, and one was trying to achieve a strong enough connection. This was a casual, family affair, so it wasn’t a big deal and we all had a good laugh about it, but it really showed me something. When you’re not used to online meetings, it’s easy to be unprepared. People assumed ‘online’ is the same as ‘magic’, that they could click once to be transported to a fun quiz environment. Without the right hardware, a strong connection and ready-to-use software, you might as well just use a phone.
Usually, workplace meetings are more high stakes than a casual call, so these issues are rare. The key to avoiding being late for online meetings is to be prepared.
So Why are People Really Late?
If we’ve worked out these initial video-calling kinks, there must be some other reason why even the most experienced home workers are late from time to time. When lateness causes disruption, it’s worth identifying the cause. Then you can take steps as a team to get virtual meetings starting on time.
The road to poor meeting attendance is paved with good intentions. Most people are late to virtual meetings because their previous meeting ran beyond it’s scheduled end-point. Ironically, this often happens because that meeting didn’t start on time. Like braking suddenly on a busy motorway, a late start and back-to-back calls can trigger a domino effect across your company, drawing agencies and clients into the delay.
It may be that you have too many meetings, and some things are better solved via email or Slack. If you’ve streamlined your schedule and still have multiple, necessary meetings, you can mitigate any rolling waves of delayed meetings by scheduling a break before and after. That way, you can manage any delays without having to push the next meeting back.
In companies where everyone’s calendar is shared, scheduling meetings becomes much simpler. You can see when your colleagues are available, and what calls are scheduled immediately before your meeting with them. This way, you can leave a gap before your meeting to ensure they have a buffer, or see what might be holding them up.
To get into an online meeting, you need to know the log-in information. With every video or phone conferencing platform, there is always a link to click, a code to dial or a password that you need to access your meeting. At this point, not being able to find the link is unprofessional, but even worse is when there’s no link at all. This can happen when it’s not clear who is the host, so nobody sets up the meeting until after a micro-meeting on who should host.
When you decide the time for your next meeting, set up the video conference too. Most video calling platforms allow you to schedule in advance, so you can send the meeting log-ins to your colleagues ahead of time. If you use a shared calendar, you can put these details into the meeting notes, so everyone has them in one place.
If you’re not the host, check you have the log-in well in advance of the meeting. Save details by flagging email invitations as soon as they arrive.
If you’re going to work from home, you need a stable internet connection. You might live with others who are also working from home, which slows your internet speeds and creates problems. For those living in a rural area, your internet coverage may be worse than expected. If you’re a regular internet user, you know your own connection well. If it’s usually patchy, don’t just hope for a strong connection for the duration of the meeting: take action.
Take some time to figure out your optimum, at-home internet conditions. Move your router around and get a Wi-Fi Extender to help the signal reach further. Check for programmes on your PC that are running in the background and using up bandwidth. You should also shut down unused wireless hardware, like your Alexa, wireless printer or Smart Kettle. Make sure the only things using your connection during working hours are the things you need.
If you can’t rely on Wi-Fi, use a wired connection. You can get ethernet cables longer than your small intestine. However far your home office is from your router, clip those cables along the skirting boards and your colleagues will thank you.
Sometimes being late is unavoidable. If you really can’t get online for the start of the meeting, there are some ways you can ensure nobody holds it against you.
-Remember the meeting! If you’ve got a good team, you’ll get a message when you’re not where you should be. This shouldn’t happen every time, however, and people will lose patience. Check your schedule in the morning and write down what meetings you have that day to be sure you don’t forget.
-Let people know you’ll be late. If something unexpected comes up that will stop you being online at the right time, or if a call looks like it’s going to run over, take the time to let people know and how long they should wait for you.
-Don’t waste time when you arrive. Once you’ve logged in, apologise, thank people for waiting, and bring attention straight to the agenda. People will appreciate you pushing forward more than a long explanation of your cat’s fight with the modem.
Regular virtual meetings are still new for most of us, and your workplace will be settling into a new culture. When it’s not clear what is appropriate, people follow the behaviour of those at the top.
If you’re the business owner, it’s time to lead from the front. Discuss with your team how you can all make a point of being early for meetings, or communicating if that’s not possible. Sending a quick apology shows that you know who is waiting for you and that you value your colleagues’ time, which goes a long way to creating a bit of leniency when you need it.