For many business owners during this pandemic, running a company from home is brand new. For Chris Dyer, the founder and CEO of background-check company PeopleG2 (No. 4535 on the Inc. 5000), it's just another day at the (home) office.

The entrepreneur has run the Brea, California-based shop--with 35 full-time employees and 3,000 contractors--remotely for nearly 11 years. "We were built to operate this way," says Dyer, whose company was founded in 2001, but went remote in 2009 to cut costs. The company booked $5 million in revenue in 2019.

In that time, Dyer estimates PeopleG2 has held more than 100,000 virtual meetings. There's an art to it, he says--and that's especially true in uncertain times. You need to call enough meetings to stay up to date, but not so many that employees spend the whole day on videoconference calls and can't get work done. You also need to keep those meetings efficient and professional, but acknowledge that many participants are dealing with caregiving responsibilities, subpar work-from-home setups, and their own physical and mental health. 

Here's his playbook for running effective and compassionate virtual meetings.

Stay disciplined.

If your virtual meetings tend to run long or drift off topic, define some ground rules around the meetings, Dyer says. That way, people will know what's expected of them, how to show up, and what they're showing up for.

His company's fundamental rules are simple: All meetings must start on time. They must end early, to prevent participants from stretching out the discussion to fill the allotted time. And each meeting must have an agenda. Meetings also get classified into different types, each with a name and a set of rules. 

The most common types are "cockroach" and "ostrich" meetings: short, informal, single-issue meetings that can be called by anyone in the organization, using any platform and inviting any colleagues. Cockroach meetings are for solving minor issues--"If you have a cockroach in your bathroom, it's a small problem," he says. Ostrich meetings, rather, are for seeking information or help with a task: "Help me get my head out of the sand." Employees are free to decline invitations to these meetings if they're too busy. The average cockroach meeting is seven minutes long, according to Dyer, and as of last month the company averages 38 of them per day. (The company has been holding more ostrich meetings than usual recently to keep employees informed about the coronavirus crisis.) 

When there's a complex subject to discuss, a team leader will call a "tiger" meeting. ("If there's a tiger in your bathroom, it's a bigger problem," Dyer says.) These can last an hour or more, with more participants and multiple items on the agenda. 

The archetypal brainstorming meeting takes place in a conference room around a whiteboard, but Dyer believes in a virtual version of that, too. At PeopleG2, each team holds a half-hour meeting every month to devise responses to a hypothetical scenario. These "tsunami" meetings aren't just for generating ideas, says Dyer--they also give employees a safe space to put forward their suggestions and disagree with one another, and reveal whether any individual doesn't collaborate well and needs extra coaching. The monthly practice reinforces a sense of "psychological safety" that's important to the company's culture, he says, and it's yielded real solutions, like setting up a co-location for the company's data center to protect against outages.

Be mindful of individual needs.

Rules help keep meetings on-task and productive, but there are also ways leaders can build empathy into each one. This can be especially meaningful in a moment of unprecedented global anxiety. PeopleG2 uses a "check in" and "check out" system in longer meetings to gauge employees' engagement and state of mind. 

At the beginning of the meeting, participants share how they're feeling. For example, one person might say that she's been caring for a toddler and hasn't gotten much sleep; with this in mind, the meeting's leader might call for more frequent breaks or excuse her from the meeting, and the rest of the group might be more understanding if she is uncharacteristically brusque. Physical discomfort, like being hungry or cold, can also affect people's mental states and how they behave in meetings, but when your team is remote, you can't control these environmental factors by providing lunch or turning up the heat. That's why it's important to at least acknowledge them, according to Dyer. "Sometimes there [are] things we can't fix, or we can't do anything about, but at least the group knows where that person is at," he says. This kind of openness requires trust, but once you've uncovered the reasons why an employee might not be at their best, you'll not only be more prepared to offer support to that person, but also prevent misunderstandings and "negative energy" from interfering with work.

At the end of each meeting, the leader checks in again to confirm that everyone is satisfied with the results of the discussion, rather than assuming that there are no outstanding concerns. "We're starting the meeting off with, 'What's going on with you as a person?'" Dyer says, "And then when we're leaving, it's, 'Okay, what's going on with you as the employee?'"

A sudden shift to remote work can put strain on employees and bosses alike, and could make it more important than ever to set the right example and have a thoughtful system in place for people to come together virtually. For better or worse, meetings are where employees learn the company's norms and values, Dyer says. "Meetings are the place where you learn how to function."