Why check-ins should be part of your team meeting culture
Laïla von Alvensleben
November 3, 2021
“How are you doing?”
You’ve probably asked or been asked this question multiple times just this week. In casual conversation, it can be anything from a serious inquiry to a throwaway greeting. On hybrid or work-from-anywhere (WFA) teams, however, this simple question can become a whole lot more meaningful. Asking how a colleague is feeling (and actually wanting to know the answer) is key to fostering camaraderie, building psychological safety on your team, and connection across continents and Zoom screens.
However, its importance goes even further than that. This question is the basis for the formal “check-in” — a simple activity that should appear at the top of every meeting agenda. Knowing where every member of your team stands on an emotional level before diving into the work provides clarity and increases transparency, builds trust, and increases empathy.
In short, including a check-in at the top of your agenda isn’t just about checking off a box; it’s about building real connection.
Our experiences as remote learning facilitators have proven this time and again. Together, we’ve helped hundreds of teams improve their WFA and remote work processes in order to use their time together efficiently and productively. And we put the check-in to work in every experience we facilitate.
Below, we’ll share some of what we’ve discovered about making the most of check-ins, including why you should do them, our favorite variations, and some common troubleshooting situations.
Let’s dive in.
What’s a check-in, exactly?
A check-in is the specific act of establishing each participant’s emotional state at a given point during a meeting. Typically, this involves going around the room (virtual or otherwise) and asking everyone how they’re doing. Check-ins are effective tools for understanding your participants' needs in real-team, emphasizing on building a strong emotional connection with remote team members by gaining their trust and getting to know your team.
Facilitators have a lot of activities in our toolboxes that drive participation and help build camaraderie — everything from ice breakers to warm ups. The word “check-in” could be used as a synonym for any of these brief exercises.
🤝 Check-ins A short activity to establish each team member’s mood, that is, their current emotional state, at a given point during a meeting. This can be a simple question like, “How are you doing right now?”
🔥 Warm ups Online warm ups are short exercises performed at the beginning of a meeting to introduce new team members, conquer awkwardness, and help teammates get to know each other.
🔋 Energizers Online energizers are fun activities that help reload energy on your team and can involve some form of physical activity.
Check-ins vs. Warm ups
There are slight nuances between both exercises. Warm ups allow your team a chance to break any communication barriers at the beginning of a meeting, which will improve your team’s ability to accomplish tasks efficiently. Check-ins, on the other hand, allow your team to speak freely about how they’re currently feeling in order for everyone to be on the same page. It is important to note that check-ins should be a top priority for your team in order to better understand each team member and what their needs are. By doing so, your team members may find something in common with one another and connect on a deeper level, which will improve communication skills as well.
There are variations on this “basic” version, but when we refer to a check-in, we simply mean asking all meeting participants how they are. Of course, your own team’s mileage may vary. Sometimes, the line between check-in and warm up gets pretty thin, so don’t get too hung up on labels.
What is important is making check-ins part of your meeting culture. Here are some reasons why.
5 creative benefits of team check-ins
Check-ins can strengthen remote team members’ connection with one another, improving efficiency, productivity and troubleshooting. Hybrid and WFA teams reap real benefits from making the “How are you?” question a structured, formalized meeting agenda item. For one, it promotes interpersonal connection, which is especially important on WFA teams. For another, it does so while being easy to implement and inexpensive (no extensive Myers-Briggs questionnaires or pricey consultants here! Though if you want to try our “meeting personality quiz” with your team, please do!).
In addition, including a formal check-in at every meeting:
1. Encourage transparency and honesty
Have you ever been in a meeting in which one of your colleagues seems disinterested or even bored? You might get annoyed, and understandably so. However, if that colleague had shared during the check-in that their toddler kept them up all night and they were feeling exhausted, you might see their “disinterest” as something else entirely. Knowing how each attendee is coming into the meeting prevents misunderstandings and reduces the risk of in-meeting conflict.
2. Encourage participation from every attendee
Because the check-in takes a round-robin approach to participation, everyone from the most junior to the most experienced attendee gets the chance to say how they’re feeling. Checking in invites each member in a group to be present, seen, and heard. Having this inclusive activity at the start of a meeting also sets a more democratic and open tone for the discussion that follows.
3. Make it possible for teams to track emotions
Putting a number to emotions isn’t always easy. However, check-ins that include a numerical scale (“How are you feeling today on a scale from 1-5?”) let you track your team’s mood over time. The time frame can be the course of the meeting (the check-in vs. the check-out), the week, or even the entire quarter. You might even track your team’s mood over a sprint or a specific project. If you notice the mood dipping midway, you can take steps to get everyone back on track and feeling energized.
4. Help build facilitation skills
Every great facilitator started somewhere. Having a newbie run the check-in is an easy and low-stakes way to get them accustomed to the basics of meeting facilitation. A check-in will help you practice facilitation skills such as encouraging participation, managing time, and keeping attendees on track.
5. Build a team support system
The most powerful teams have each other’s backs during both the good and not-so-good times — and not just professionally. If someone shares a personal struggle or challenge during check-in, this could warrant some special attention. Maybe the team lead could schedule an impromptu lunch at their favorite restaurant, or (if they’re remote) ship them some cupcakes to brighten their day. Their manager might even tell them to take the rest of the day off, or offer additional help or resources for any particularly difficult projects.
To get the most out of your check-ins, keep the following factors in mind — these considerations may affect how you implement the activity or which variation (see below) you might use.
First off, there are the logistical considerations. How many attendees are you expecting? If it’s more than a dozen or so, you may need to timebox responses or only allow single-word answers. You might even need to split groups up for the check-in. Also, how long is the meeting going to be? Hours-long workshops may require multiple check-ins (likely in combination with energizers or ice breakers) at certain points in the agenda.
What about time zones? If you’re inviting participants from around the globe, consider an asynchronous check-in. One way to do that is through an asynchronous standup tool like Geekbot — just edit the prompt to have attendees check-in at the appropriate local time.
What is the general degree of familiarity between participants? Are they mostly strangers? Close colleagues? A mix? Groups that don’t know each other very well may need more encouragement to get them to share how they’re really feeling. (Meanwhile, be considerate and avoid pushing anyone to "open up" — more on this later.) Power dynamics come into play here as well. If someone’s boss is in the room, they might be uncomfortable showing vulnerability or even negativity. In those cases, consider reaching out to any supervisors directly to suggest that they lead by example. Building psychological safety with your team is as key here as it is for creativity and innovation.
A few favorite visual check-in variations
While the tried-and-true “How are you feeling?” check-in will always get the job done, you may want to mix things up. Adding a visual component to check-ins can introduce a new aspect to the experience.
For example, you can ask participants to pick an image that represents their mood and have them add it to a mural. You can then have each participant elaborate on their selection when they have the floor during the check-in. A fun approach is to present a selection of photos — a set of “moods” — and have them put their initials, a sticky note, an icon or some other marker on the image that best fits their current emotional state. Using private mode with MURAL and a timer, this can be done in a way that tends to remove feelings of awkwardness (or self-awareness). These “moods” can be thematic, using anything from traffic lights (green for good,” yellow for “meh,” red for “bad”) to landscapes to cartoon characters — even dogs and cats.
Another option is to ask attendees to describe their current mood in just one word placed on a (digital) sticky note. This could be a “pick a word, any word” situation, or you might offer a list to choose from.
If you want to get into finer emotional shades or allow participants to see where they fall in relation to one another, use a scale from one emotion to its opposite.
We’re also big fans of including a numeric component. For example, you might ask, “How are you feeling right now on a scale from one to ten?” Numbers introduce the possibility of tracking, which can reveal interesting quantitative-like insights about your team over time.
Finally, you can adjust the check-in so that it “primes” the discussion the group is about to have. For example, let’s say your meeting is about planning an upcoming event. Make the check-in a two-parter: first, how you’re feeling in general, and second, how you’re feeling about the event. Now everyone knows where they stand and are already in the mindspace of event planning — it’s a win-win.
A significant benefit of using MURAL for these check-ins is that the mural can be set up for the meeting to be held — that is, it can have an area for the visual check-in, an area for the agenda, hot topics, Q&A, or whatever else needs to be discussed.
Troubleshooting team check-ins
Now, despite your best intentions, check-ins can go off the rails. We’ve had it happen to us, too. Let’s go through a few of the most common and how to deal.
In the real world, you’re likely to get a response like “fine” or “can’t complain” to the question “How are you doing?” But once in a while, you’ll get someone who answers in a lot of (read: too much) detail. The same thing happens in meetings. Some attendees will take the check-in as an opportunity to talk about themselves for longer than is strictly necessary. While we do want to encourage active participation, we also want to respect everyone’s time. If you suspect you might have such an attendee on your meeting list, you may want to timebox check-in responses (say, 20 seconds or less). Or you might timebox the check-in portion as a general rule.
Attendees who aren’t “into it”
While we’re very enthusiastic about check-ins and their many benefits for building trust, culture, and connection with your team, not everyone may feel the same way. Should you encounter resistance, simply ask that the individual give it a try and iterate/adjust as needed. Remember: it’s not the end of the world if someone chooses not to participate. And if you sense that someone is nervous about speaking to the group, consider a written check-in instead.
Hearing “How are you doing?” at the start of every meeting can get a little boring. We recommend changing it up periodically, especially if the meetings tend to involve the same people. Switch to a visual check-in for a week, then try out a sliding scale. If your check-ins tend to be formal, try out a silly one and vice versa.
The bottom line
Check-ins are short activities for expressing and taking note of each team member’s mood, that is, their current emotional state at a given point during a meeting. This can be a simple question like, “How are you doing right now?”
Check-ins are important for understanding your team's current state of mind, but also have the following benefits:
Encourage transparency and honesty
Encourage participation from every attendee
Make it possible for teams to track emotions
Help build facilitation skills
Build a team support system
Keep it simple
Asking your teammates how they’re doing — and actually meaning it — is an easy, quick way to get your next meeting started. Doing this regularly will help embed honesty, transparency, and camaraderie into your meeting culture. Sometimes, the simplest activities can be the most powerful.
Try a visual check-in with your team at your next team meeting with MURAL.
(Don’t have an MURAL account? 👉 Get your free forever workspace today.)
Emilia Åström is a facilitator and coach of creative and collaborative processes that support digital transformation.
Laïla von Alvensleben
Head of Culture & Collaboration
Laïla is Head of Culture & Collaboration at MURAL. She is also a remote work coach with a background in UX Design, helping distributed teams improve their collaboration practices and cultivate a remote working culture that will enable them to work from anywhere.