The Secret to Amazing Online Meetings (with Jakob Knutzen, CEO, Butter)

We all want to run better meetings, but how? Meeting facilitation guru Jakob Knutzen of Butter shares what we can do to improve our meetings today.
Daan van Rossum
Daan van Rossum
Founder & CEO, FlexOS
I founded FlexOS because I believe in a happier future of work. I write and host "Future Work," I'm a 2024 LinkedIn Top Voice, and was featured in the NYT, HBR, Economist, CNBC, Insider, and FastCo.
March 12, 2024
min read

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Today on the Future Work podcast, my guest is meeting facilitation guru Jakob Knutzen, the founder and CEO of Butter.

Jakob founded Butter, an online meeting and workshop platform, after being frustrated by overly complex and uninspiring alternatives.

In the episode, we discuss the power of synchronous moments, how to facilitate online meetings better, and why we don’t need an office.

Here are the key lessons you can apply today:

1. The Importance of Synchronicity:

Like Chase Warrington, the Head of Remote at Doist, said in a previous episode, synchronicity remains important – even for remote teams. Jakob builds on this by saying people thrive on synchronous interactions, which explains the longing for office environments. Find synchronous moments with your team, especially for collaboration, brainstorming, communicating important or difficult news, and celebration.

2. The Art and Science of Active Facilitation:

Jakob stresses the critical role of active facilitation in virtual collaboration, in three key moments:

  • Before the meeting: establish a concise and clear agenda with clear objectives and desired outcomes, roles and responsibilities, and send this to participants together with other pre-reads. Make sure you prepare well so that the meeting is effective and engaging.
  • During the Session: adhere to the agenda while remaining flexible to adjust based on the conversation's flow and emerging priorities, actively facilitate by engaging participants, encouraging interaction, and ensure that the conversation remains focused while ensuring inclusivity. Finally, finish with a Real-Time Recap and Agreement: Summarize key points and decisions throughout the meeting to ensure alignment.
  • After the Session: document the meeting's outcomes, including actionable tasks, and distribute them to all participants to ensure accountability and progress. Establish a clear follow-up process to monitor the implementation of decisions and progress on action items. And, seek feedback on the meeting's effectiveness to continually improve them and address any areas of concern.

3. AI's Role in the Future of Meetings:

Looking ahead, AI can revolutionize virtual collaboration. AI's potential includes enhance real-time engagement as a co-facilitator in meetings, workshops, and break-out rooms. I also liked Jakob’s reminder that we should not rely on AI too much for agendas and recaps, as writing those are part of how we internalize the meeting’s contents. 

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You can find the full episode and transcript here:


Daan van Rossum: One thing I'm really curious about: You're a master facilitator. You know how to run workshops really well. Then, suddenly, you had to do it online. 

What do you see as the main thing that's wrong with virtual meetings, especially with virtual collaboration?

Jakob Knutzen: Good question. Overall, the problem that's wrong with virtual meetings is that they're not collaborative by default. Either they're one way or they are: one person talks, then another person talks, then another person talks. There's no built-in collaboration.

So to make those more collaborative, you need to actively facilitate them. That's the big problem with online collaboration, which is that it's freaking hard to facilitate. Again, I always hammer down on those two different challenges when it comes to facilitation. To facilitate something, you need to make sure that you interact with them and that everyone interacts.

It's very hard to get engagement and attractivity from people online, and that kind of touches on the other part because the only way you can really do that is by utilizing a lot of different tools that are digital first, like whiteboarding tools like Miro or polling tools like Mentimeter, Breakouts, and all of these things.

But those things are just super, super difficult to do with a lot of the common video conferencing tools. That's the thing that I see that's very difficult in virtual collaboration today.

Daan van Rossum: That's typically what people complain about too: “Hey, I'm having this online meeting, but people don't want to turn their camera on. And I don't know if they're paying attention.” I'm like, “Yeah, well, probably in your meetings pre-COVID, people were not paying attention either, but at least you could see it and you could see when people were switching off.”

Jakob Knutzen: Exactly. You had a bit way better and I think that kind of touches on the third thing, which is you had a way bigger, better feel of the room when you're in a physical space because you get that instant feedback and you've got all those intuitions that have been literally over millennia. 

Daan van Rossum: One of the things that I think now, a couple of years into it, at least some of us have discovered is that it's really important, and it sounds bad, but it's really important to have ground rules and to set ground rules for when you have meetings so that you can make the most out of them.

I always call Priya Parker's book, The Art of Gathering, I always call it our Bible because I think that way before all of this, she really codified what it takes to bring a group of people together and to make that a successful gathering that people feel is really valuable and that they want to engage in.

What are some of the things that, as a master facilitator yourself, but also as you're building a product and getting other people to become great facilitators of online collaboration and online meetings, are some things that they should be thinking about when it comes to running great remote sessions?

Jakob Knutzen: Really good question, Daan.

I always refer to the fact that it is not just the meeting itself. There's both before the meeting, during, and then after the session, meeting or session, whatever you want to call it.

On each of those areas, there's particular things that you need to do, and they might seem like a lot of stuff, but on some meetings, if it's just a quick standup meeting or whatever, then there might be way more lightweight work, like 5- to 10-hour workshops; they're way more comprehensive.

But again, before the session, just ensure a clear agenda. It could be a lightweight one; if it's a lightweight session, if it's way more fleshed out than you need more, of course, but ensure that there's some kind of agenda and that there are clear goals and takeaways that you want from the session. Clear roles and responsibilities for people; make sure that you've distributed all the pre-reads and that people have actually read them if they're relevant.

Again, it depends a lot on the size of the session, but there's always, like, even in some of the more lightweight sessions, there's always a little pre-reading; maybe it's just a half page or maybe it's just a few bullet points. But it's always there.

So people are on the same page, and when you go into the session, you don't need to spend a ton of time doing one too many communications on whatever's going on.

During the session, it's about sticking to these things that you've established before, of course. Stick to the agenda. But again, don't do it too rigidly. That's where the whole facilitation comes into play, like active facilitations about the session. You need to be able to feel like... always have the final goals in mind, but move the conversation towards those goals depending on where the conversation is at any given time.

So stick to the agenda, but be okay to move in a bit in a few different ways and jump over a few spots if you already feel that you've covered those things.

Then, recap it throughout and make sure that everyone's agreed on whatever's happened in there. And that kind of goes into the after part. So often I see workshops and trainings, but also just normal meetings. I see people talking about stuff, and then stuff just does not get done afterwards. It might have been the best meeting ever, but it's not anchored into the organization afterwards.

Make sure that the recap is there. Make sure that the notes and takeaways from the sessions are there, and then make sure that they are actually implemented. There's some kind of structured follow-up set up already, right after the meeting has taken place.

So those are some of the ground rules that I always think about, like the whole before, during, and after, and just making sure that everything's structured throughout the entire way.

Daan van Rossum: But this sounds almost like too obvious and too logical, but I'm sure in your day to day work that somehow no one sticks to them.

What is it that makes us skip all the, we probably know that's what we should be doing and we don't? 

Jakob Knutzen: It sounds logical. It sounds obvious. And I think that's why it's powerful. If something is extremely complex and nobody's going to do it, but it is reasonably obvious, prepare the meeting, run the meeting, and make sure that the meeting is captured afterwards.

Daan van Rossum: One of the things that people are obviously really looking at when it comes to the future of work is AI. It seems like the meeting bots have taken over. 

So I don't think I've joined a meeting recently where I don't see at least two or three meeting bots popping up. Usually, even before the human participants are there, they can then transcribe, get a sense of the sentiment, recap, and give action items.

How do you see the role of AI in the future of meetings?

Jakob Knutzen: The way we thought about AI and Butter was very much in the same structure that we think about Butter, namely before, during, and after structure of the sessions/of the meetings. 

So the AI bots that you refer to, firstly, I think they're an abomination. It's so annoying that they take up a full space. It's what the heck is that bot doing here. I think could be done in way more subtle ways, but that's very much focused on the post session stuff. It's capturing, it's transcribing, it's creating action items and all of that's great. 

All of that's also pretty straightforward. Like we do it in Butter, of course, but I think the things…

Daan van Rossum: It's already hilarious how fast things are moving that we now say, “Oh, that's straightforward. A bot that listens in on a video call and then transcribes and says action items.” A year ago, we didn't even know it was possible.

Jakob Knutzen: I know. Now, it's crazy. I actually do think that there's a huge disruption because it's so easy to build the stuff now. I don't know whether you'd call it disruption, but it's just in everything these days. You cannot build a meeting tool without having this in there. It is crazy how quickly things are going.

We have also experimented with pre-meeting AI. So helping AI create agendas based on, “Hey, I have these goals and want this kind of session. Could you please create an agenda for me?” I don't think we've really hit the hammer on the nail there yet, but I think that there's a lot of interesting stuff that comes into helping people prepare for sessions.

It needs to be balanced though, because preparing for a session, there's like a lot of your own, and I think that's the danger of having AI automated tons of stuff, because I think that there's a lot of human processing. When you prepare something, you think about the session, and that helps you get better at the session itself. You're thinking through it.

If an AI just writes up an agenda for you, you might think you have an agenda, but you actually don't because you haven't thought through it.

The same thing comes with notes. Actually, that's something I'm a little bit afraid of with myself, with the AI-generated notes post-session. When you write your notes after a session, you also process them yourself, and now you don't go through that. I think where it's really interesting is during the session.

So during the session, there's so much stuff, like we call it the AI co-facilitator, or at least the concept we call the AI co-facilitator. There's so much stuff where you'd need a person in more complex sessions, where you'd need a person in there to help either push buttons or take notes on particular parts or help people with technical questions—all of that stuff. So there are things like an AI that could help open up a breakout room with these people there; a quick prompt could help do that.

You can have AI's like we're already seeing the AI's catch you up on a meeting. There's something there. I don't think it's been cracked yet, really. AI is helping people with technical problems throughout the session. AI is giving you sentiment analysis in real time on what's happening.

One of the things we're experimenting now with is in breakout rooms. Like breakout rooms, this is one big way to make sure people are engaged in larger, more complex sessions because you can take a 30-person session and then break that out into six groups of five and have some engagement going on there.

Now, we're looking into how to do sentiment analysis across those breakouts. Which breakout is interesting to pop into as a facilitator, like a helping hand?

So, I think there's so much stuff there that can be touched upon, but I don't think we've even scratched the surface.

Daan van Rossum: That's amazing. Even just outside of the product, but just generally, the idea of AI is the most valuable to us, whether it's a co-pilot or a co-facilitator. So, that idea of when we run online sessions and do breakout rooms. This is always the difficulty, like, how are the rooms doing? Are people engaging? Yes or no. 

Then, you're going to do two minutes in each room. Obviously, if there's basically a bot there screening the engagement and giving you a heads-up that Hey, this is either an interesting discussion or there's not enough engagement, you should jump into this room that's like immediate value and it can make you 10 times better and giving everyone that feeling of, wow, this was a great session. So, that's an amazing role.

Jakob Knutzen: Exactly. Take that up and crank that up to a hundred, and then you suddenly have the educational system, all kinds of training sessions where you have huge sessions with, say, hundreds of people in breakout rooms or groups or whatever you want to call them, where you can have way fewer trainers, teachers, whatever, that can actually overview and make sure that you only help the people that truly need help. 

And you don't need to hover around all the different tables in all the different rooms and figure out which ones need help.

Daan van Rossum: Increase the quality of the overall experience. So it's for every person who joins there.

That's the thing I keep going back to in the Microsoft research: the big annual survey that they do that showed that meetings were number 1 and 3 on the list of things that people hate about work or that stand in the way of them enjoying their work. 

We keep getting dragged into meetings that are just not valuable, and they are just a waste of time. 

So again, if you can increase the value of those meetings and walk away from them saying, “I really got something out of it,” That's a huge improvement.

Another topic that I would love to dive into so you talked a lot about this: solving for synchronous communication; solving for in-the-moment collaboration; what are your thoughts about asynchronous? 

Because it seems in some way that the conversation is now a little bit shifting, at least for more advanced companies and teams. Okay, we figured out the location part. 

We figured out the where; now it's about the when, and we just saw that Loom was getting acquired by Atlassian. I'm sure, as a founder, you look at those numbers and think, “Hun, that's nice.” But they just got acquired last year. 

And really, with that idea, that would be a way for a global team to collaborate and still have the “in-person feel.” But fully asynchronously.

How are you looking at the async movement?

Jakob Knutzen: Oh, I think it's such an interesting question, Daan. So first of all, I think Async was very, very big with the remote crowd before COVID. Like most of the companies that were remote before COVID, they had mastered Async.

They were 95% async when it came to communications. Now, after COVID, my thesis is that a lot of those companies would not function on a wider scale. People are not built as fully asynchronous creatures. We enjoy synchronous conversations. I'm enjoying this right now. A lot of synchronous interaction is just extremely powerful.

So I think that asynchronous is something that has a tremendous amount of value, and I think in Butter, we do 60% to 70% of our communication async. And that's for one-way communication. Async is very powerful.

It's no reason for a lot of people to sit in a room and listen to someone talking. It can always be done asynchronously, where people can consume that information on their own time. I think that asynchronous is really powerful because it's a medium. You can write, you can do rooms, and you can do a lot of these things.

You can make sure that it's even more thoughtful than synchronous communication. So there's a lot of power in async. What Async doesn't do very well is the stuff that we want to solve, namely brainstorms, everything where you build on each other's thoughts, where you dive into, “Oh, that's interesting.”

And then the other person dives into that, and that's interesting. Do you have quick cadence? If you will, that means a lot of brainstorming or collaborative sessions. That's something that Async doesn't do very well. 

That being said, the async part is, as mentioned, the preparation part. Super important! And there's a big async part for a synchronous session to be successful, but the async part doesn't do that very well. Delivering hard news and difficult news is also very difficult to do.

Daan van Rossum: Although we've seen some bad examples.

Jakob Knutzen: We've seen some bad examples. Jesus Christ, man. We all like getting a pink slip or getting fired over email; that's bad communication. That's just bad communication. Delivering good news and celebrating together. That's also way more powerful when you are able to do that synchronously.

Those are just some quick examples. I think Async is incredibly powerful. I think more people should lean into that already, but I think a lot of people in the remote workspace are already leaning heavily into the async part.

I think that people have done that maybe a bit too heavily in places and need to figure out exactly, “Hey, what kind of communication is this? Should it be async or sync?” And then go in the direction that's most beneficial for e-communication.

Daan van Rossum: Yeah, so that also moves away a bit from functional communication. We can get information across, but maybe that's not always the thing that matters. So, I love the idea here that it's really async and sync working together, even in meeting facilitation. 

There's an async component in terms of how you prepare and like sending the pre-reads and getting people up to speed so that in the synchronous part, you can really focus on the communication, the collaboration, the engagement, and maybe if async can take over more of the stuff that's currently still happening in meetings that doesn't have to be a meeting, the kind of famous, this could have been an email or this could have been a Slack.

If it can take over that part of meetings, and therefore you only keep a couple of meetings on your agenda that are then facilitated better because people have more time to prepare, people come to the table with more energy, and they're looking forward to the session, then that may be the right combination for any company, not just a remote first company, but for any company to communicate better and to collaborate better.

And it may just be an alternative to being in the office together.

Jakob Knutzen: A hundred percent. You put it better than I could.

Daan van Rossum: One of these days. So, in the newsletter I published this morning, it was one of my rebuttals to the big KPMG study that found that 64% of CEOs globally now say that by 2026, they predict that people will be full-time back in the office.

One of the things that I mentioned is that, besides all the obvious reasons, I really don't think that, especially those CEOs, which we can say openly and honestly, are mostly 50-plus-year-old white guys. Most of those CEOs, I don't think that they understand, with the example of AI meeting transcribers, how fast the technology is developing.

I mentioned just the example besides Loom of Facebook's Metaverse tools, which, last year, we were still laughing and joking and memeing about like Mark Zuckerberg and his metaverse toy and the horrible demo that he gave where he was like in Paris and this and that. 

But then you see the Lex Fridman example, and you're like, Wait a minute, this now I'm starting to get a sense for if you leaped from that to that in one year, what would that look like by 2026? So that was like one of my counters. 

I don't think they have any idea where the technology is going to be just in three years from now, because if you can put on a pair of goggles or even just on a video screen, you can see people. 

It almost looks identical to the person, but they don't have to actually appear on a video screen, which takes a bit of prep, and you have to have the mindset for it.

This really could be a huge alternative to true office.

Jakob Knutzen: Oh, I agree. I agree, man. I'll say that there are two things. Never be against how quickly technology develops because it's so fast. I like what you're saying, but I will also say the counter to that is that, especially when you're in the technology space, you have a feeling that technology adoption is much faster than it actually is.

I mean, we needed COVID to really shift everyone to video conferencing, even though the technology has been there for years and years. But people have been shifted. I know a lot of big corporations; they're not doing business trips anymore because it's too expensive. Either it's too expensive or the CO2 quotas within the company are prohibited. Sustainable.

These two are big things that are going to push towards video conferencing in the future. But again, I think a lot of this technology will get there, and we'll get there much faster than we think. But I do think that the general population will say, “Oh man,” like it'll take time.

Daan van Rossum: I want to switch gears to you as a manager because you've been working remotely, building a remote team, I think, across eight countries now. 

What are some things that you've learned about building trust and getting people to be engaged, even if you never see them? Have you seen your team members?

Jakob Knutzen: Yes, but only once. All of them. 

Daan van Rossum: Only one time and you guys, now we've been together for a couple of years, right?

Jakob Knutzen: Exactly. It's three and a half years now. So yeah, I only met them all once. And my co-founder, we met the first time, a year and a half after founding the company.

Daan van Rossum: What are some things that you've learned about managing, like building a remote team and managing a remote team that you would pass on to, other companies, and other leaders?

Jakob Knutzen: Yeah, quite a few things. I think the first thing is like this whole thing about emotional vulnerability and honesty, transparency, trust—a lot of these things flow into each other.

But they are absolutely essential for you to build a remote company. If you do not have trust, then you cannot work remotely with people. You need to trust that they're actually working and that they're doing the best that they can. It's very hard to build trust without any kind of psychological safety.

It's very hard to create psychological safety without also being emotionally vulnerable. So, I think that's the number one thing that I've learned over these past years: a very high level of emotional vulnerability towards your team, openness, and transparency in your own life.

That's the best way to ensure that this level of psychological safety is built, which again creates a company culture of trust.

Daan van Rossum: Was that a hard transition for you to make? Before that, were you like very closed off and suddenly you have to lay it all out?

Jakob Knutzen: I'll be honest, it wasn't. I've always been a very emotionally open guy. I think that's one of the things that made me flow into this recently, naturally. I do enjoy it and I do feel that's the best way. And that's the company I want to build. And the same with my co-founders.

We all agree that this is a company we want to build. It is a company with high levels of emotional vulnerability, where people can talk about everything and not be judged. Because I think that makes for better, more healthy people overall, and therefore, also better workers. So there's a lot of stuff there.

Daan van Rossum: What do you feel about bringing people together? So, you said you saw everyone once. I think I read somewhere that you took a company trip to Malaysia. That was like the one time you guys all saw each other. What did that trip look like? What did you organize for that? And then what came out of it?

Jakob Knutzen: Yeah, actually, the one time we all saw each other was in Portugal the year before. I was not on the trip to Malaysia. So that was a regional budget savings and all of that. 

Again, the whole emotional openness and stuff. It really helps with building it when you're not together. And then, it's super charged when you're together for a short period of time.

So, that's why it's so important to get together physically when you're a remote team. I think it's also important that when you're together, you don't just have a loose agenda, and you don't just have, leadership speaks to the company and shares vision. You need to work around something.

So one of the really great things we did when we had our company trip to Malaysia was to Penang. We did a hackathon. We split people into groups and had them each work on different problems we face in the company and it was a pretty intense experience. 

The groups presented and shared and that's one way that you really bring people close together. 

People are used to working together in Butter around something like work and when you then bring them together physically, it's great to carry that with you because that's a common purpose.

So that really created a ton of camaraderie and focus around people.

Daan van Rossum: Beautiful. But you weren't there. 

Jakob Knutzen: I wasn't there. In all fairness, I was having my first kids. So that was why I wasn't there. 

Daan van Rossum: Great reason to miss the trip. Did you join in online? Was there like a hybrid working session? 

Jakob Knutzen: Yeah, there were. 

Daan van Rossum: Okay. Jakob, this was amazing. I feel like we've picked up so much in terms of working remotely and facilitating remote meetings, and especially around collaboration, which I think is still one of those things that people think they have to be in person for. 

I'm totally convinced that we can do it online now. To conclude the interview, what's the final thought you have about the future of work, and what's something that you wish for how we would work in the future?

Jakob Knutzen: Yeah, I think one big thing that's been a lot on my mind lately is this thing about trust. We have a lot of remote workers who're very angry at the 50-plus-year-old white men who want everyone back in the office.

I think that we need to make sure that remote workers, as well, work very hard towards showing that you can build this kind of trust and that you don't have those different examples of people working several jobs or whatever when they are remote working, that you can actually have a well-functioning, trustworthy job when you're at work.

So that's one of the big things that I think we should all work towards.

Daan van Rossum: Absolutely. We should trust each other, and we should trust that we are all good people. Jakob, thank you so much for being on, and we'll make sure to put all the links in the show notes for people to try out Butter. Thanks so much for being on.

Jakob Knutzen: Yay. Thanks so much for having me back.

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Future Work

A weekly column and podcast on the remote, hybrid, and AI-driven future of work. By FlexOS founder Daan van Rossum.