I just hate meetings. – J.K. Rowling
The business world has a love–hate relationship with meetings: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.
On the one hand, meetings are indispensable tools. E-mail, IM, Slack channels, phone calls—these and other messaging media are great ways to communicate in the office or with clients, and for most applications they are perfectly adequate. But sometimes those tools aren’t enough. Sometimes you need to be face to face and share a space with another person. Maybe you need to work on some complicated issue that’s too big for a drawn-out back-and-forth conversation by e-mail. Maybe you need the energy of an in-person gathering to fuel a brainstorming session. There are many scenarios for which an in-person discussion is the ideal way to share information.
On the other hand, though, there are plenty of reasons why so many people loathe meetings. For example, meetings are inefficient uses of time. In fact, well over half the respondents to one survey said “that they thought meetings were the most wasteful parts of their workday.” (How often have you found yourself in a meeting that seemed to go on forever while you much preferred to get back to work on your project? Probably more times than you can count, I bet!)
Meetings are often ineffective—sometimes enough so that they fail to achieve their goals. And they can be extremely expensive in terms of both time and money: one recent large-scale survey found that in 2019 “professionals [spent] two hours a week in pointless meetings, which [added] up to over $541 billion worth of resources.”
In spite of their problems, though, meetings are still essential to business operations. The key is to execute them properly. Fortunately, this isn’t hard to do—if you follow a few guidelines.
How to Lead an Effective Meeting
If you’re trying to stay productive, stop and think, “Are my meetings actually productive, or are we merely having meetings for meetings’ sake?”
First, plan ahead. This means figuring out exactly what topics need to be addressed, creating an agenda, inviting people who are relevant to the conversation, and sharing the agenda ahead of time so people can use it to prepare for the meeting. Never underestimate the power of a clear agenda: a well-organized—and well-implemented—agenda can make or break a meeting!
The facilitator should guide participants to engage in “helpful” behaviors, such as the following:
- Active listening
- Supporting others
- Asking for clarification (nonjudgmentally) when needed
- Offering ideas
- Including others
At the same time, facilitators should also steer participants away from “hindering” behaviors:
- Discrediting others’ ideas
- Straying from the topic
- Opposing just for the sake of being contrary
- Refusing to participate
- Dominating the meeting (which can include bullying others)
If you’re looking at these lists and thinking to yourself, “Yes, all of this is obvious,” I’m not surprised. Of course you want meeting participants to listen carefully to others and offer their own ideas. Of course you don’t anyone to hog all the attention or belittle others. Most people already know—and agree with—those points.
But where many managers and meeting facilitators stumble is understanding how to foster the “helpful” behaviors and squash the “hindering” ones. Each situation (and participant) is unique and requires a custom-tailored approach, but one general guiding principle forms the framework for all successful meeting-management strategies:
The facilitator’s job is to keep the meeting moving along smoothly and efficiently.
Not only must the facilitator guide the discourse along productive pathways. But he or she must also intervene if the group’s effectiveness declines when attendees engage in nonproductive behavior. (I have plenty of tips for dealing with this type of situation, but that topic is for another blog post!)
The general purpose and structure of meetings haven’t changed much over the past century (even longer!). But within just the last decade or two, technological innovations have radically reshaped how meetings are executed. In particularly, technology has made it possible to include remote participants—a shift that brings many advantages along with a few challenges where meetings are concerned.
Making Sure That “Out of Sight” Doesn’t Mean “Out of Mind”
Meetings are usually terrible, but they shouldn’t be.
One primary purpose of meetings is to bring people together. Traditionally, that togetherness has been literal and physical (i.e., participants are in the same room at the same time). But now, thanks to rapid and widespread growth of the offsite segment of the workforce, meetings don’t always succeed in bringing people together—and may sometimes even divide them further.
Remote workers already feel separated from their colleagues. The physical distance can’t be eliminated unless they stop being remote workers and become “regular” in-house workers. But there are plenty of ways that meeting facilitators can help bridge the distance between colleagues who are in different physical locations.
First, use the right technology. If you’re bringing people together in one room, use video conferencing technology to bring remote workers into that room too. Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, telepresence systems—there are many video conferencing tools out there that can put people “face to face” with each other even when they’re thousands of miles apart.
It’s hard to include participants if you can’t hear or see them, so make sure that everyone has a stable Internet connection (ideally, one that’s hard wired) and follows a few best practices to help mitigate any audiovisual problems:
- Participate with video, not just sound
- Close down computer e-mail programs and apps that send alerts
- Turn off phones
- Avoid distractions, such as eating, drinking, and wearing noisy jewelry
- Speak more clearly and slightly slower than how one would in-person
- If the software has a hand or question button, use it
- Mute microphone or phones if there noise arises; otherwise, stay unmuted
When scheduling meetings, remember that remote employees often don’t work during “regular” business hours. Maybe they have flexible hours, or maybe they live in a different time zone. Whatever the reason, make sure that meetings take place at times that work well for all employees—not just the ones who are in the office. Few things can be more alienating than to having to be awake—and presentable—for a video call at 3 in the morning!)
When the meeting time arrives, take these extra steps to help ensure that remote employees aren’t left on the sidelines:
- Open the virtual meeting room early enough to allow remote employees to participate in the pre-meeting chitchat and banter shared among people who are in the same room with each other.
- Introduce all of the meeting participants.
- When assigning meeting roles (e.g, scribe, timekeeper), be sure to include remote workers in the rotation.
- Ask participants (regardless of location) to announce their names each time they speak.
Lastly, just as you do with the employees whom you see every day in your office, encourage “helpful” behaviors in remote workers (and discourage “hindering” behaviors) when they participate in meetings. Just because they’re far away doesn’t mean remote employees shouldn’t be held to the same standards as the on-site meeting participants.
The amount of meetings I’ve been in—people would be shocked.
But that’s how you gain experience, how you can gain knowledge,
being in meetings and participating. You learn and grow.
Meetings don’t have to be awful. When done right, at the very least they can be productive and efficient—and sometimes they can be pleasant (or even fun!). In any case, they should function not only to cover topics that advance the organization’s goals, but also to foster communication and collaboration among coworkers.
Working from home (or offsite) is a growing trend that it shows no signs of slowing. Companies are becoming increasingly sensitive to and willing to accommodate offsite workers and are getting better at including them in the workplace. But meetings are one area in which those good intentions often fall short, because in the hubbub of brainstorming and multiparty conversations, someone who isn’t physically present during these events can get lost in the shuffle. Fortunately, general skill at running meetings well (regardless of who’s involved and where they are) coupled with mindfulness of offsite workers’ specific considerations when participating in meetings remotely can go a long way toward helping a meeting facilitator run meetings that are effective, efficient, productive—and inclusive.