Long before COVID-19 entered the scene, requiring a significant portion of work and work-related communication to go virtual, meetings were an all-too-frequent feature of the business landscape. Our pre-pandemic research found that 77% of employees reported spending 25% or more of their time in meetings, while 42% were meeting at least half their day or more. And those numbers have only grown.
What’s also grown is the level of frustration and exhaustion associated with meetings. Recently video platforms have taken the fall for much of this as we coin new terms like ‘Zoom fatigue.’ But the inconvenient truth is that employees are weary less as a result of being a tile on a screen and more as a result of poorly run meetings.
The sheer volume associated with videoconference-based communication today is shining a light on the fundamental problems that have persisted for some time in many organizations. And the solution rests less with the digital platform and more with a leader’s ability to bring people together in a way that engages, makes good use to time and talents, taps everyone’s best thinking, and drives tangible results.
Meeting participant complaints – both pre-pandemic and now – revolve around a few common concerns and frustrations. The good news is that each is squarely within a leader’s control. And addressing them will immediately improve the quality of both virtual and in-person meetings.
Look over last week’s calendar and consider each of the meetings you attended or facilitated. Why exactly was each called? What tangible outcomes were achieved? Many of us struggle to answer these questions. And so do a lot of attendees – causing confusion, frustration, and dissatisfaction.
The fix is easy. When scheduling a meeting, force yourself to summarize the purpose and objectives of the meeting. Share this information (as well as an agenda) in advance with participant so they can mentally prepare. And request the same from those leading meetings you’ll attend. If there’s not a clearly articulated purpose for bringing people together (virtually or face-to-face), a meeting might not be the best use of everyone’s limited time.
For many leaders, meeting invitations follow a ‘more the merrier’ philosophy, involving anyone and everyone who’s even tangentially associated with the issue. While inclusivity is generally welcome, unnecessarily bloated attendee lists are at odds with how thinly stretched most people find themselves today. So, when issuing invitations, remember that less just might be more. Consider who has the information, a stake or role in the outcome and narrow your list accordingly.
The old adage ‘time is money’ is only partially correct. How a leader treats other people’s time send a powerful signal of respect and value. Especially given current work from home conditions, employees may be juggling a lot and going to extraordinary measure to log on and attend a meeting. Beginning on time honors the efforts of those who made it and sets an expectation with others for a timely start. (Same goes for ending on time.)
Videoconferencing only exacerbates a challenge that many leaders have faced for some time: finding meaningful ways to engage meeting attendees. In many cases, the reason is structural. In other cases, it boils down to facilitation skills.
Our research found that the two most frequent meeting topics are ‘status updates’ and ‘information sharing’. When something needs to be communicated, the knee-jerk reaction is often to call a meeting. But dissemination vehicles like email, texting, video, Slack and other channels gives thoughtful leaders a variety of alternatives to yet another one-way meeting. Also, ask yourself, ‘Do I need to deliver a message, or do I need to encourage the exchange of ideas among participants? Only the latter demands a meeting.
But even when a meeting’s purpose aligns with the need for high levels of engagement, participation won’t occur all by itself. It’s the result of a leader’s deliberate creation of an agenda, a series of open-ended questions, and a strategy to ensure that everyone’s ideas and experiences are brought forward. This means shifting the balance of power (and the balance of conversation) away from the leader and toward participants. In fact, most meetings will benefit from an 80/20 split, with attendees doing the bulk (80%) of the talking while the leader uses his/her 20% for structuring, questions, and recaps.
A balance must also be struck among participants – and that’s the leader’s role too. We’ve all been in meetings and on calls where a few people monopolize the discussion. Or where the dialogue goes down deep dark holes that don’t lead toward the meeting’s purpose. Or where tangential topics take center stage. Or where sidebars among a few defocus the group. Leaders must exercise conversational control – in a facilitative way. They must liken their role to that of a conductor, intentionally bringing the contributions of each individual together into a cohesive melody.
Ineffective or non-existent follow-up
And finally, given the investment made in planning, preparing, and participating in meetings, everyone has a stake in making them pay off. Too frequently, however, we stop just short of the finishing line without bothering to recap meeting highlights, summarize action items, or commit to next steps. Then we wonder why people scatter back to their previously scheduled work and why little happens until the next meeting. People crave a sense of progress and momentum. And leaders can help to facilitate this with clear follow-up actions and inter-meeting accountability and support.
Meetings – both virtual and in person – hold great potential for connection, energy, ideas, and solutions. Leaders who appreciate this, plan thoughtfully, and facilitate skillfully will unlock this potential as they facilitate and deliver powerful results.
Want to enhance the effectiveness of the meetings you lead? Download our complimentary e-toolkit, Facilitating from Afar: Making the Most of Virtual Meetings. In it, you’ll find ten tools, a self-assessment to calibrate your current approach, multiple templates, and countless strategies for taking your skills and your meetings to the next level.