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 video conference-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.
Unclear meeting agenda or purpose
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, which causes 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, bloated attendee lists are at odds with how stretched most people find themselves. 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. Team members 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.)
Video conferencing 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.
So, 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 by itself. It’s the result of a leader’s deliberate creation of an agenda, along with 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 holes that don’t lead back to 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 nonexistent 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.
By Julie Winkle Giulioni