Virtual or not, many companies could benefit in making meetings better, rather than accepting bad meetings as a cost of doing business. That cost, says Steven Rogelberg, chancellor’s professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte and author of The Surprising Science of Meetings, is higher than most people realize. “When we have a bad meeting, we just don’t leave it at a virtual door,” he says. “It sticks with us, and we ruminate, and it negatively affects our productivity.”
But there’s a host of new tools and smarter approaches leaders can use to make meetings more engaging, stimulating, and promote inclusion.
Here’s a recap of what we learned at the Quartz at Work (from home) workshop on the art of the remote meeting (you can access the full replay by clicking the image above).
It’s a real problem. The exhaustion comes from the seemingly endless string of meetings, as we sit in front of the same screen, without any of the transitions involved in going to and from meetings at the office.
The solution? Get moving. “I can’t stress enough that folks need to get up, stretch between meetings, run around their house between their meetings, do whatever they can, you know, to stay fresh,” says Rogelberg.
He adds that keeping meetings as brief as possible is another a way to avoid fatigue.
At the nonprofit Forté Foundation, which supports women in business careers and has operated without a headquarters office since its founding almost two decades ago, CEO Elissa Sangster makes it a point to connect with her virtual team in a more personal way. The staff uses remote-meeting platforms to host virtual baby showers and book club meetings, she says, “in addition to just having an actual meeting about business and checking off the boxes of things we needed to decide or get done.”
Meetings are only one way of staying connected, the panelists pointed out. You don’t have to do it in a setting of 15 people, going around and asking each how they’re doing. (There are much better questions to ask than that anyway.) If connection is the objective, as opposed to solving a specific business problem, try doing it in a one-on-one, whether with a virtual coffee or a phone conversation. Or combine the speakers’ tips on moving around and staying connected and turn some of your meetings into walk-and-talks.
Amir Salihefendić is CEO of Doist, the fully remote company behind the productivity app Todoist. He was an early adopter of Slack, the popular messaging platform, but he said he quickly found that being online and chatting all the time was “really stressful.”
“Especially as a leader, for me it was very taxing, especially when you have people working across different times—you can actually work all the time,” he says.
He questioned this way of working, and decided to swap out Slack for Google docs and emails, asynchronous forms of communication that don’t demand constant connection or immediate replies. Instead, a problem or an idea can be put to the group, which can then do their research and craft responses according to their own work schedules.
Salihefendić says the benefits go beyond giving people flexibility. “So people think before they write and it creates a much more calm environment,” he says. It also leads people to doing deeper work without interruption.
According to Rogelberg, agendas don’t do much to improve meeting effectiveness, unless they’re organized as a set of questions to be answered. Why?
- It puts you in a mindset to determine what the goal of the meeting is.
- It focuses people on the meeting’s objectives.
- You’ll have a better sense of who has to be at the meeting to answer the questions you’re proposing.
- You’ll also know when to end the meeting and when it’s been successful, because the question has been answered.
If you’re racking your brain for questions to put on your agenda, that probably means you don’t need the meeting.
The idea that in-person meetings is the only place where great work or innovation happens is “hype,” says Salihefendić. He says Doist has found that great work happens when people are doing deep thinking, writing down their ideas, and presenting them—all of which can be done without a meeting.
As for remote versus in-person meetings, Quartz at Work editor Heather Landy suggests the quality of meetings generally has more to do with the content than the venue. A bad remote meeting likely would have been a bad meeting in person.
And what about the lack of social connection we’re used to when we sit around a table together? Remember, says Rogelberg, if you’re not already creating that connection in the remote version of your meetings, there are always other ways to reach out to people (see the section above on how to stay connected).
Research supports the benefits of silence in meetings as a way of gathering more ideas and perspectives from attendees, says Rogelberg. An example of this is sharing a Google doc with attendees during the meeting itself, and then letting the brainstorming occur in real time and in silence.
This way, there’s no waiting for your turn and less filtering of ideas, given the simultaneous generation of ideas.
Silence is also a great way to keep meetings on a condensed schedule. On a shared document, people can simultaneously give their input, read their colleagues’ input, and make connections between perspectives, which can trim the number of minutes you need to spend around the table talking.
People often get more distracted on video calls, especially if their colleagues are offering an inadvertent tour of their home by wandering around during the meeting. But if you’re on a video call, having your camera switched on is important, says Sangster. “[Y]ou feel engaged when you can see your colleagues and your peers sitting around the virtual table with you,” she says.
If there are going to be distractions—i.e. if you’re fixing breakfast or making coffee—then Sangster encourages people to turn off their video for a while, and to post a picture of themselves instead, so their presence is acknowledged.
“There’s not a magic length,” says Rogelberg. “It depends on what needs to be accomplished.” What we do know, he says, is that however long the meeting is scheduled for, that’s how long it takes.
Try giving everyone a break by shaving a few minutes off the scheduled meeting time. When you dial meetings back five or ten minutes, they tend to be more focused and people are more productive, he says.
As for the right time of day to hold different kinds of meetings, research suggests most of us are better able to focus and analyze in the mornings and more creative in the late afternoons. But when you’re operating across multiple time zones, it’s tough to manage a meeting schedule according to everyone’s rhythms. That’s another reason Salihefendić endorses the asynchronous meeting; it allows people to optimize their day according to their own needs.
If you’re trying to have meaningful discourse and conversation, you start to find a dip in quality when there’s more than six to eight people in a meeting, says Rogelberg.
And if you need more people present? Get a facilitator to manage the meeting.
But remember, it’s unlikely everyone on the team has to be at every meeting. In a world where information is currency, meetings create their own form of hierarchy. But you can offer documentation, including a full recording, so that everyone has a chance to listen and no one feels slighted. (This has become particularly easy in the age of the remote meeting.)
At least until organizations get a lot better at scheduling and running their meetings, if you give people the opportunity to opt out of a meeting, chances are they’ll take it.