Six ways to change the way we think about meetings in a remote era
Last week I attended an event with speaker Kevin Kruse, CEO of LEADx and author of Employee Engagement 2.0, who offered advice about employee engagement and motivation. Through his work in the organization and his research, he shared 12 drivers that have been psychometrically proven to increase employee motivation at work. These drivers are tied to behaviors that managers take on as part of their leadership — so, things like being able to set a future vision and holding people accountable.
He then shared a snapshot of these employee engagement drivers from a recent study in the COVID era. Interestingly, for the first time since running this research, one new driver broke into the top five: Meeting Efficiency. In other words, in a work-from-anywhere era, meetings matter more than ever.
In a way, this makes a lot of sense. In the absence of most tangible benefits of company culture, our days are largely reduced to a series of back-to-back Zoom meetings. It’s little wonder that the perceived productivity of these meetings matters more than ever.
While we didn’t get into details about what makes or breaks a virtual meeting, I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s different now from before, and how we might set out to change this perception.
- Incorporate more ways to engage more people throughout a meeting.
One of the toughest ways about running a virtual meeting is that only 1 person can be talking at once. And unlike a live setting, there’s little else for the rest of the attendees to do except for listen as attentively as possible (while avoiding distraction on all our other tabs) and wait for our turn. This is very different from a live setting, where, in addition to listening, we’re also scanning the room for facial expressions, agreements, disagreements, and even snarky side comments to build rapport among colleagues. While subtle, these little behaviors give us just enough to feel engaged even when we aren’t speaking, which is impossible to replicate online. Going forward, I’d like to see more companies experiment with “side chatter” banter that exists, just like in the real work, in an ephemeral way — not as a comment etched in the permanent chat archives of the Zoom room for all to see. I also imagine the best meeting facilitators are ones who lean into the remote context even more — almost gamifying what it means to be in a meeting, incorporating things you could never do IRL — take micro polls throughout the conversation, drop in memes, play fun music, etc.
- Build in transition time and break time with each meeting.
My guess is that our perception of meeting efficiency and engagement is largely tied to the impact that meetings have on the separate lives of each individual employee. One thing I’ve heard a lot is, “I don’t even have time to use the bathroom!” While this isn’t necessarily indicating that every single meeting is not efficient, it does demonstrate that, by and large, the degree to which we’re scheduling and taking meetings is precluding many of us from having time to even do our most basic bodily functions. I’ve seen a few colleagues start to schedule meetings for 45 minutes (rather than 60) or 25 minutes (rather than 30). What if we all did this? How might it feel to have just a bit more edge time in our day?
- Don’t fill up every last minute of every meeting every single time.
I’m so rarely on a call that ends early these days. But I wish this would become more of the norm. The reality is — the faster we work and communicate, the sooner we can get back to it and free up some more time. Meeting facilitators might consider looking at the time they block as a “maximum” as opposed to, “the absolute length of time required.” We need to normalize the idea that ending early is OK. It’s not a sign of weakness or poor leadership. (In fact, it might be just the opposite.) Ending early might happen more organically if we set intentions at the top of every meeting, and if the group is aligned and feeling mutually incentivized to end by a certain time. Someone else around the virtual table needs to be comfortable playing the role of timekeeper and calling out when conversations are dragging on for longer than they should, or we are getting too in the weeds.
- Opt for “screens off” or even phone calls unless screensharing is needed.
There’s a real exhaustion that comes from looking at a screen all day long. Hiding your “self view” is a good place to start. Staring at yourself just add a low-level anxiety around how you’re presenting to others, something you normally never have to think about in a real-life interaction (unless you happen to carry a mirror or selfie stick around with you all day long). But I also wish we could re-normalize phone calls again. Phone calls are so great because you are given freedom to not be in the exact same position, in the exact same frame for the entire time. You don’t feel an artificial pressure to look directly in the same place for the entire meeting. And you can let your eyes wander, or even feel your feet move, and in the process of walking around or looking off or fixating on something else in your space, you might come upon a new idea or thought to contribute to the group. You can’t “look off” when you’re on Zoom or people assume you aren’t paying attention (probably true) and it’s not exactly “gazing away to think about a problem in a new way” when you open a tab and just pick up a new task (definitely not paying attention). I’d love to see phone calls come back into vogue.
- Find a more inclusive way to capture the little tidbits about people’s days.
I do genuinely want to hear about people’s days and their weekends. The trouble is, in the absence of sidebar conversations, you can’t just ask someone in a 1–1 what they did or follow-up from a conversation earlier. In a Zoom setting, it immediately becomes the entire group’s topic. And unfortunately, we just don’t have time to hear from every single person on how their weekend went. What happens is, some people are more comfortable sharing stories, and some never do. Which is how you may get to a point of not really knowing anything about certain people you’ve worked with for months. I’d love to see a different forum for encouraging regular sharing of this content. Maybe a Slackbot quiz that invite people to share an answer to a basic question every day, or even regular, micro-challenges that anyone in the company can contribute to — a weekend photo roundup, a mad lib, a “find the best GIF for this” prompt — something to encourage people to openly and transparently let a little more of themselves show up at work.
- Block off “no meeting hours” or “office hours” each day.
Nearly every day this week, I’m in meetings back to back from 11 a.m. through 4 or 5 p.m. I’ll be honest — this is just as much my fault as anyone else. In a world that’s now centered on collaboration, we need to schedule a 30-min meeting even for conversations that may have just been a 5-minute sidebar in an office. I wonder what would happen if companies experiment with “no meeting hours” or even “office hours” each week. For instance, if everyone took 1–2 p.m. to be around at their computers (and not on a meeting) — but generally available — and you knew that everyone else was also doing the same thing, what would happen? What if we limited the amount of time you could talk to any other employee to no more than a 10-minute catch up? How much more could we accomplish in that 60-minute block?
I’ve spent a lot of time this year wishing for our remote work culture to somehow more closely resemble the IRL office culture I’ve always known. But if things are going to look like this for the long run, I think we need to think outside the box about how to use parts of the virtual culture to our advantage. And that might mean simply changing things up to avoid tedium, or experimenting with new ways to foster a deeper sense of inclusion or connection at work.
Originally published at Dry Erase.