Are your company meetings an adrenaline shot, or do you dread them?
If you’re the person who runs meetings, this self-check-in will be the difference between bolstering your team’s cohesion and productivity and giving them another task that makes them feel bogged-down and overbooked.
If you’re a participant in one too many run-on meetings, you should realize that you, too, have a role to play in ensuring they are goal-oriented, effective and inclusive.
American employees spend a lot of time in meetings. The headlines about them aren’t flattering. “Stop the Meeting Madness,” blared the Harvard Business Review in 2017. “Why 99 Percent of All Meetings Are a Complete Waste of Money,” according to Inc. When you picture endless brainstorming sessions fueled by boxes of donuts and coffee in the middle of a conference room table, you can’t blame the negative hype.
What are the most common productivity zappers that derail meetings? There are several common threads I have noticed, and a few ideas on how they can be avoided:
Zapper #1: Meetings for the sake of meetings, a definite no-no. There is little point in holding a meeting without a clear understanding of its purpose. The conversations that follow are not likely to set you up for success.
These gatherings could have a hard time winding down, with some participants treating it like a “get-together,” where various, disparate things on their mind can be presented.
The answer: Be frugal with your meetings. Many issues can be resolved through a phone call, an email or text. It certainly isn’t a mistake to ask the team if they feel a meeting is needed before calling one, such as to resolve a nagging problem or answer a question several people have asked the supervisor separately.
If your team is working from home, there may be less opportunities for team members to voice their concerns. It is essential to keep an open virtual door, whether it’s an online suggestion box, email question and answer sessions on particular days and times, or another medium for people to express themselves.
Zapper #2: Meetings where no one has control. As aforementioned, things can quickly unravel if a meeting gets burdened with off-topic matters. Unsuccessful meetings have no one at the steering wheel, making sure that any tangents are efficiently redirected. There is usually no one selected as the point-person for questions.
The answer: Take charge and be the referee. The meeting organizer needs to be in control at all times. Use tough love if you have to. Unrelated subjects, concerns or feelings are valid and welcome, but they don’t belong in that particular meeting. And participants need to leave them outside. If people get distracted during the session, call them out. Everyone who’s there needs to want to be there and be fully present.
If you have more than one organizer, one of you needs to be the “expert” prepared to answer (or promise to do the research later if a question really stumps you) whatever on-topic issues arise.
Zapper #3: Meetings with no preparation or organization. This is another “why bother” scenario. Unsuccessful meetings may have delineated objectives, but no order or structure to them. No one knows what to expect and may only have a vague idea of the subject being discussed. People arriving at the meeting may come unprepared and be lost when the meeting moves through different topics if they don’t know what to expect. An often-overlooked organizational point concerns open invitations: meetings where pretty much anyone can come, whether the topic pertains to them or not.
The answer: Short agenda, clear goals and the right people. Share the meeting’s agenda with every participant beforehand, so everyone comes to the meeting prepared. You might try asking each participant to email you a few questions or thoughts a day or so beforehand to confirm they are engaged with the topic.
Outline everyone’s role in the meeting, also well beforehand. Make it so that each attendee’s active participation in the meeting is required one way or another. Everyone needs to speak or contribute an idea. You are also wise to avoid open invitations to meetings by making sure the only people invited need to be there and the subject directly relates to or impacts their role.
Zapper #4: Virtual meeting challenges. People forget to mute themselves on Zoom calls, allowing a flood of humorous, embarrassing or irritating background noise to saturate the discussion. Think technical difficulties relating to poor connectivity, or meeting leaders not testing out the platforms and technologies they’re using well before meeting day. You may have encountered more, and they tend to come on top of the other meeting dilemmas faced.
The answer: Troubleshoot in advance. Virtual meetings will have tech-based ground rules on top of the usual ones. Create a “mute” rule: If you are not the one talking, you need to be on mute. Promote use of the chat box, if one is available, outside of parts of the meeting where participants are given the floor. Zoom’s breakout rooms are a great tool to keep everyone engaged in longer meetings by splitting them in groups, then reconvening.
Only two-thirds of Americans reported internet speeds that could support video calls, with the rest having too poor connections or internet speeds to fully participate. Each company will have a different solution. But even if it means some people need to be in the office some of the time — for hybrid meetings of in-office and remote employees — it’s worth exploring.
It pays, during this crazy time, to be understanding of people’s feelings and personal challenges as well. The more we can rethink the unproductive way we run them, the more we can harness recent upheavals as an opportunity to produce lasting change for our productivity and happiness at work.