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How to run a meeting—rather than have meetings running us

June 2, 2021, 2:30 PM UTC
It's time to rethink meetings.
Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

The pandemic exposed some terrible workplace habits. Chief among them: our dependence on meetings.

More than two-thirds of workers complain that meetings keep them from being productive. And more than a third say they spend 2 to 5 hours per day on calls and meetings—with little to show for it. 

“They’ve been stuck in react mode playing whack-a-mole each day,” wrote Khe Hy last week in his RadReads blog that covers the intersection of work and productivity, among other topics. The toll on workers, he said, is “feeling like a prisoner to your calendar—jumping from meeting to meeting with no time to think” and suffering from “mindlessly context-switching because you’re not sure what you should be focusing on.”

A survey conducted in April and May found a third of respondents thinking “this meeting could have been an email” all or most of the time. More than a year into the pandemic, many still struggle with technical issues (41 percent).  

Three key areas emerge as ways we can fix meetings right away: official rules and policies on when to have them and for how long, new tools favoring asynchronous work, and better training among managers to make meetings more conducive to creativity and brainstorming. 

The new rules for meetings

To meet the more permanent nature of a hybrid work force, Accenture recently issued guidance for employees in North America. “There is a big cultural change component—as type-A consultants, we have a cultural hurdle to establishing work/life boundaries and being ok saying we’re not ok,” said Jimmy Etheredge, CEO of North America at Accenture. Among changes at the company: 

  • Limiting internal team/recurring meetings on Fridays to allow time for independent work, focus on clients, strategic thinking, or time off when needed. (This also opens up time for quality one-on-one meetings.)
  • Establishing “business hours” that accommodate the unique needs of the team and trying to limit meetings to those hours and being more selective about what is considered urgent.
  • Reducing meeting times to 25 minutes instead of 30 (or 50 minutes instead of 60) to allow for time to check email or step outside or otherwise reset. 
  • Utilizing meetings for debate, discussion and decision-making rather than presentations or status updates. Encourage meeting materials and presentations be offered before meetings so attendants can pre-read.
  • Respecting time off and weekends by resisting the temptation to email, ping or call colleagues for anything non-urgent.

This playbook seems worth a try for many companies using this summer to transition from the blurry life of work and home created by the pandemic into more balanced situations with guard rails. 

Making meetings better

“The hybrid office can’t be tied to time and space,” declared Jim Szafranski, the CEO of Prezi, a visual communications software company. “If the content is good, then we see it’s not as fatiguing to have meetings.”

Prezi offers tools that integrate with existing videoconferencing software but allow users to give a virtual presentation within the screen (so they look more like a newscaster than someone screensharing and toggling among dozens of tabs on a desktop). 

To make meetings better, Szafranski’s tips range from basic protocols to integrating audio and video into regular communications. Among them: 

  • Record early kickoff meetings for projects; “When someone new joins, that person can feel like an outsider,” he said. “Or they can feel included by replaying those first four project meetings.”
  • Encourage asynchronous work by sending video or audio messages back and forth. Not everything needs to be an email—or a meeting. You can talk when it’s convenient for each party. 
  • Consider narrating visuals and spreadsheets with video. “The use of asynchronous video allows us to skip meetings,” he said. And that might mean five minutes of attention versus a half-hour. 

Remember the point of meetings in the first place 

Shalini Govil-Pai, a vice president at Google TV, has had to launch products, and build and manage remote teams through the pandemic. “Self-isolation doesn’t sound like the optimal environment for collaborative brainstorming. But how can we make this work?” she said. “Do we always need to meet face to face — drawing on a whiteboard, writing on sticky pads? What does brainstorming and the creative process look like on the proverbial ‘other side’?”

She advises: 

  • Set up meeting etiquette, from the need to speak slowly to asking participants to close competing browser tabs and silence other devices. 
  • Don’t put the pressure of brainstorming on video chat alone; focus on asking better questions over finding perfect answers. 
  • Paper note-taking in virtual meetings is fine, even encouraged. “Paper changes how we think and allows for more rapid ideation,” she said. 
  • Consider tools that recreate paper and whiteboards, such as Jamboard. 

“Brainstorming is a three-dimensional process,” she said. “How will it survive in a two-dimensional world? It’s not the same but we’ve got to get creative.”

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