Leveraging the Surprising Science of Meetings
This article was contributed by author and professor Dr. Steven Rogelberg – see full bio below.
In addition to all the regular meeting problems we know about – from irrelevant agenda items to bloated meeting sizes – remote meetings are also plagued with unique challenges.
First, there are increased communication challenges. Without visual cues, the meeting is potentially fraught with people interrupting one another, difficulty finding a communication flow, and potential misinterpretations (e.g., sarcasm and motives are harder to detect). On top of all this, background noise coupled with poor connection quality, if present, serve to further undermine the richness of communication and the ability of attendees to coordinate their contributions.
Next, remote meetings are
particularly subject to something called social loafing. This is a human
tendency to reduce effort and motivation when working in a group, akin to
hiding in a crowd. Social loafing increases the more anonymous one feels, and
anonymity increases during the remote meeting due to the virtual barrier
between team members.
The good news is that there is an evidence-based path forward. I have, and many others have, been doing research on meetings and teams for over 20 years. Meeting science has yielded key insights that can be incredibly helpful to meeting leaders, especially during this time that is marked by an increase in remote meetings.
The path forward
After interviewing hundreds of meeting attendees about meeting leadership, the best meeting leaders appear to have something in common: They share a similar mindset where they recognize their role as a steward of others’ time. Interestingly, leaders often adopt a stewardship mindset when the meeting is with important customers or stakeholders because they would never want these key individuals to leave the meeting saying that was a waste of time. But, stewardship is often disregarded when meeting with one’s team and/or peers. When you adopt a stewardship mindset, you become intentional with your meeting decisions from start to finish. Being intentional and making smart meeting choices do not take much time at all – it can take a minute of time with practice. I will break these choices into pre-meeting, during a meeting, and end of meeting practices all designed to promote a stewardship mindset and help improve the quality of your remote meeting.
- Don’t over invite. Remote meetings plummet in quality as size increases. Luckily, remote meetings can be readily recorded and listened to at twice the speed by attendees who don’t attend live. So, let nonessential members off the hook, and just share the recording. They can listen at their convenience rather than having a meeting interrupt their flow. However – and this is key – to avoid team members who weren’t invited from feeling marginalized, give them the option to attend any future meetings on the topic if they so desire. They typically won’t take you up on it, but they will appreciate being asked.
- Set time properly. Given our shorter attention spans right now, avoid defaulting to the hour-long meeting. Don’t hesitate to make your meetings 20 or 25 minutes. Dialing the meeting time back a bit also creates positive pressure. Research shows that groups operating under some level of pressure actually perform more optimally given increased focus.
- Sharpen the agenda. As opposed to a set of topics to be discussed, try organizing the agenda as a set of questions to be answered to create focus, which is often lacking in remote meetings. By framing agenda items as questions, you have a better sense of who really has to be invited to the remote meeting. By framing agenda items as questions, you know when to end the meeting and if the meeting has been successful, the questions have been answered.
- Use video. Creating “presence” is important in remote meetings. We want attendees to be actively engaged. Video increases the chances of that happening. Video conferences are more effective when people can see each other’s facial expressions, so consider asking individuals to sit close to their webcam to help to recreate the intimacy of an in-person meeting.
for during the remote meeting
- Start on time. Nothing kills momentum at the start of a meeting like a 15-minute delay because people need to download software, or can’t get the video or audio to work. Anyone presenting should log in 5 minutes early to be sure all the technology is working. Also, our research shows that ending meeting late is a tremendous source of stress for individuals, so don’t run over on time.
- Start the meeting well. As the meeting leader, your mood matters. It sets the tone. Research even suggests it may produce a contagion effect on attendees – where their mood mirrors yours. Start the meeting with energy, appreciation and gratitude, especially during this challenging time. Doing so increases the chances of a more positive meeting mood state which promotes more creativity, listening, and constructiveness.
- Establish some norms. Periodically create mutual expectations with your attendees about what makes for a good remote meeting. How can we expect our remote meetings to be effective if we never talk about what makes for a good one and what we should avoid? Get the expectations out there, like “let’s keep all contributions to no more than 60 seconds so everyone has a chance to speak.” Or, have a rule that everyone identifies themselves prior to speaking (e.g. “this is Gordon, my thoughts are…”). Again, this helps to create presence in the virtual setting.
- Active facilitation. This is absolutely key in remote meetings. Meeting leaders must embrace the role of facilitator. Draw in virtual attendees in (e.g., “Sasha, please share your thoughts”) to keep them engaged. You might even consider keeping a tally to be sure all are contributing and all voices are heard. Avoid generically asking, “Any comments?” Instead, call on people specifically. Also, don’t let people ramble, especially given shorter attention spans and shorter meetings; kindly interrupt if necessary. That is your job as a meeting leader.
- Use tools. Realize that silence does not equal understanding or agreement. There are great apps available (e.g., from Klaxoon, Mentimeter, Poll Everywhere) that allow participants to vote readily as a way of truly determining if you have consensus. This can be done in real time during the meeting or after the meeting. Also, have instant messenger or chat room technology in place, not for folks to engage in side-conversations, but for attendees to notify you during the meeting if they want to speak or indicate if they missed something. Utilizing the technological tools at your disposal helps increase attendee involvement and engagement during the meeting.
meetings well. With a few minutes left, be
sure to clarify takeaways. Identify
the DRI – directly responsible individual – for each action item. Don’t let
anyone leave your meeting wondering what was accomplished or what the next steps
Is it possible to
achieve virtual meeting perfection?
Probably not, but with focused development and intentionality you can turn your
meetings into efficient and engaging events. While you can’t control other’s
meetings, you control your own. You can make excellent meeting choices. You can
demonstrate stewardship. You can be the example that you hope others will
follow. Let’s commit to fixing our
meetings, one meeting at a time.
ABOUT STEVEN ROGELBERG
Steven G. Rogelberg is the Chancellor’s Professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte for distinguished national, international, and interdisciplinary contributions and the author of The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance (Oxford University Press, 2019). To schedule a webinar with him, learn more about him, and have access to free meeting resources visit Stevenrogelberg.com and to follow him on LinkedIn, go here.
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