After nearly three years of meeting with people via videoconference, I've reached one conclusion: too many meetings drain so much emotional energy that they are part of the problem, rather than its solution. Too many meetings drain energy because they happen out of habit and lack a clear and compelling purpose.
Before the pandemic, I participated in many meetings that were similarly draining -- but the pandemic has introduced new challenges to effective meetings.
How so? Unlike in-person meetings, the casual banter that precedes virtual meetings is often awkward, each participant risks being distracted by seeing their image on the camera as they talk, and if a meeting is recorded, participants constrain what they say.
The good news is that some meetings work. For example, earlier this month my manager told me she heard through the grapevine that a meeting I led had energized people because they engaged in productive, deep discussions about how to make things better for the organization.
Here are six things business leaders can do to make their virtual meetings more effective.
1. Include people who will care most about the meeting topics.
It's always a struggle for leaders to decide whom to invite to a meeting and whom to leave out. A general rule is that if you leave someone out, there is a risk they will not agree with whatever decision is reached by those who are invited. On the other hand, if you invite people who do not care much about the outcome, you will slow down decision-making.
To resolve this problem, leaders should invite only people who will be most affected by the decision in the short- to medium-term. If you are holding a meeting to solve specific problems, it makes sense to invite those who will care the most about arriving at the right solution.
In fact, rather than view a decision that might come out of such a meeting as final, I look at it more as an experiment that will result in learning about what worked and what needs improvement.
2. Before meeting, agree on the important problems it will aim to solve.
Leaders should listen to others in the organization to find out the most urgent problems facing the organization. The leader should frame these problems as meeting agenda items, share them a few days before with the meeting participants, and provide them with relevant background information on each topic.
Most important, the leader should ask the meeting participants whether they agree with the proposed topics for the meeting or whether they would delete some and/or add new topics. If the meeting participants agree, you should send out a timed meeting agenda a day or two before the meeting.
3. Start by listening to how people are feeling.
With a meeting via videoconference, I think the leader should encourage each meeting participant to spend a few minutes sharing how they are feeling and what has been going well or badly. Doing this puts people in the mood to solve the shared problems in the meeting agenda.
4. Encourage each participant to air their views fully.
I have participated in meetings where the leader introduces a list of decisions they want everyone else to endorse. I think this approach invites strong disagreement or silent resistance rather than effective problem solving.
Leaders can get more thoughtful results by encouraging each meeting participant to describe their view of the problem, present their solutions, and highlight their benefits. Leaders should resist the urge to interrupt each speaker. Instead, they should listen and perhaps ask clarifying questions.
5. Keep an eye on the clock so the meeting covers the topics and ends on time.
People like to know when a meeting is supposed to end and expect the leader to finish on time. One way to encourage speakers to be concise is to step in to remind everyone how much time is left before the next agenda item is schedule to begin. If you stick to the schedule, you are almost certainly not going to be able to reach a decision in the meeting.
6. Don't force decisions -- create an offline forum for sharing solutions and reaching agreement.
My solution to this problem is to share a Google Sheet with all the participants after the meeting that gives them space to describe their proposed solution to the problems discussed during the meeting.
The leader can look at each person's proposal, try to identify a proposal that is most likely to be agreeable to everyone, and ask those who did not share that proposal whether they would consider agreeing with it. If so, the group can reach a decision. If not, the leader can propose another meeting to explore further a shared solution.
Follow these six steps for more effective meetings.