Open Menu Close Menu

IT Management

3 Strategies for Better Meetings

As the format of your meetings evolves, make sure you have engagement and flexibility, advises Joseph Allen, University of Utah professor and co-author of the books Suddenly Virtual and Suddenly Hybrid.

people sitting around a table in a business meeting

Want to hold a better meeting, whether virtual, face-to-face or hybrid? Then make sure you have three elements in place: an engaged meeting leader, engaged meeting attendees and a decent grasp of technology.

That's the advice from Joseph Allen, an expert on meetings. A professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology at the University of Utah School of Medicine and director for the Center for Meeting Effectiveness, Allen co-authored the book Suddenly Virtual, released earlier this year, and will see the release of Suddenly Hybrid in February 2022.

Allen spoke during the recent Economist Impact@Work US conference, sharing his advice for improving meetings.

People in this country host some 55 million meetings a day — "a huge number," he said, adding that he believes it's also an under-reporting. That not only makes meeting effectiveness a subject worth studying, but improving meetings could improve the bottom line.

"It's a really expensive thing that we do," Allen noted. "Think about all the people we bring together in meetings; think about the salaries they make; and think about the things they could have been doing if they weren't in the meeting. There's a lot of money, time and energy put into the meeting. But we don't necessarily do a whole lot to make sure they're good."

Allen's advice for improving the outcomes of meetings requires people to stop overlooking the basics in this "take-it-for-granted workplace activity."

Make Sure the Meeting Leader Is Engaged

Before hosting a meeting, the truly engaged meeting leader asks two questions: Does the meeting have a purpose? And do I need people to collaborate with me?

"If you answer yes to both of those questions, continue to schedule your meeting," said Allen. "If you answer no to either one of those questions, then stop. You don't need a meeting."

Once you've passed that hurdle, put together an agenda and share it ahead of time. "That way, everybody's on the same page," he noted.

Also, make sure you start on time and end on time and that you advocate for "everybody's voice."

"One of the key predictors of the effectiveness of meetings is a leader who encourages participation and makes everyone feel safe to participate," Allen explained.

Make Sure You Engage as an Attendee

The burden of a successful meeting doesn't rest solely on the person who has called it, Allen pointed out. What's also required is attendee engagement.

"Too often we go to the meeting and it's virtual or hybrid, and you have your e-mail over here or the latest report over there, and maybe the camera is on or maybe it's not, but it's really easy to just be sort of meeting, just sort of there," Allen said. "So, yes, the leader needs to pull some of that engagement out of you. But, honestly, if you're an attendee, you need to engage as well. You need to participate."

That means ignoring your phone, your screen or anything else that pulls you away from the meeting you're supposed to be attending.

"If the meeting leader is doing their part to make sure you know the purpose of the meeting, and they've invited you because you are relevant to the conversation, then they actually want you to engage," he added. "And the accomplishment or the goal for the meeting is more likely to arise if you do engage."

What if the agenda shows up and you don't see why you should attend? Allen recommended taking it up with the leader beforehand. "It's OK to clarify with the leader and say, 'I noticed the topic that you're planning to discuss here, and I don't really have a connection with that. Do I really need to be at this meeting?'"

After all, he observed, "The time you spend in a meeting is time you could spend on other, maybe more productive things."

Embrace and Experiment with Meeting Technology ...

While nearly everybody in education was forced to adopt virtual meeting applications beginning in March 2020, the software and other technology is "evolving at a really, really fast rate right now," Allen said. Companies that produce meeting applications are making all kinds of updates, "to make your virtual and hybrid meetings more effective, more collaborative, more engaging [and to deliver] better audio and better video."

Those of us who rely on virtual and hybrid meetings need to do what we can "not to fall off of the technology wagon," even as life begins to return to some semblance of normalcy, Allen asserted.

He's not suggesting adopting something new "every week." But it's worthwhile to identify new products or new features — "maybe it's a better camera, maybe it's better headset, maybe it's software that allows you to co-create within a virtual environment," — and try them out over the course of a few meetings.

"If you do that," said Allen, "within time you'll start to identify the kinds of processes and procedures that are going to really help the meeting be more effective."

… But Make Sure People Get Training

With face-to-face meetings, the "air" was the medium of communication. Participants could see each other, hear each other and collaborate fairly easily. The introduction of tech to the process has added its own pitfalls.

"Assuming that people know how to manage a complex communication environment is a bad assumption," Allen said. Guidance includes making sure people have the equipment they need and the training needed to develop their skills for using it.

It also involves making sure meeting leaders know how to balance their attention, especially in hybrid settings. Allen said some of the data his research has generated shows that "the amount of talk time is dictated more by the camera than it is by the number of people in the room."

In a meeting with five participants, three in the room and two on the camera, for example, "you would think that there'd be five equal contributions," he said. What he actually found is that people have a tendency to pay too much attention to those on the screen.

Stay Flexible

The modern meeting is evolving, requiring continued flexibility. As Allen concluded, "Take a moment to engage in just a few of these best practices for your workplace meetings and you'll be amazed at how easily and quickly your work engagement and your experience changes within your meetings."

comments powered by Disqus