(Not So) Secrets for More Productive Meetings

red and three blue jigsaw puzzles

Loud laughter rang through the Bar Center auditorium during the January 2019 NCBA Corporate Counsel Section CLE conference. The speaker was killing. But what, at a CLE conference, could be so funny? Speaker Steven G. Rogelberg, the author of “The Surprising Science of Meetings,” was discussing just how bad meetings can be, and the audience related. There are things you can do to avoid having a laughably lousy meeting.

Find this article and more in the May edition of North Carolina Lawyer magazine online.

The Problem

Meetings may seem to indicate progress. Some corporate cultures focus on holding meetings frequently, though these meetings are often held for the appearance of getting things done with little actual work getting done. Often meetings are, avoidably, a waste of time. There are countless articles, books, studies, and methods devoted to holding better meetings. The first question should be, “should I hold a meeting?” Writing for Harvard Business Review, Elizabeth Grace Saunders answers that question with a decision tree. Some questions in the decision tree include “Have I thought through this situation” “Do I need outside input to make progress?” and “Does moving forward require a real-time conversation?” If all answers lead to yes, then the last step is “Schedule and prepare for the meeting.” For a meeting to succeed there are several steps you can take, including starting with the fundamental question: “What problem are we trying to solve?” No problem? Then there may be another way to convey information or get people up to speed without a meeting.

The Invitation

In the bad old days, people would send around an email asking for times for a group to meet. Then tools like Doodle and FindTime came along to help by creating meeting polls so participants could tick off their availability, times could be tallied and the meeting scheduled. However, like any tool, there is room for some abuse. First, the meeting organizer will often include so many meeting options that only the most dedicated will complete the poll. If you are setting up a meeting poll remember to include no more than five or six options. If none work, start over. Otherwise, someone attempting to respond – especially on a smartphone – may abandon the exercise. Second, if you are invited to the meeting then fill out the poll forthwith. Don’t make the organizer chase you down, or risk mutually agreeable times becoming unavailable because certain parties didn’t respond promptly.

If you are the organizer, send a meeting event from your calendar (Google, Outlook, or Mac Calendar). If the recipient doesn’t use an electronic calendar it will appear as an email. Add as much information as possible in the invitation. If the location is one that people will travel to, include the full address so someone using a smartphone can click on it to pull up a Google Map. Add dial in/login information in the location and again in the body of the event so people need not hunt for it later. If you don’t know location or login simply add “TBD” to the location and then add it later and send an update. Also, make sure to include a 15-minute reminder if that is an option in your calendaring system, so the participants are prompted when the meeting is about to begin.

The Agenda

Even if you think everyone knows what the meeting is about and what is likely to be discussed, an agenda will help you focus and stay on track. It is also helpful as a start to any minutes taken during the meeting. You can add the agenda in the notes portion of the calendared event or insert a file to the calendared event. A separate email with the agenda may get lost in the shuffle.

An agenda should focus on the discussion of the problem or issue the meeting hopes to resolve or move forward. However, there will always be items of pure discussion, brainstorming or getting people up to speed. Be clear in the intent of each agenda item. Any materials that need to be reviewed should be sent well in advance of the meeting. Sending an agenda, the minutes from the previous meeting, and a 40-page report 30 minutes before the meeting will not make you any friends. Give your participants some time to suggest additional agenda items.

The Meeting

If you are leading a meeting you should strive to start on time and end on time. Follow the agenda or explain why items are being shifted or skipped. If you are attending a meeting you should show up on time and prepare to engage, contribute and not check email (or social media, etc).

Someone should be assigned to take meeting minutes to capture decisions, action items and next steps. If the agenda is circulated in advance, it can be copied into a Google Doc or a document in Word Online, and a link sent to the attendees. Then the attendees can see the minutes being taken in real time and can make corrections, comments or suggestions if they choose. Taking minutes concomitantly helps to finalize them and distribute afterward without having to wait for them to be transcribed and edited. Not all meetings are alike, so if the minutes need to be filed with a regulatory body the meeting leader will want to make a more formal version.

Having remote participants for an in-person meeting is a challenge. Often the people in the room forget the virtual attendees if they are joining by phone only. Many large companies with multiple offices have invested thousands of dollars to set up telepresence to share live video and audio of different locations. However, for smaller meetings there are lots video conference options to be considered. Having the remote participants seen by the room and vice versa makes the experience richer and more productive. Often the participants via phone are less engaged and reticent to contribute. It is easier for them to multi-task while they’ve muted the line. Video conferencing systems via Zoom, Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams, Webex, GotoMeeting, FreeConferenceCall, etc. are modestly priced and easy to set up. The participant needs only a microphone, speakers and a camera – which are in most of today’s laptops. To help keep the remote participants engaged, turn on the chat feature as well so they can send a message to the room without seeming to interrupt.

The setup to enhance the video conference in the meeting room may require a little more equipment, though even just a laptop on a stand and additional speakers will suffice in a smaller room. For larger meetings additional equipment such as a wireless Bluetooth speaker/microphone like the Jabra Speak series will allow remote participants to hear and be heard. If the laptop camera won’t suffice Logitech makes some nice conference cameras. New products on the market, such as the Meeting Owl, a 360° smart video conferencing camera, make remote participation seamless and enjoyable.

The Follow Up

When the meeting has concluded, send attendees assignments with suggested deadlines quickly. Most everyone will leave the meeting and immediately catch up on work they missed, so get any additional tasks on their radar. Depending on the situation, these can be sent through project management applications like Asana, Trello or Microsoft Planner, case or practice management applications or simply as a calendar event so it becomes hardcoded in their day. An executive summary of the meeting and the minutes will help reinforce the conversation and any action items.

Conclusion

Poorly run meetings and inefficient meetings have become part of pop culture with funny memes, television commercials and even CLE programs. A UK-based study found that 82 percent of employees waste up to five hours a week on pointless meetings, 77 percent have a hard time staying engaged when joining an internal work meeting remotely, and 53 percent feel their companies aren’t doing enough to meet the needs of modern-day and flexible remote working. Since you probably don’t want attendees to circulate the Conference Call Bingo card before your next meeting, consider what you can do to enhance the administrative elements of the meeting so you can focus on the content and participation.

Want to see some of this technology in action? Watch the archives of our first Learning Objectives webinar “Defensive Calendaring”.