Understanding how to have effective meetings is one of the most important business communication skills that employees at all levels need to learn to thrive at work – especially in hybrid and remote workplaces.
And whatever industry you’re in, you’ll probably have plenty of meetings to contend with. According to Doodle’s State of Meetings Report, video meetings skyrocketed in 2020. One on one meetings rose by 1,230% while virtual group meetings increased by 613%.
That’s all well and good, until you consider that only 50% of meeting time is effective, well-used and engaging. And not only are pointless meetings annoying, but they are also a drain on your revenue: two hours per week spent in pointless meetings results in a waste of more than $541 billion in employee time.
Do meetings deserve the bad rap?
Meetings have earned quite the reputation as a time suck, and it’s no wonder. Most people tend to default to scheduling meetings for one purpose: to share information. Sometimes this is essential – meetings can align teams and move work forward through gathering attendees to come to a decision, brainstorm new ideas, or workshop a solution to a problem.
Learning how to run effective online or face to face meetings is not only a boon for productivity, but done well, they can also inspire greater team collaboration which can have a direct effect on the overall happiness of workers.
Here are five tips for running effective virtual and in-person meetings, which will hopefully make them more enjoyable, too.
Ask yourself: Is this meeting actually a meeting?
Before booking a meeting, ask yourself (or your colleague) if it would be useful to them and, if so, who needs to be in attendance. There are a couple of culprits disguising themselves as meeting-worthy, but the truth is that many meetings can often be pruned down or skipped altogether.
- Presentations: If the meeting is mostly one person talking at slides, while attendees switch their videos off and try not to check their phones, it’s more likely a presentation than a meeting. To keep folks engaged, try sending out the slides in advance, then devote the majority of your time together to hosting a group discussion in person or online. Alternatively, you can record the presentation and pin it to the channel for your colleagues to watch in their own time.
- Status updates: Generally, these types of meetings are quick and to the point anyway, so why force people to interrupt their workflow? Save their time by prompting a daily huddle in your team’s channel. Any follow-up discussions can happen in a dedicated Slack thread, rather than involving everyone in a conversation that only two people need to be on.
Dot out a meeting agenda
Here’s the golden rule of any successful meeting: Always prepare an agenda. And if possible, nominate a designated facilitator to keep things humming along and to summarise the next steps. Here are some tips for crafting an effective agenda.
- Assign people roles before the meeting starts. Having a facilitator and a dedicated note-taker is a good place to start. Or if you plan to engage specific people to speak on certain topics, make sure they’re briefed beforehand so they can come into the meeting well versed in their material and ready to share it.
- Reframe your agenda items into questions. Think critically about what you want to get out of the meeting and pose it as an achievable goal to the meeting participants. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Steven G. Rogelberg recommends avoiding a laundry list of topics and reframing them as specific and challenging questions.
- Prioritise agenda items: In case meeting participants have hard stops or meeting clashes, put the most important agenda items first so they don’t get lopped off if the meeting runs over.
How to have an effective meeting: types and suggested meeting lengths
The duration of your meeting is important. So too is starting on time. Too often, meetings are scheduled for 30 minutes but are really only 26 or 21 minutes long because participants are checking email while waiting for someone to get there. And as the saying goes, time is money (in the form of draining personal resources). Even worse, the annoyance that grows while waiting for the meeting to start spills over into the meeting itself, resulting in more interruptions, fewer ideas, and decreased morale. Crush that crankiness by getting started on time, even if everyone hasn’t arrived.
And be deliberate in how long you schedule the meeting for. Here’s a handy guide:
|Meeting type||Ideal meeting length|
|Regular team meeting||15 to 30 minutes|
|Decision-making meeting||A few hours, possibly a full day depending on the decision|
|Brainstorming meeting||40 minutes to 1 hour|
|Retrospective meeting||30 minutes for every week in the project|
|One-on-one meeting||30 minutes to 1 hour|
|Strategy meeting||60 to 90 minutes|
Prepare people to actively listen
You’ve decided to meet, shared an agenda and have people attending in-person and dialling in remotely. Great! Now, you need to prepare people to really listen.
But this is where it gets tough, especially if you have team members working remotely. Staring at a screen, instead of interacting with colleagues, can be draining (hello Zoom fatigue) and you’ve got plenty of other distractions within arm’s reach (mobile phone, we’re looking at you.) This is where active listening comes in.
Active listening is when you listen deeply, and solely, to the speaker. Active listeners live in the moment, taking in the speaker’s words, gestures, and facial expressions, rather than simply waiting for their turn to talk.
But to get colleagues in the headspace to listen actively, you’ll have to set the scene a bit. You can do this in various ways:
- Say no to overly-detailed slides. Forcing your team to sit through slide after slide chock-full of paragraphs of information (and repeating it back to them verbatim) is a surefire way to lose their interest – and quickly. Think of your slides as an aide to the presentation and not the main event. They can help you illustrate your point with images, diagrams or questions they can consider along the way.
- Follow the 5-minute rule. If meeting participants don’t expect to be called on, they’ll be more likely to tune out. Remedy this by establishing a continual expectation of meaningful involvement. Aim to never go longer than 5 minutes without giving the team a problem to solve.
- Think about the optimal meeting time for your team. It’s a good idea to reserve some meetings for the morning when people have the most energy, or, as one study found, 2:30pm on a Tuesday also seems to work wonders.
- Don’t dive straight in. It’s no surprise that effective meetings require the attention of all meeting participants. So, before you delve into the agenda items, get attendees relaxed and receptive with a brief icebreaker, like a quick check-in on everyone’s day or week.
Make meetings more inclusive
Being inclusive doesn’t mean putting everyone in the company on the invite. Quite the opposite! Inclusive meetings are a safe space for people to express opinions—a place where people’s ideas matter more than their titles.
And even if not everyone needs to speak, there are many ways to keep people engaged and involved.
- Encourage team members to take written notes. Research shows that writing notes by hand helps people learn more, recollect facts better later, and gain a deeper understanding of the material than when they type notes.
- Have people write down their questions during the meeting. Collect them and go over them as a group. If meeting remotely, encourage your team to share questions in the messages section of your video conferencing platform, or encourage them to DM you on Slack. This can help introverts, or those who don’t feel comfortable speaking up, get their concerns addressed.
- Break people into groups and have them accomplish small tasks, or make decisions, together. Then have them share their findings with the larger group.
- Break the meeting into sections with a different person leading each section or part of the agenda. Switching up presenters helps refresh people’s attention span and encourages attendees to feel ownership over a topic or project.
- Ask for feedback. Where possible, check-in with meeting-goers regularly to gauge if the meetings are a valuable use of their time. Find out if the meeting was meaningful for them, and if it wasn’t, ask for their feedback on how you could improve them.
- If you’re working in a hybrid team, account for time zones. For those working remotely, face time is invaluable. Check in with remote participants to make sure they can see and hear everyone clearly before you get started. It’s also a good idea to provide dedicated space during the meeting when remote team members can participate, like during an icebreaker question or other group activity.
Leave meetings with clear next steps and owners
You know those days where you’re in back-to-back meetings? We’ve all had them. At the end of these hectic days, it’s likely that you’re not going to remember what’s needed from you. So, if you’re running a meeting, be sure to categorise the important takeaways and action items and share them with your team as soon as you can after the meeting. Where possible, assign roles and responsibilities to individual items.
Some effective meeting strategies to help ensure that people leave your meeting with clarity and purpose include:
- Sum up the meeting with notes and action items. Make these notes accessible to everyone who attended the meeting by posting a summary and any relevant documents on the relevant Slack channel. Alternatively, you could record the meeting and send out a link to the video meeting after. This is particularly valuable for team members working remotely or companies with a globally distributed workforce.
- Assign action items to specific individuals. It’s also helpful to schedule a deadline or a time when someone will check in on progress.
- If there were side discussions that were tabled, make sure they are surfaced afterwards. Tag the relevant people on your dedicated Slack channel, so participants can choose how, when, and if to keep them rolling.
Running effective virtual and in-person meetings can feel like a tall order, especially in a hybrid work-from-anywhere world. Too often, meetings ask for employees’ time but not for their thoughts or skill set and it’s easy to get distracted. By meeting only when needed, crafting a solid agenda, priming people to listen deeply, being inclusive, and leaving with clear next steps, you can host effective and productive meetings that leave everyone feeling inspired rather than frustrated.