One of the wonderful things about the work I do is that it doesn't often involve many meetings. So, when I do speak to colleagues or clients in the outside world, I tend to quite enjoy it. Years of dedicated research (!) have led me to believe that this isn't the same for everyone – and that lots of people spend most of their working lives doing nothing but attending meetings. That was bad enough when we were all in offices, but it's even worse now we're all in the virtual world all the time. While I don't pretend to understand the point of all those meetings, I can try to make them more useful. Here are my top tips for rocking your virtual meeting world!
I've come across three different types of meetings. The first is the formal committee or project meeting. While these are often essential as part of organisational or project governance, they usually have a set format which is never discussed or reviewed, and an agenda which is very difficult to influence. Next, there are the semi-formal meetings, usually arranged to carry on the formal discussions from the committee meeting. My experience of these is that, while they're intended to define actions in more detail, they rarely achieve much in the way of progress. Finally, there are the catch-up meetings – getting together weekly with your team to find out what's going on. Done well, these meetings are essential to bring colleagues together, keep everyone updated and solve problems. Done badly, they're long, disconnected, and pointless, made even more so in the new, virtual world. So what can we do about it? I think three simple steps will help, in all these types of meetings.
The first step is in the planning. I think many – perhaps even most – meetings fail before they even start. And that's because they come from the mind of a single person or small group of people who set the agenda and the format of that meeting, without considering the needs and expectations of the range of participants that are likely to be at the meeting. My suggestion is to flip that on its head and begin the collaboration at the meeting planning stage. I've recently joined a webinar series with a consultancy firm in Denmark who have developed a 5-step process for planning each meeting. One of these is the process designer – a visual template to prompt discussion around the purpose, participant experience, working principles, objectives, programme, and next steps, each of which should be developed in collaboration with the participants.
While there might be one or two too many steps here, I think the principle of collaborative planning is essential for successful outcomes. The key element in the template for me is the inclusion of the participants, and the consideration of their experience. After all, if the people at your meeting don't think they're being heard, they won't fully engage with either the discussion or the outcomes. And bringing the planning together into one visual template makes it easier to understand, encourages creative thinking and provides an easy reference point to keep people on track.
So, you've done collaborative planning, that's the hard work done, right? Well, not so much. As with everything in the workplace – and life, more generally – let's embrace the idea of continuous improvement in all our meetings! Planning once and then never revisiting that approach will mean that your meetings will soon get stale, and you'll fall back into the same routine of unproductive and unsatisfactory meetings. My suggestion is to regularly review your meeting planning, to make sure that you're still addressing participant expectations and still holding productive and positive discussions. Schedule time in (I'd suggest every 4 or 6 meetings) to question –collectively – what's working and what's not, what's improved and what hasn't, and what's missing. Then, build the results of that questioning and reflection into a fresh plan. This regular review will mean that your meetings – whether they're formal committee ones or weekly catch-ups – will become more and more effective.
We're all familiar with those meetings that revolve around papers, or presentations, that are full of information but don't promote discussion. And we must all realise how dull and boring that can be, and not just because we're now all screen sharing our slides through Zoom. So, my final suggestion is around making your meetings more interesting. Let's get creative, people! There are some really simply things you can do to rock your meetings, whether they're virtual or in person. As a starter, why not try:
Drawing the results of a discussion rather than capturing in writing. Not only is this great fun, it can really get the creative juices flowing. Agree a visual language before you start – a set of icons that will represent the activities you're discussing – and then get to work! Using icons means that you don't have to be an artist to see great results.
Using an online collaboration tool to encourage participation, before, during and after the meeting. I'm a huge fan of Mural, but there are loads of great tools out there that will allow you to set up a meeting space, invite input, vote on different features, and capture discussions in interesting ways. As well as sharing post-it notes, you can also encourage the use of pictures and gifs to prompt thinking and discussion.
Handing over the meeting to different members of your team. This works particularly well when you've planned collaboratively, as the whole team knows that they need to achieve. Trusting your colleagues to lead the meetings will get them more engaged, encourage others to participate and increase their confidence.
Mixing it up! This is easier in person, where you can add in walking meetings or alternative venues, but you can achieve this online by setting a timer for different parts of the meeting, creating a challenge around themed backgrounds, or even introducing a Zoom-free week, each person providing an update in a different (creative) format and having Q&A via chat.
Work with your team and your colleagues to identify the approaches that will work best collectively for each different type of meeting. And remember, as work blurs into our homes, to make it fun!
If you're still hungry for tips, check out our post from last year: 'Free cake'. We promise it's not all about cake!