Have you ever walked out of a meeting with this intense feeling of relief and the emphatic thought:
“What a ridiculous waste of time”?
Meetings have such a terrible reputation exactly because of these moments.
The worst thing about not taking meetings seriously is that everyone starts associating them with being a waste of time.
People don’t think they’re worth anything, so they don’t bother preparing. They turn up to meetings already checked out, treating them as if they’re taking a break from work. Participation is negligible, if not completely non-existent.
The person running the meeting, often the manager, gets frustrated and annoyed. It’s all a downward spiral and the worst meeting culture you can have.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Characteristics of a good meeting
Every meeting is an opportunity.
People gravitate towards success and effective meetings are a much better way to achieve that. On the banal, basic level: time saved is money saved.
Remember that a one-hour meeting with five people in it isn’t just a one-hour meeting at all. It’s really a five-hour meeting. That meeting has to be worth five hours of productivity for it to be effective.
Having multiple bad meetings in a row can be both demotivating and mentally draining. The people involved get stuck with a feeling of no progress, no sense of accomplishment, and no enjoyment in their work.
A great meeting is about as far away from that as you can get. Good meetings are hubs of creativity, motivation, and affirmation. They’re essential for clear communication, making sure that everyone is on the same page and understands what the next steps are. They can help you get unstuck and push forward with a project or a task if bouncing ideas off other people or getting clear direction is what you needed.
Meetings are one of the best opportunities to not just exchange information but to engage with your colleagues and interact with them. Those are the kind of meetings that are worth having and working towards.
Here is how you can achieve that.
7 strategies to adopt for good meetings
1) Never schedule a meeting without a clear outcome in mind.
The purpose of a meeting should be crystal clear to you, as the person scheduling it, and to every participant. Why are you all here? What are you trying to achieve?
You have to figure this out and communicate it clearly.
There’s a huge difference between trying to make a decision, keeping everyone updated, or having a coherent discussion. They call for different kinds of meetings and different styles of moderation. Having a clear outcome in mind is even more important than having an agenda because the outcome is what dictates the agenda.
Possible desired outcomes are things like:
- Agreement on the next steps of a project
- Exchanging information so that everyone knows what everyone else is up to
- Involving people in a decision that has multiple stakeholders
- A space for social interaction and team-building
If you get invited to a meeting and you aren’t clear on what the desired outcome is, ask! It’s better to say “I’m not actually sure what the purpose of this meeting is” than to sit there and think it.
2) Avoid starting a meeting without an agenda.
This is an old-school favourite.
Agendas are one of the easiest ways to give a meeting structure.
Agendas can rarely be judged as “good” or “bad”. A bullet point list of topics is enough to work with, in the vast majority of cases. Having a standing document where you just jot down topics whenever they come to mind is a good start. That’s a simple solution for recurring meetings.
Sometimes, you should put some effort into crafting an agenda e.g. for long meetings.
- Do you need an icebreaker at the start, so that people relax and can get into a topic?
- Should you set the scene or present background information to make sure everyone’s on the same page?
- If you’ll be covering multiple topics, what’s the best way to structure them, so that conversation flows naturally from one topic to the next?
Not every meeting has to have an agenda.
Having an agenda for any kind of social meeting is a good way to ruin the meeting.
3) Only invite people who have to be there.
Sometimes people prefer to invite everyone, even if they’re only peripherally involved, on the off-chance that one of them would feel left out or miss important information.
In those situations, it’s better to document and consciously update people than to have them involved in the discussion, if they don’t need to be.
A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if it’s possible to achieve the outcome that you’ve set out without this person’s presence. If yes, would it be the optimal outcome?
What you want to achieve is a meeting where everyone is engaged and everyone is participating.
Having people sit there who aren’t paying attention because they don’t feel like their input is necessary brings down the whole atmosphere and is a waste of their time.
The only way to avoid that is to structure the meeting in such a way that it brings value to every person in the invite.
4) Give all participants guidance on what to prepare.
Most people show up to meetings with full faith they can wing it and, honestly, that can work. Sometimes.
But does it often limit how effective a meeting can be? Definitely.
If you’re meeting to come to a decision:
- It’s much better to prepare pros and cons before,
- Ask everyone to think of any additional ones,
- And to sort out their own thoughts and figure out how to articulate them before they even walk into the room.
- You’ll spend a lot less time in the meeting with long pauses because people need time to process and think about something.
- People will have the time they need to come up with good feedback.
If what you’re looking for is a laid-back exchange, someone to bounce ideas off, then you can forego the preparation.
The ideal and perfect meeting culture would be one where it’s expected that you prepare for every meeting and those situations are the exceptions that prove the rule.
5) Make the meeting interactive.
Assume that everyone who’s in the meeting cares about the topic and wants to participate. You want to give them opportunities to do that.
If you’re finding it difficult to get engagement, think about how you can change the style of the meeting to facilitate it.
Putting in just a little more effort to prepare something closer to a workshop, like bringing in models or sketching out a mindmap, can completely change the atmosphere.
It’s also likely to give people the impression that they learned something new. That’s one of the best feelings to walk out of a meeting with.
6) Moderate! Be strict.
The idea of a moderator is to have someone present in the meeting whose primary responsibility is to lead the meeting.
Good moderation is extremely complex. It takes a long time to learn but everyone has to start somewhere.
- Directing the discussion so that the desired outcome is achieved.
- Cutting off anything that will derail the meeting. This includes off-topic discussions, as well as getting stuck on very small details that aren’t important.
- To step in if things get too heated for a rational conversation.
- Prompting participants whose opinions are valuable.
- Interceding if there’s an awkward pause or if everyone “gets stuck.”
- Reading the language of the room. Is everyone bored or still listening? Does someone obviously disagree with something but isn’t speaking up? Are people starting to look out the window or at the clock? This is how you assess if the meeting is on track or if you need to shake things up.
- Making sure that the meeting ends on time.
Moderating can be difficult. Achieving the right balance between letting the discussion flow naturally and knowing when to step in doesn’t come naturally. Cutting people off too often is frustrating for the people in the meeting. Letting a discussion go on too long can derail the meeting and make it difficult for people to come back to a topic.
A moderator has to toe the line between those two.
You need to become comfortable with interrupting people and asking them to stay on topic or to leave a topic for a later time. This feels terrible the first few times but it’s better to be strict.
This is also why having a moderator who is mainly interested in participating can be quite risky. It’s very easy to forget to do all those things because you get caught up in the discussion. The moment your focus is on what your opinions are and what you want to say is the moment you’ve stopped moderating.
Keep in mind that it’s better to end a meeting early or to stop for a break in the middle than to ignore the body language of everyone participating.
It’s also better to jump in and address moments of conflict than to let everyone notice certain behaviours and not comment. If, for example, someone rolls their eyes at what a presenter says, it’s better to ask them to speak up than to let it go. All of this is something that can be brought in through having a moderator.
7) Only schedule a meeting if it absolutely has to be a meeting.
Meetings are often the easiest and quickest solution that comes to mind when you want to talk to someone.
Scheduling a meeting for every discussion is often the first resort.
This lends itself to an environment filled with distractions, where meetings take over the entire workday. That isn’t an environment that’s conducive to real productivity.
A better way to think about meetings is that they’re great when they’re necessary.
And only when they’re necessary.
If a discussion can be resolved in written form, then it’s better to send an email, a Slack message, leave a comment on a Google document, or whatever method is most commonly used in your company.
Lots of discussions are too complex to have through writing, need to be resolved more quickly, or involve too many people for a different channel to be ideal.
Those are the situations in which you can and should schedule a meeting.
Good meetings enhance leadership
Meetings are likely a big part of your everyday responsibilities as a manager, in a remote environment.
Investing time in getting great at them will change how your team views your leadership and how much value you can get out of working with your team.