Meetings Going Nowhere
Has it really been eight months since we shifted to a different way of working? Somehow…it has! In fact, it’s been long enough that email tags have shifted from “working from home” to “back at work,” “in and out of the office” and “still at home.”
We’ve talked to people through the different iterations of virtual work, and some interesting trends have emerged around how people work and communicate with each other.
In March, the early response we heard was: “This really works!” “This is great.” “We got this.” “We’re much more effective than we thought we would be.”
At the time, we assumed virtual work was going well because people knew the work they needed to do. Big initiatives were already in place for 2020. Most people were in a phase of execution, and once home, they focused on the things they had to do.
Fast forward six months, and the insights have shifted significantly. Now we hear:
- “This is really hard to do.”
- “It’s impossible to get the input you need.”
- “I feel like I’m missing direction.”
- “I’m so sick of working alone.”
People hear about others going back to work and seem envious. They say they want to go back to the office. I think they really want to go back to working with each other. Because one consistent theme we’re heard all along is: virtual communication is harder.
- “There’s just no response when you lead a meeting.”
- “I can’t get people to participate.”
- “It takes twice as long to get a decision.”
- “I’m always misunderstood.”
And it’s why we’ve dubbed this a trend: meetings going nowhere.
Virtual meetings aren’t as effective as they need to be. In fact, they seem a little chaotic when you ask people what’s going wrong.
- “There are too many people talking.”
- “Agendas aren’t clear.”
- “No one seems sure what the point of the meeting is.”
- “There are too many people in the meeting.”
- “No one seems to be in charge.”
A virtual meeting is different than an in-person meeting. It can be run effectively, but it takes a lot more work to get it organized. And even though it’s been eight months, few people have built a skill set for leading virtual meetings well. They’re relying on skills they’ve used for years, and from a listener’s perspective, they don’t translate well.
Here’s the root cause: while the “work from home” setting made everything about communication feel more impromptu and casual, it’s actually the opposite. An effective virtual meeting requires more structure to keep a group focused and on task. The discussion itself may be informal, but it takes work to get a group involved.
Here are a few of the differences that we’re helping managers and leaders consider.
This is the hardest format to transfer to a virtual setting. Hard to believe, because most people love these meetings! They start with a few concepts and quickly build to some great ideas. It’s the strength of an in-person discussion, and it works because people are 100% focused on being in the room, and they build off of energy and enthusiasm of others. People are very visible, and they work hard to contribute. In fact, they feel a little pressure to show up well.
Virtually, it’s much harder to build on ideas and attach to someone else’s energy. Instead, we tend to stay wedded to our own thought and we just reinforce it when we have an opportunity to speak. And reflection time is dead time in a virtual meeting. If you tell a group to take 10 minutes to write down their thoughts, they’re more likely to take ten minutes and get a snack.
A virtual discussion has to have guardrails and direction to be productive. A virtual group does better with choices of concepts and focused work on supporting a recommendation for a choice versus trying to come up with the broader concepts.
We learned this ourselves as we transitioned to virtual workshops. We gave groups one of our standard exercises and quickly saw they did very little with it. When we modified the scope of the exercise to making a choice between options, they were able to collaborate better. They needed defined roles and specific instructions of what to do. Their input was very good, but they got there differently.
The same may be true of your discussion sessions.
PREWORK AND ASSIGNMENTS:
Do more of this for virtual meetings. Everyone seems exhausted and overworked, but people miss connection. And it will simplify your discussion if you have people work together prior to the meeting instead of in the meeting.
Plan ahead and assign partners to discuss prework together. It’s a benefit from both perspectives. This makes the large meeting discussion easier on the leader because you have reduced the input by half. And, it ensures everyone feels heard because they shared perspective with a partner prior to the larger meeting.
TEMPLATES & AGENDAS:
It’s the routine meetings that people dislike the most. The feedback is lack of structure, lack of direction and just no real takeaways. If you’re leading standing meetings, you owe it to a group to improve the takeaways.
Meetings have become more transactional in a virtual setting, but people still want to feel as if their attendance mattered. It takes more formality and structure to help it run well.
Our rule of thumb is cover less. Simplicity over complexity. These virtual meetings are a hybrid of conference calls and in-person meetings. There’s still a lot of clunkiness in how we experience each other online. So, keep it simple.
Agree on a flow of an agenda and stick to it in every meeting. A consistent structure makes it easier to follow a meeting and easier to hear what’s being said. Agree on how to participate. It’s like learning a new game. Give everybody the rules, and they’ll get a little better each time you hold a meeting.
Companies may have sent the wrong message about the video early on. It was with the best of intentions because they knew that people were dealing with a lot in their homes. But the camera is a signal of focus. It says, “I’m here and focused on this conversation.”
No camera or darkness around someone’s name, says the person isn’t fully there.
And it changes the very essence of communication: Connection. No matter what your role is in a meeting, turn the video on and be fully there as a communicator.
We aren’t as chaotic as we were eight months ago. We’re working differently and we’ve learned a lot from our experiences. If your company is headed into another six months or more of virtual meetings, then learning to lead a meeting that’s going somewhere will be an important skill in 2021.
If you’d like a little help resetting your annual planning session or your team’s routine meetings, we can help you transition to an effective virtual model.