Why the quality of your virtual meetings is so important
Virtual meetings have become the primary way that people connect and collaborate in the hybrid workplace, where you are likely to be working from home for a significant percentage of your time. There is no doubt that virtual meetings are going to remain central to our work culture, even post-pandemic. Things have changed and there’s no going back.
As they always have, meetings matter. They are the site where problems are solved, decisions made and actions determined. They are also places where your potential and your influence are regularly assessed, both by peers and superiors. In this sense, meetings have a work and also a personal dimension. For these reasons, it’s worth making sure that your virtual meetings are personally and professionally rewarding. But achieving this is by no means straightforward.
Large-scale research study
Led by a Stanford University research team, a large dataset was collected from February to May 2020 from Microsoft employees, drawing on anonymized events from major productivity tools, such as MS teams and MS Outlook. In addition, the researchers contextualised this evidence using a 715-person diary study of Microsoft employees globally, exploring their remote meeting experiences over six months.
Taken together, both the quantitative and qualitative data revealed that multitasking has become a common behaviour in virtual meetings, with the consequences being mostly (but not entirely) negative. The most important finding was that, when virtual meetings are run in an automatic or unthinking manner, they tend to become less rewarding and less productive. The findings suggest actionable guidelines for how you can schedule and design much more effective meetings that genuinely support team collaboration and individual well-being.
The nature of the challenge
All too many virtual meetings are not as successful as they could be. There’s a lot that can and does go wrong. Silent participants who cover up their multitasking by turning off their video; people who say ‘hello’ at the start of a discussion but never chime in with a question or an idea thereafter; the speaking turns dominated by the usual suspects; the intermittent ‘ping’ of people’s incoming emails; the awkward gaps and mistimed conversational transitions because visual cues and signals are misread … and those are just a few of the people problems! Poor connection and a lack of virtual meeting skills further complicate all of this.
If you’re going to make your virtual meetings rewarding for everyone, then it’s critical to understand the factors associated with positive and negative meeting experiences. Your aim is to make all virtual meeting experiences productive and engaging opportunities that support remote collaboration.
Too many long meetings!
The sheer number and duration of virtual meetings has undoubtedly increased. Everywhere the evidence is that people feel they have less and less time to focus on their individual work and so they have got into the habit of multitasking in order to catch up. For example, UGM clients report that they experience back-to-back meetings all day now – and that’s not unusual. One person in the Stanford-Microsoft study recorded the following (commonplace) entry in their diary: “These days I’m having such a lot of meetings, making it hard to find time to get work done.”
Some factors make virtual meetings more likely to be unproductive. Large meetings and long meetings make full engagement very much harder. Meetings are challenging when they are held at the start of the day when people’s typical daily work load tends to be focused on incoming emails and individual urgent tasks to be completed ASAP.
Relevance is vital
Most importantly, meetings of low personal relevance are immensely problematic. In the Microsoft study one person wrote in their diary: “I tend to multitask more in large group meetings online. Larger meetings often have topics on the agenda not directly related to what I’m working on day-to-day so my mind tends to wander when the topic of discussion is irrelevant.”
For virtual meetings to be rewarding, they need to be relevant to those invited to attend. Those attending need to see that their active contribution is meaningful – and even vital. Meetings also need to be shorter (around 45 minutes) and have breaks inserted, so that people can maintain their focus and concentration.
How you can tackle these common problems
It’s important to help people to decide which meetings they should attend and indeed which parts of a particular meeting are most likely to benefit from their contribution. It helps if you share the purpose and the agenda ahead, including the timing of various items.
Make the implicit explicit
As well, something poorly understood is the importance of the skills involved in making the implicit explicit. The issue here is that the typical signals and cues experienced in face-to-face communication need to be replicated verbally in the hybrid workplace.
Essentially, these skills focus on not allowing important ideas or underlying intentions to remain inferred or implied. Such approaches simply don’t work in virtual meetings and UGM research shows that doing so generally leads to misunderstandings, the erosion of trust and poor working relationships.
When people start to notice what’s going on and what’s going wrong, they become motivated to put it right. Meetings are, as they have always been, the lifeblood of organisations in a knowledge economy. Research shows that the shift to the hybrid workplace actually underscores this point even further. The quality of virtual meetings matters. In an important sense, organisations are talked into being during meetings and business success is fuelled by the quality of this talk. Make sure your virtual meetings are rewarding for every participant, every day. You’ll be pleased you did!
PRACTICAL IDEAS TO APPLY IN YOUR BUSINESS
5 practical tips for better virtual meetings
- Allow 45 minutes for most meetings to give time for stretch breaks.
- Ensure every meeting has a clearly stated purpose and this is communicated ahead.
- Insist on video on and remind each other to listen with attention without multitasking.
- Actively encourage an open sharing of ideas and diverse perspectives.
- At the end, summarise decisions and actions, making accountabilities clear.