Even before the pandemic turned us all into Zoombies, meetings were widely acknowledged to be mostly terrible. In one survey from 2019, just 11% of workers said all their meetings were productive. The arrival of hybrid work models threatens to make matters even worse. In a recent survey of Canadian CEOs, 43% of leaders said that once offices reopen, most of their staff will be working remotely at least two days a week. 

Digital meetings have created countless new ways for awkwardness and disengagement, says Av Utukuri, CEO of software company Vizetto: “Like when a presenter, oblivious to the fact that half the audience has dropped out and the decision-maker is gone, keeps going.” This raises concerns about the ways in which we collaborate and whether remote workers will become second-class employees.

Still, there are reasons for optimism. The pandemic has prompted a surge of innovation in technologies and the (partial) return to the office offers a perfect moment to rethink things. So, how can we save ourselves from meeting malaise?

Trim the guest list

Executives today spend more than twice as much time in meetings as they did 50 years ago — 23 hours a week, up from 10. Couple that with the mentality of performative workaholism (a.k.a. hustle culture) and you get a whole bunch of people bragging about back-to-back meetings as if they’re a marker of productivity. 

“There is no way to run a meeting with a big group and have everyone truly participate,” says Chelsea MacDonald, senior vice president of operations at Ada, a Toronto-based chatbot provider. “There are always people just nodding their heads.”

To mitigate this, MacDonald addresses attendance head-on with staff. Before launching an initiative, she polls colleagues on who they think should be involved. Then, at the first meeting, she asks those present if they think they really need to be there. “I want people to answer honestly,” she says, because being pulled in too many different directions leads to burnout. “I think the right number for a collaborative project is four or five people — you get a diversity of opinions and no one is a fly on the wall.”

Use tech to level the field between participants

Tech companies are promising new tools and features to make hybrid working feel more natural. For instance, Microsoft has tweaked the layout of its Teams video conferencing system so that the gallery of online participants can be arranged along the bottom of the screen. The idea is that when it is displayed on a TV on a meeting-room wall, the digital attendees will be at the same level as those around the table. This step toward eye contact should make it easier for remote participants to interject and get attention.

For its part, Vizetto is trying to ramp up the engagement and creativity lacking in many online gatherings. With the company’s digital whiteboard software, users can organize and move content while also annotating it. The aim, says Utukuri, is to bring the focus back to storytelling.

Kyra Jones, head of talent at business accelerator Communitech, sees tech’s most important role being one of support for well-designed interactions where everyone feels like they have the opportunity to participate. “Work gatherings then become purposeful, collaborative events and we have a reason to be together,” she says.

Get some frank feedback

Running an efficient meeting is a skill — and it’s clearly one that doesn’t come naturally. “Most meetings are terrible because the discussion lacks focus and there’s no alignment on next steps,” says Kanish Raajkumar, founder of Sonero, which offers a virtual-meeting transcription tool.

Sonero’s solution is to create a kind of digital coach for people running meetings. Its software compiles action items and talking points from online meetings, but it also provides analytics that look at the gathering’s tone, pacing, energy and sentiment. It then provides recommendations on how to improve.

After her team held their first hybrid meeting, Jones says they debriefed on what worked and what didn’t. While many people recoil from holding meetings about meetings, Jones says such conversations play an important role in helping employees find ways to communicate as effectively with a colleague three time zones away as with the one sitting next to them. “It’s about intentional interactions, purposeful planning in how you interact, and really strong guiding principles for engagement,” she says.

Don’t even think about turning off your camera

One surefire way to increase meeting engagement is to ensure all remote participants have their cameras turned on, says MacDonald at Ada. Although verbal check-ins can help, it’s hard for speakers to tell if they’ve lost their audience without the benefit of body language. There are very few instances in which turning off your camera is appropriate, she says. 

Source: The Star